How to Create an Illusion of Control

imageUndertaking observations at any gambling venue is an education and learning opportunity into the Illusion of Control.

The Illusion of Control is just one of hundreds of Cognitive Biases (; ) that humans use every day. All such biases are unconscious, emotionally driven and heuristical in nature.

Watch what happens at poker machines for example and you will see every superstition, every mannerism and every movement, under the notion that these have some influence over the outcome. This behaviour includes: special ways of touching or stroking the machine, speaking to the machine, ways of sitting or standing at the machine, use of the favourite machine, methods for pushing buttons, waiting for the ‘right’ machine, using time against the machine, pressing lucky sequences etc.

The Illusion of Control describes how we believe we have greater control over events than we actually do and was first coined by Ellen Langer (;

The Illusion of Control is founded in other cognitive biases such as: Fundamental Attribution Error (attributing causation and links to events that don’t exists), Hindsight Bias (looking back at events and claiming foresight for yourself), Confirmation Bias (finding confirmation of a belief in unrelated events, or confirming a belief because an idea is identified), Recency Effect (finding correlation in something was recently observed), Halo Effect (finding plausibility in something because of its attraction or way one looks at something/someone), Selective Perception (seeing things or not seeing things according to experience) and , various forms of hubris (individual and organisational arrogance/overconfidence).

All these biases work in humans unconsciously and automatically.

There is no more popular language in safety than the word ‘controls’.

In many ways Cognitive Biases work as heuristics that have been learned (embodied) over time ( and are enacted unconsciously.

The Illusion of Control is cultivated over time by a collection of attitudes, values, cultural norms, linguistics and worldviews.

It is so easy to cultivate the Illusion of Control in Safety, but if you want a few tips, here they are:

  1. Create a notion of law and regulation as if it they are absolute and not interpreted.
  2. Attribute links to data that don’t resemble reality eg. Injury defines safety, linear causation (eg. Swiss-cheese myth, Bow-tie myth, risk matrix myth
  3. Set goals of perfection and use perfectionist language and impose it on everyone in an organisation.
  4. Invent a mythic hierarchy if control to create the illusion that all risk can be controlled.
  5. Use Hindsight bias to explain all events as predictable.
  6. Speak the language of prediction and keep silent on any language of uncertainty.
  7. Amass endless paperwork as distraction from real work and infuse meaning in paperwork as if it has some correlation to real work.
  8. Attribute safety to systems and then call it ‘differently’ to create the illusion that something different is being done.
  9. Build a curriculum and Body of Knowledge focused on objects and ‘controls’.
  10. Count hazards and risks in data bases as if the volume of data means they can be controlled.
  11. Make myths anchored to symbols that create comfort and delusion of causality and add pretty colours to infuse symbols with the illusion of control.
  12. Develop language of certainty in all that is spoken.
  13. Prohibit language of mortality, fallibility and vulnerability.
  14. Cultivate organisational hubris so that positivity is confused for competence.
  15. Discourage critical thinking.
  16. Demonise critical thinking as anti-safety.
  17. Never speak of Managing the Unexpected (Weick)

All of these combined, help create the Illusion of Control so that when something unexpected happens there is mass surprise.

All of this leads to the acceptance of “blame” where no blame exists. Indeed, if you want to upset Safety make sure you propose no blame for accidents. In reality, and because risk is a wicked problem, there is rarely blame to be had.

We learned recently from the AIHS that ‘blame is the name of the game’ (

The more perfectionism is promoted in an organisation, the more likely it is to suffer from the Illusion of Control.

This is why Safety adores zero and makes it its global mantra (

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