Katy Milkman: This probably happens to you from time to time: You’re in a rush, but the elevator you’re on is taking longer than you’d like to get going. So you press the close door button to help speed things along. Except that most modern elevator functions are automated. And it’s pretty likely that the close door button isn’t even connected to anything. And yet pressing that button makes you feel like you’ve accelerated the process—just a little bit. Why is that? And if the close door buttons aren’t functional, why are they even there?
On this episode of Choiceology, we’re looking at the way people tend to overestimate, and also sometimes underestimate, their ability to influence uncertain events. Everything from elevators to simple board games to international sports rivalries.
I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind the decisions people make. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes choices, and then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you avoid costly mistakes and reach your goals.
Peter Jordan: I would say I was best at Zamboni-ing, if that’s a word. I was pretty good. I could drive that two-ton machine pretty well.
Katy Milkman: This is Peter.
Peter Jordan: I’m Peter Jordan.
Katy Milkman: Peter hosted a TV show for seven years called It’s a Living. Each episode he would try several different jobs, often with hilarious results.
Peter Jordan: I think we worked out that over the course of seven years I did 586 different jobs.
Katy Milkman: Several of those jobs were at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Peter tried his hand goaltending for the Canadian women’s hockey team, riding skeleton down the ice track, and driving the Zamboni, that giant machine that scrapes and surfaces the ice at hockey arenas. The crew that maintain the hockey ice was called the Green Team.
Peter Jordan: The Green Team were the ice makers for the Salt Lake tournament.
Katy Milkman: They were responsible for maintaining the rinks for around 60 games.
Peter Jordan: The Green Team was made up of Dan Craig, who used to be the ice maker for the Edmonton Oilers when Gretzky and Messier and all those guys were ruling the NHL. And Dan Craig got a reputation for making the best ice in the world. So he became the lead ice maker. And then the fellow that I was job shadowing was named Trent Evans, and he was from Edmonton as well.
Trent Evans: I’m Trent Evans. I was an ice maker at the time of the 2002 Olympics, as one of 15 Zamboni drivers that would be attending the Olympics to maintain the ice and make sure that the players that attended had the best ice to play on. Crisp, clean, and fast ice was what they were looking for.
Peter Jordan: The first thing they taught me to do was to drive the Zamboni, and I thought I was doing a magnificent job, though there’s a lot of gauges and dials to look at while you’re driving. You’re actually looking more at the gauges and dials to see how much water you’re putting down and how much you’re scraping. And then later they took me to the Zamboni and had me put my hand in the hopper where the snow goes in and said that every good ice maker could tell if it was good quality ice by the taste. So I dipped my hand in there and tasted it. And of course those guys could barely contain their laughter. You can’t tell by the taste, in case you were wondering.
Katy Milkman: Clearly these guys had a sense of humor. Now our story isn’t about the science of ice making exactly, but it is about something one of the members of the Green Team put in the ice.
Peter Jordan: So Trent and I were standing waiting to get on the ice and we were waiting because they were rehearsing the gold medal celebration. The flags go up and the anthems come on and there’s flowers and medals and all that sort of thing. And Trent and I were just a little miffed because every time they rehearsed, and they rehearsed for a long time, they played as if the U.S. was winning the gold medal. And I don’t know if he was just feeling rebellious or whatever, but that’s when he told me about the loonie that he had buried at center ice.
Katy Milkman: A loonie is a Canadian $1 coin. It’s a golden color. And one side of the coin features an image of a bird, a common loon, hence the nickname. Trent was accustomed to starting the ice-making process by painting a reference mark in the middle of the rink. At home in Edmonton, Trent would use the center of the Edmonton Oilers team logo as the starting point. That logo had a line through the center, which he could use to find center ice, but the Salt Lake City Olympics logo didn’t have a center line. He needed to create a new marker.
Trent Evans: Without a center line they didn’t have a marking for the center dot. Normally in the NHL, we paint a 12-inch diameter circle in blue.
Katy Milkman: Trent approached his ice making team leader, Dan Craig, to find out what he did in the other Olympic arenas.
Trent Evans: His comment to me was that they just painted a splotch of paint in yellow or orange about the size of a loonie. I didn’t have a loonie on me, but I placed a dime that first day. And then having a discussion with my roommate that night it was, “OK, the silver of the dime. This isn’t good. I have to go with the gold of the loonie.” So day two of ice making, I placed a loonie over top of the dime.
