The Illusion of Control
Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac.” So said Nicole Kidman to Tom Cruise in the movie, “Days of Thunder.” It was a fictional scene, of course, but I’m sure it’s a mantra she repeated often over the course of their decade-long marriage.
That digression aside, the quote itself is absolutely the truth. Control – over others’ behavior, personal circumstances, world events, the universe – is a fantasy. It was Dr. Ellen Langer who wrote the book on the subject. Her work is entitled,“The Illusion of Control.” She believes, and her research backs this up, that human beings have a delusional sense that they can influence the outcomes of certain events, even those events over which they have no command.
Summarizing one of her experiments, she gave a group of subjects lottery tickets with a chance to win big money. Some tickets were random “quick-picks” and some were numbers chosen by the participants. Once in hand, all participants were told that they could trade their tickets for other ones that had a higher chance of winning.
Those who had quick-picks traded almost immediately. Those who had chosen their own numbers, far and away, did not. They had more faith in the numbers they controlled, than in the tickets that actually improved their odds.
In another gambling example, Dr. Langer discovered that when a person rolling dice needed higher numbers, as in the game of craps, he or she would throw the dice with greater force, thinking, almost unconsciously, that the greater effort would produce higher numbers. Likewise, those rolling for lower numbers invariably threw the dice softly, as if that could change the outcome.
And finally, Langer’s research reveals that drivers feel that they are much less likely to be in an accident when they are driving versus sitting in the passenger’s seat. No surprise there, as we have all beat the floorboards out of the passenger side of the car when someone else is driving.
But here is where things get interesting: Move that front seat passenger to the back of the automobile, and that individual’s feelings of anxiety completely skyrocket! In fact, the further removed from the driver’s seat he or she was moved, the more the test subject felt an accident was inevitable. Why? He or she was not the one in control of the situation.
This is one reason why I recoil from the banality of the bumper sticker, “God Is My Co-Pilot.” Oh, for heaven’s sake. Can any phrase in the human lexicon be more descriptive of our neurotic need to be in control, and yet tip our hat to The Maker in case we get into a situation that is just a bit too much for us? Even then, we want to remain firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat; we want to remain the gods of our own universe.
Critics of faith often argue that belief in God is an irrational mindset at best, or serious derangement at worst, as God’s existence defies logic and evidence. God cannot be “proven,” goes the reasoning, so ceding command of life to such a hypothetical being is simply foolish.
Philosophically, I understand and appreciate this argument. Yet, I counter that we all – atheists, theists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics – have confidence in something, in some foundational truth or principle that guides our lives. It’s plainly impossible to be human and not to believe in something.
That much said, and without diving into some empirical argument, I discover that belief in God – a Higher Power as my friends in AA call it – is a far safer bet than trusting humanity. Not because I believe God will steer the cosmos in my direction, but because I have little confidence in our ability to control anything.
No, you might not find faith in God to be easy, even logical. I respect that. But surrendering the management of the universe to Someone else makes a lot of sense when there is so little we can personally control. After all, control is an illusion, and the evidence on that matter is irrefutable.