Why You Can Be Late When You Take The Train

A lot of traffic lights, elevator buttons and others things in our daily lives don’t actually work. They are not even connected to a system. These items do however have an important function. A function I experienced first hand when I ran late for a number of meetings in the last couple of weeks. Somehow it proved different whether I was late taking the train or using my car.

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We can meet each other at the office again. And we all seem to do that. Struggling through traffic jams are once again part of our daily routine. This sometimes leads to being late for meetings at the office. I had my fair share of being late for office meetings lately. However, I also noted something peculiar about the reactions of others when I was late.

When I take public transportation to get to the office, people were usually lenient towards me being late. I often heard remarks like “Trains are always delayed” and “You cannot help that trains run late”. Delayed public transportation is taken as a fact of life that should be taken for granted. On the other hand, when I used the car to get to the office, people were usually less lenient towards me being late. I often heard remarks like “You know that there are always traffic jams around this time” and “I usually leave early to avoid traffic jams”. Being delayed by traffic jams is seen as something you can avoid.

I do not have any more control over the delay of the train than over the delay due to traffic jams. If I should have left earlier to avoid traffic jams when taking the car, I should also have left earlier to avoid delays with the trains. I could have taken that into account and left early when taking the train.

But apparently, my fellow office workers feel that I have more influence over the time I will arrive at the office when I use the car than when I take the train. This is called the illusion of control. My co-workers at the office assume I have more control when I use the car than when I take the train. This is also signaled by the use of words: I take the train – and I surrender myself to the peculiarities of the public transportation system – whereas I use the car – and I am in control of reaching my destination.

Our need to be in control

The illusion of control is the tendency of people to overestimate ability to control events. This can be their own ability or – in case of me being late – others’ abilities. It occurs when there is a sense of control over outcomes that cannot be influenced. I do not have more control over the time I arrive when using the car than when I take the train. However, because I am behind the wheel of the car – and not at the helm of the train – it seems I have more control over the car than over the train. This is just an illusion. But it satisfies our need to be in control.

Even when something is a matter of random chance, we often feel like we’re able to influence it in some way. We are very susceptible to feelings that we have some influence in situations, where we do not have any effect on the outcome, such as lotteries and sports matches. We applaud the good decisions we have made when buying a winning lottery ticket. We wear our lucky jersey in the team’s color when watching our favorite soccer team in the championship match. When rolling dice in a craps game we tend to throw harder when we need high numbers and softer for low numbers. This is an illusion as well. But it satisfies our need to be in control.

The four factors that increase the illusion of control

Ellen Langer, an American professor of psychology at Harvard University, studies the illusion of control. As early as 1975 she conducted several experiments that studied the factors that contributed to the illusion of control. In these experiments, Langer identified four factors that increase the illusion of control:

  1. Engaging in competition: In one experiment people cut cards against either a confident or a nervous opponent. When people engage in competition, we usually experience some stress. In chance games, such as cutting cards, our own stress and that of others should be irrelevant, but people felt more confident about the outcome when the opponent was nervous instead of confident. They seemed to believe that they were more likely to win in a chance game, when their opponent appeared stressed.
  2. Providing choice: In another experiment people were or were not given a choice for a lottery ticket. When people were provided with a choice of a lottery ticket, they seemed to believe that they were more likely to win, as if this choice allowed them to exert control over the outcome.
  3. Increasing familiarity: In yet another experiment people were given a choice between a familiar or unfamiliar lottery ticket. People choose to hold on to familiar tickets (containing letters and numbers) more often than to unfamiliar tickets (containing novel symbols and line drawings). They seemed to prefer these tickets, because they believed this increased their chances of winning.
  4. Increasing involvement: In a final experiment people participating in a lottery were asked to switch their lottery ticket for a ticket in a more favorable lottery. When people were encouraged to think about the lottery multiple times – and thus involvement with the current lottery was higher – people were less likely to switch their lottery ticket. They showed more confidence in lottery tickets when they were more involved in the lottery.

People in a sports environments can be prone to the illusion of control, because these four factors are often present. When people engage in sporting competition, they obviously engage in competition. Sports people also choose whether they participate in such events: they have chosen to participate. They are familiar with the setup and rules for their specific sports, which increases their familiarity. Finally, they have usually put in many hours of training, which increases their involvement. All these factors together may boost their confidence of winning. It may be difficult to distinguish between actual control and illusion of control in many sporting competitions.

Also people in a business environments can be prone to the illusion of control, because these four factors are often present in these environments. Projects in such environments are often viewed as a competition against (unidentified or identified) competitors who are aiming for the same goal. People engage in many choices throughout such projects, although some of the key success factors may be out of the control of the project team. The familiarity of the team or topic may also enhance the illusion of controlling the outcome. Of course, the team will be heavily involved and will dedicate many hours to the project. All these factors together may boost their confidence of winning. It may be difficult to distinguish between actual control and illusion of control in such projects.

Illusion of control may be healthy

Because of our need to be in control, there are situations where the illusion of control may increase our health and wellbeing. An experiment from researcher David Glass and his colleagues demonstrates that the illusion of control can reduce stress that people experience. In a laboratory experiment people were exposed to high-intensity noise that sounded at random intervals in the background. Some of the participants believed they had control over the termination of the noise, whereas others did not. The first group of people was given a button that they believed could signal another subject to press a button which would terminate the noise. The second group of people was given no such button. Pressing the button had no effect on the occurrence or intensity of the noise, but people with the button experienced less stress (as measured by their galvanic skin response throughout the 24 minute experiment).

Thus the illusion of control may help to reduce stress. This can also be seen at traffic lights at bicycle crossings in The Netherlands. The buttons often do not have any effect on the traffic lights; they turn green in a predetermined pattern. However, these buttons give people the illusion of control and people experience less stress when waiting for the light to turn green as a result. The same goes for many control panels in elevators: the ‘door close’ button is often disconnected. These buttons provide people with an illusion of control and decrease stress while waiting for the elevator.

How to reduce the illusion of control

However, there are many situations where you want to reduce the illusion of control. No one is immune to the illusion of control, but taking the outside view may help you decrease illusions of control. Don’t rely on intuitions alone, but look for external sources of information.

However, confirmation bias may lead you to include only information that confirms what you already believe. So an alternative for taking the outside view, is to invite somebody who is not invested in the project, preferably someone with an view that is opposite to what you already believe. The challenge of course, will be to find this person first, and then to really listen to this person and take these points of view very serious.

Imagine that I want to remove the illusion that arriving on time at the office can be controlled when I use the car and cannot be controlled when taking the train. I could analyze the delays on train track and calculate the extra time It would take to be on time 95% of the time. Or better: hire an external expert to do that for me. I could inform my colleagues about the results to show that I have more control over my arrival time than they may think I have. Of course, such a course of action would be silly, because travelling by train provides me with a good excuse when being late. I would like this illusion to remain intact.  

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Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral designer and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your diversity and inclusion programs, marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop me an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl

Source of top image: Skitterphoto via Pexels of Cedric Fauntleroy via Pexels


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