Katy Milkman: Trent didn’t just put the loonie in the ice to mark the center.
Trent Evans: When I put the loonie in the ice, I was very hopeful that it would bring good luck to Team Canada. A little bit of luck goes a long way, I think. So that’s how I looked at the loonie.
Katy Milkman: Unfortunately for Trent, an American official spotted the coin. Trent was told he’d have to dig it out and refinish the ice. Here’s Peter Jordan again.
Peter Jordan: So he went to go dig it out and decided that he wasn’t going to dig it out and in fact just covered it with a little bit of yellow paint so that it looked like he’d used the yellow paint as his marker. And continued to flood the ice so that the loonie was still in there.
Katy Milkman: A little primer on ice making. The arena has a concrete floor. Inside the floor are coolant pipes connected to a refrigeration plant. The ice makers flood the arena with thin layers of water, which freezes on the floor. The main markers, center lines, goal lines, zone lines and so on, those are painted right onto the ice and then extra layers of water are added to protect the markers. So the coin Trent placed was under several layers of ice. Of course, the rules around how Olympic facilities are managed and maintained are very strict. But Trent figured a coin placed well under the surface of the ice wouldn’t harm anyone.
Trent Evans: It wouldn’t be at any risk to the players and a skate coming across it. And it was deep enough in the ice, it wouldn’t be the issue.
Katy Milkman: But if any of the officials found out, it would be a serious problem.
Peter Jordan: So as we were listening to the Star Spangled Banner for about the 15th time, Trent tells me about the loonie. Firstly he tells me, I can’t tell anyone. He could get in big trouble. So he said, “You’ve got to keep it quiet.” So I made a deal with him that I would not release the story until the puck was dropped in the gold medal game. When Trent was telling me this, I was really excited. I really wanted Canada to win, so I thought, “Man, it’d be great if it truly was lucky.” We hadn’t won a gold medal in 50 years.
Katy Milkman: They hadn’t won a hockey gold since the 1952 games, and remember it was now 2002.
Peter Jordan: The Russians were going to be great. The Americans were a powerhouse, and the last champs, the Czechs, were there as well. I think he honestly thought of it as a good luck charm, as a talisman.
Katy Milkman: Trent was worried about getting caught but just couldn’t help sharing his secret with the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams. He hoped that making them aware of the coin would give the teams a bit of a boost.
Trent Evans: I told a number of people. One of the first opportunities I took was telling the women’s team about the loonie, and I told them at one of the practice rinks. They thought that was pretty cool.
Peter Jordan: The women’s team was excited that there was a lucky loonie under center ice. They thought it was fantastic and a little advantage for them. They had not beaten the U.S. in eight tries. That was a really, really tough team, so I think they felt that any little help they could get was, was welcome.
Katy Milkman: Team Canada would face Team USA in the women’s gold medal game on February 1st, 2002. Canada had a three to one lead going into the third period. Team USA kept up the pressure and was able to score with a shot deflected off a Canadian player’s stick with just over three minutes left in the third period. The Americans pulled their goaltender for the last minute of play, using six attackers to make every attempt to tie the game, but it wasn’t enough. Canadian goaltender Kim St-Pierre blocked every shot that came her way, and Team Canada won the gold with a final score of 3-2.
At the sound of the buzzer, the rest of the Canadian team poured over the boards, their gloves and sticks flying into the air in celebration of the win.
Peter Jordan: After the women won, a couple of them kissed the center ice where the loonie was as a way of saying thank you for the good luck. And Trent was apoplectic. He thought, “This is it. I’m going to get arrested.” I told him, “Look, there’s no regulations against excessive superstition, not to worry.” But the more I thought about it, he did defy a direct order from an official to get that out of there, and I guess they could have come up with something that said it was an unfair advantage.
Trent Evans: Wayne Gretzky was up in the stands, and he was really freaked out by the fact that the girls were bringing attention to center ice, so he was on his phone and he had called down, “We need this loonie to last through to the men’s game.” That was one of those moments where I thought for sure the secret would be out and we’d lose the loonie in the ice.
Katy Milkman: But the secret was safe for the time being. Now was time for the men’s final, and just like the women’s, it was once again Canada versus the United States.
Peter Jordan: Couple days later it was the men, and that arena was electric. Right away the U.S. went up 1-0, and then the play that everybody remembers. A pass came through the center of the ice. Mario pretended to take the pass and didn’t, and it went instead to Paul Kariya, who tied the game. What a play. Anyway, the game was tied, and then it just went back and forth and back and forth. It was absolutely an incredible game until finally Joe Sakic took over. He gets the winner, he gets another for good measure, and the Canadians in the place went nuts. It was an absolutely incredible final.
