Boots & Sabers

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1824, 20 Apr 15

The Illusion of Control

This is an interesting story about the sounds, buttons, and other things designed to give us the illusion of control.

All of these deceptions are arguably desirable. Whether or not you feel cheated by them, their effect is largely for the greater good. People feel happier with the world around them, more in control of events and comforted by the apparent efficacy of their actions. But what if the illusion of control had negative effects? What if it made people do things that weren’t just detrimental to themselves, but the whole of society?

These are the questions raised by Mark Fenton-O’Creevy and his fellow researchers. Back in 2003, they published a study on the illusion of control in financial traders. During a quick game, traders were told that pressing buttons on a computer keyboard “may” have some effect on the value of a financial index they were watching rise and fall. In reality the buttons had no effect on the index, its movements were pre-determined. But some traders felt their button-bashing had more impact than others. Their subjection to an illusion of control was therefore rated higher. The really interesting result was that Fenton-O’Creevy and his co-authors found that those traders were the ones who, in their real-life day jobs, earned less and were given lower performance ratings by their managers.

“A skilled trader should be able to reflect critically on their performance,” says Fenton-O’Creevy. “They should be able to tell if they made the right decision and got lucky, or made the right decision and it went badly.”


1824, 20 April 2015


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