How many times have you questioned your parenthood thinking "you could have prevented that thing from happening?"
- I could have protected my kid from scraping her knee at the park today.
- I should have been helping my baby sleep better, I must be doing something wrong.
- If I had dressed her an extra layer she wouldn't have caught cold.
Our brains are wired to find cause and effect relationships even when there is none. We tend to overestimate our control over events. This tendency has a name in psychology: the illusion of control.
How does the illusion of control happen?
The illusion of control was named by Ellen Langer, an American professor of psychology after she studied gambling behavior. Langer's studies on card players and lottery participants revealed that people were wrong about what affected their chances of winning. For instance, the more time they spent picking a lottery ticket, the more chances they thought they had at winning, whereas the two were not statistically correlated.
In addition to chance-based occurrences such as gambling, other uncontrollable situations such as the ones causing superstitions can also trigger the illusion of control. Sports competitions are a good example. We all have a relative who insists on wearing that certain shirt while watching a competition because they think that it will increase the likelihood of their team's winning.
Humans like to think of themselves as fully rational decision-makers. We tend to base our decisions on data and logic. We seem to assign rational power to totally random things (gambling) or things that are entirely independent of our actions (superstitions, sports competitions).
The illusion of control and mental health
The illusion of control is not so bad. Although it's usually false, the belief that we have control over things to a certain extent protects our mental health.
In a study from 1971, a laboratory experiment was conducted to see how people behaved under conditions allowing them some control versus no control against a disruptive noise while working on a task.
People who had control over terminating the noise with the push of a button –even though none of them chose to push it– had less stress and better performance task.
People who were not offered a button and were told to sit with the noise for 24 minutes showed heightened stress and low task performance even after the noise stopped.
Results showed that knowing we have control over disturbances can help us cope with them better.
The opposite of the illusion of control is learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs after we experience being powerless in changing bad circumstances. After experiencing powerlessness, we feel as if we have no control over our lives, making us quicker to give up against obstacles.
The illusion of control in parenthood
Although the illusion of control has a protective effect on our mental health to a certain extent, cultivating awareness towards things we can control and we cannot is the healthiest approach in life, especially as a parent. The illusion of control is harmful in our parent-child relationship in two ways:
1) We become judgmental of our parenting: As parents, we are automatic to assume that we can control the happiness of our children by providing the perfect conditions. It's as if we are programmed to exert control in our children's lives not particularly in a good or bad way, but instead in a way that helps us constantly predict what will happen to them. We want to be protected from unpredictability.
Our tendency to control shows itself as self-judgment when things do not go as we planned, for example, when our child throws a tantrum, when they don't go to sleep on time or when we fail to redirect them into acceptable behavior.
The illusion of control in our parenthood is likely to be rooted in our own childhood. As children, we were likely under the control of grown-ups. Most of us were raised with the narrative of "gaining control over our lives when we turn 18." We could then be the ones the make the rules rather than being the ones to obey them.
Being subject to adult control in childhood turned us into adults whose first automatic reaction is to control: to fix things, to ease emotional turmoil, to quench fires, and to bring order and predictability to everyday life.
Self-judgment undermines our parenting efforts. Making a fair estimation of our control over events helps us focus on things we can control, and become more accepting towards things we cannot.
An example of the things we can control is how we regulate our emotions when our children are having a hard time with their emotions. What we cannot and should not try to control is how and for how long our children express these emotions.
2) Sometimes we inject the illusion of control in our kids too: Perhaps as our parents tried to control us, we internalized the urge to control, turning into perfectionists in varying degrees. Perhaps we intuitively learned to "make our parents happy" with our actions, thus falling into the cognitive bias that our actions had the ultimate power on other people's happiness or sadness.
Sometimes, our families would come to the verge of falling apart, but we –by doing the right things– "kept" our parents from fighting or even separating. Some other times, we were told to stop crying because we had nothing to cry about and that we should be stronger.
Our children mirror the internal work that we do on ourselves. Being subject to or witnessing our attempts to control things that are random or that do not depend on our actions molds them into individuals with a false estimation of the control on life events.
Having a sense of control to a certain extent is healthy, as it is related to our self-regulation and the lack thereof could lead to learned helplessness. But overestimating our control over things is a cognitive bias that can have detrimental effects on our parent-child relationships or worse, our children's internal self-talk.
Just like our inability to control the storms but our objective control over building a shelter to weather it under, cultivating awareness for controllable and non-controllable life events is the healthiest way forward. Perhaps, paying attention to controlling our internal states versus controlling our environment is a good point to start. Learning about self-regulation can make this mindset shift easier too.
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Glass, D. C., Reim, B., & Singer, J. E. (1971). Behavioral consequences of adaptation to controllable and uncontrollable noise. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(2), 244-257.
Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32(2), 311.
Rudski, J. (2004). The illusion of control, superstitious belief, and optimism. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 22(4), 306–315.
Stefan, S., & David, D. (2013). Recent developments in the experimental investigation of the illusion of control. A meta‐analytic review. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(2), 377-386.