When the Canadians won, the Green Team won. I think that was their gold medal. They had worked 16 hours a day for six weeks, making sure that the ice was the best it could be. They were over the moon, especially Trent. He was so excited and, I think, a little relieved that he didn’t get arrested.
Trent Evans: So at the conclusion of the men’s gold medal game, I went on to the ice. I was involved in some of the pageantry and ceremony of the medal presentations. But all along, I’m looking for that moment when I can approach center ice and take the loonie out. So I was prepared with a screwdriver and a water bottle at hand with hot water in it, but also watching for a Team Canada official that I could grab spur of the moment to say, “OK, let’s go out to center ice and pull the loonie out.”
Peter Jordan: By the way, the end of the story here is that Trent kept the dime when he dug it up. He put the dime in his pocket, but he gave the loonie to Wayne Gretzky and, well, it’s a legend now and sitting in the Hall of Fame.
Katy Milkman: Peter Jordan is an actor/presenter and the former host of It’s a Living on CBC television in Canada. He’s based in Winnipeg. Trent Evans was an ice maker in the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and in the NHL for the Edmonton Oilers. He currently works in event management in Edmonton.
The coin in the ice at the 2002 Olympics was a harmless bit of fun, but you might be surprised at how many people believe that the loonie itself influenced the outcome of those gold medal games. To this day, people visit the Hockey Hall of Fame to see and touch the lucky loonie. Sports fans all over the world use countless different good luck charms to try to give their favorite athletes a boost of luck. Again, harmless fun, but we see this rather irrational behavior in other situations too.
We had several volunteers step into two scenarios in a simple board game. In the first one, they were asked to try to roll a 10 with a pair of dice to get their player home and win the game.
Speaker 4: So you need to roll a 10 in order to win the game.
Speaker 5: OK.
Speaker 4: OK?
Speaker 5: I can do that. Here we go. That’s a six. That’s six right there.
Speaker 4: So you didn’t win the game, did you?
Speaker 5: I did not win, no.
Katy Milkman: In the second scenario, they were asked to try to roll a two with the dice to get a different player home to win the game.
Speaker 4: So this time you are this red marker right here and in order to win the game, you need to roll a two. OK?
Speaker 5: OK. Here we go for two, and it’s a six again. Wow.
Speaker 4: So you’re good with that six …
Katy Milkman: We recorded a video of each roll, and then we played the videos back to the volunteers after the game. Here’s what they noticed.
Karen: OK. I seem to be warming them up.
… number 10 …
There’s a lot of lead up here.
Here we go. Lucky 10.
OK. Fairly aggressive throw, and I got a four.
Speaker 5: Rolling around in my hand here quite a bit. Roll the dice. They spread out quite a bit. It was aggressive. It took a lot of time and I really threw it out there.
Speaker 4: And now we’re going to watch the second video. Karen, this was your effort to try and roll a two.
Karen: OK, look, I’m only doing it with one hand this time instead of the two. Look at, I just barely … I was hovering right above the tabletop and just barely kind of let them fall.
Speaker 5: So now I’m rolling again here. Much shorter and much closer together. A very soft touch to that roll.
Katy Milkman: Now, admittedly we had a tiny sample size, but even then, more often than not, the volunteers would roll the dice noticeably harder when trying to make a 10 and noticeably more gently when rolling for two. Add to that the common tendency to blow on the dice or rattle them in their hands, and an interesting pattern appears. Almost everyone in our small group of volunteers felt they had some control over the roll, at least before they saw the results. Of course, rolling the dice aggressively or gently or blowing on them or warming them up or rolling them in your hands has no effect on what is a random outcome. But people still felt that they had some influence. Why is that? As you’ve probably guessed, people have a tendency to overestimate their ability to control events, at least in situations where they have little to no control to begin with.
Psychologist Ellen Langer named this effect the illusion of control in a research paper from 1975. Langer had volunteers play games of chance, and she noted that people tended to have a higher expectation of success than probability would warrant. Since then, this tendency has been observed in many different contexts. The illusion of control is tied to some superstitious and paranormal beliefs as well. The lucky loonie in our Olympic hockey story, that’s a talisman, an object that people believe has special powers to bring good fortune.
