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What I'm reading #7: You control much less than you think

By Sam Instone - February 17, 2022

Every day, shortly before nine o'clock in the morning, a man with a red hat stands at a busy traffic light and begins to wave his hat frantically.

After five minutes, he disappears.

One day, a policeman comes up to him and asks “Sir! May I ask what you are doing?”

"I’m keeping the giraffes away," replies the man.

The puzzled policeman looks around and tells him, "But there aren't any giraffes here.”

“Well, I must be doing a good job, then," says the man proudly.

This funny story is from Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly, and is about how we believe we have greater control over events than we actually do.

This is known as the ‘illusion of control,’ a term coined by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer.

Langer first proved through several experiments, that people often behave as though random events can be controlled. 

Events like results rolling a dice, tossing a coin or winning the lottery.

One simple form of this fallacy is found in casinos, where people playing craps tend to throw harder for high numbers and softer for low numbers.

I often do the same while playing board games with my kids.

Control is an illusion

We track every little thing, from spending to exercise...

Heart rate to what we eat...

How the stock market is doing.

But this selective tracking can't possibly include the many, complex factors that influence outcomes.

Total control is an illusion. 

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes about a fish that swims in a chaotic sea that it cannot possibly control.

The fish, unlike us, is under no illusion that it controls the sea or other fish in the sea.

It doesn't even try to control where it ends up - it just swims, either going with the flow or dealing with the flow as it comes.

We're no different. 

Yet feel frustrated and angry when things don't go as we thought they should.

Overcoming the illusion of control

So, how do you overcome the illusion of control?

Firstly, raise your awareness and accept that you control much less than you think, especially in situations involving chance.

Secondly, be open to the possibility of being wrong.

In doing so, you can reduce your own feelings of frustration and stress.

This might seem like a passive way of living to some, but it can also greatly increase your happiness



"A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it."

- Jean De La Fontaine

"If you hold on to the handle, she said, it's easier to maintain the illusion of control but it's more fun if the wind carries you."

- Brian Andreas

Further reading

What I'm reading #6: Learn to walk away from bad decisions

Rolf Dobelli - The Art of Thinking Clearly

How to leave a £1.7 million legacy for your children

Does money make you happy?

Zen Habits by Leo Babauta