In the years since Ellen Langer published her paper on the illusion of control, researchers have developed a more nuanced view of the effect. I’ve asked Don Moore to join me here to explain the latest research on this behavior. Don is a professor of management and organizations at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, and he’s done some important research on this phenomenon. So first of all, thank you for doing this, Don.
Don Moore: A great pleasure.
Katy Milkman: It’s a great pleasure for me too. OK, could you define the illusion of control?
Don Moore: Yeah. The illusion of control describes the tendency for people to overestimate how much control they have over events in their worlds. There is a great deal of uncertainty, probability, and contingency associated with many of the consequences of our actions. I do something and then wait to see a result. And that result occurs with less than 100% probability in many circumstances. So like, I drink a bunch of caffeine, and does it keep me awake for the afternoon lull? Well sometimes yes, sometimes no. I indulge and have an extra piece of chocolate cake. Does it add a half pound or a pound on the scale the next morning? Eh, not always. It depends on what else is going on. I say, “I love you” to my kid. Does that produce a warm, affectionate response? Not with 100% probability. So there are a lot of important actions we take in the world that are associated with probabilistic and uncertain outcomes. And then the illusion of control describes the tendency to overestimate how much control we have over those outcomes.
Katy Milkman: Could we talk about some of the original research that was done that got people excited about this topic?
Don Moore: So I think the finder’s prize belongs to Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who wrote about the illusion of control in a variety of circumstances involving chance. So I think in one of her original studies, she gave participants in her study lottery tickets that could win them prizes and then invited them to switch lottery tickets with someone else. And they said no way, they did not want to switch lottery tickets. They acted as if they had control over this completely chance drawing and that they didn’t want to give up the control that their lottery ticket afforded them over the outcome.
Katy Milkman: So you obviously read this work, and it’s a classic finding in the psychology literature, and you had some skepticism about it that maybe this effect wasn’t systematic and that it didn’t happen the same way in all contexts. I’d love it if you could tell our listeners a little bit about some of the research you did to follow up on these original studies.
Don Moore: I did some studies with Francesca Gino and with Zach Sharek where we included not only low-control conditions but high-control conditions. And the results suggested that a lot of what looked like illusion of control with tasks where participants didn’t actually have any control, it was just confusion. They didn’t understand how much control they had. But if you give them a great deal of control, instead of overestimating that, they will tend to underestimate it. Obviously if you have perfect control, the only direction that error will lead you is to underestimate that control.
Katy Milkman: So this is super interesting Don. I would love it if you could unpack a little bit for us what some of those tasks were that you gave people that showed this variety of responses.
Don Moore: So we followed in the footsteps of researchers who had gone before us and used really simple contingency tasks where quantification of control was a fairly straightforward calculation. So we gave them tasks like, try to see if you can make the light come on, and we’ll give you a button you can push each round. Each round you have to decide whether you’re going to push the button or not, and then you get to see whether the light comes on or not. And we as experimenters controlled the level of contingency. Sometimes there was a perfect contingency. More often there was some degree of chance. So the light would come on with a 25% probability if you pushed the button and not at all if you didn’t, or the light would come on with a 75% chance if you pushed the button and not at all if you didn’t.
And so because we had objective measures of how much control participants actually had, we could compare their reports with reality and ask whether they tended to overestimate or underestimate control. So the finding that we obtained from the study where we were manipulating this control task where they got the button, and it sometimes made the light come on and sometimes not, was that when they objectively had very little control, they tended to overestimate it. So they weren’t exactly sure of course what the relationship was between button pushing and the light coming on. And so when they didn’t have much control, they tended to think they had more control than they did. But when they had a great deal of control, because there was still some ambiguity in the task and the light didn’t come on every single time, they tended to underestimate when they had a great deal of control.
Katy Milkman: So Don, what did your research tell you about why people make these estimation errors?
Don Moore: I think the answer to your question really should include the consideration of a complicating factor, and that is human intention. Because we intend to succeed, it is easy for us to attribute success to our own intentions. Success has a thousand fathers. Failure is an orphan. There are lots of people who intend success. When we want our startup company to be successful, all of us at the company are pulling in that direction. When our startup fails, there’s nobody who intended that, and so we can all plausibly say, “It’s not my fault. That’s not what I tried to do.” They will explain what they observe as a result of their own level of control, when in fact the evidence considered more objectively would not support that conclusion. I think there are many circumstances when we are actually in control, but because the relationship between what we do and the outcome is complex, because there are additional factors at play, we tend to underestimate our control.
Katy Milkman: Could I ask you to talk a little bit about examples of situations where you think we run into the illusion of control?
Don Moore: A domain in which people routinely overestimate how much control they have and therefore engage in irrational and counterproductive behavior has to do with superstitions. Many of us have superstitions about what could influence outcomes in our lives, leading us to engage in unproductive behavior, routines, or following rules that don’t actually matter. We don’t want to switch our lottery ticket number. We don’t want to speak of our good fortune lest we jinx it. And these superstitions, they persist despite the lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness. On the other hand, there are circumstances in life in which we have a great deal of control.
Katy Milkman: If you’re aware of it and you’re hoping to avoid falling victim to the illusion of control or the illusion of lack of control, what should you do?
Don Moore: If I were to give people advice on how to avoid making this mistake, it would be to think systematically about cause and effect. So control fundamentally requires a causal mechanism wherein the cause influences the effect. When it comes to a subject like weight gain, the causal mechanism there is really clear. Calories in produce weight gain if you eat more than your body’s consuming. When it comes to superstition, how is it that my commenting on my good fortune could undo the good luck I would otherwise have? That causal mechanism is not particularly plausible. And so coming to better estimates of your degree of control is facilitated by thinking rigorously about how exactly you would assert that control, and that might allow you to actually get some insight into how you could control something that is otherwise difficult to control.
Katy Milkman: Yay, be a scientist is the answer. I love it.
Don Moore: The work of developmental psychologists like Alison Gopnik point out the ways in which kids run experiments on the world in order to assess their level of control. “What can I do that would make the adults in my life pay more attention to me? How about throwing my food against the wall? Would that get their attention? Does it produce the response I’m interested in?” Kids are constantly running experiments on the world, engaging in unpredictable, surprising, interesting, outrageous behavior. And that is one of the creative ways in which young human minds assess their level of control over the world around them.
Katy Milkman: Have you been secretly running a study in my house with me and my toddler?
Don Moore: Yeah. You got food on the walls, don’t you?
Katy Milkman: Why do you think it is that we have the illusion of control, and why is it that we also misperceive control when we have it?
Don Moore: A number of writers have attempted to make the argument that overestimating our level of control in life, that is, falling victim to the illusion of control, that it’s somehow adaptive, that it leads us to attempt to assert control in ways that wind up benefiting us. And you can think of examples like that. Things where it’s unclear how much I actually control. How much can I get strangers to like me or how much control do I have over other drivers on the road? That acting as if we have control over these things might in some circumstances be adaptive, but it’s also pretty easy to think of circumstances in which that delusion could be quite destructive, that it could lead to superstitious behavior, which is just a waste of time, or it could lead you to act as if you can control things that you can’t. So I’m skeptical of its universal adaptiveness and reluctant to make some argument about, on average in life across all situations, that it’s better to overestimate than underestimate control. I think that’s a problematic claim to make.
I favor a more parsimonious explanation: that people attempt to make accurate estimates of control, but the relationships between cause and effect, between action and consequence in daily life, is often tremendously complicated, and figuring them out clearly is difficult. I don’t think the empirical evidence requires a causal explanation, anything more complicated than uncertainty and imperfect correlation between subjective estimates of control in reality.
Katy Milkman: Don, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.
Don Moore: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks, Katy.
Katy Milkman: Don Moore is the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
Many of the factors that determine your success as an investor are ultimately out of your control. That’s why it’s so important to build and maintain a diversified portfolio that’s in line with your risk tolerance. On our sister podcast, Financial Decoder, host Mark Riepe and his guests talk about issues like how to determine whether your portfolio is diversified appropriately and how to counteract the biases that can derail your investing strategy. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.
In some situations, believing you have control over something that maybe outside of your influence might be a good thing. Placebo buttons on elevators and crosswalks might help lower anxiety in situations where patience is necessary. Progress bars on web pages can make you feel more in control of your time, and a good luck charm may make you feel better about some of the decisions you have to make. But often overestimating your level of control can lead to suboptimal choices.
For example, Don Moore and his co-authors suggest that people might overestimate the control they have in hiring excellent employees, or the success of a new product, or the chances their entrepreneurial venture will succeed. It’s not that surprising then that people are eager to find ways of influencing these events and that some will even adopt superstitious beliefs that overestimate their control.
It’s also a problem when people feel helpless in situations where they do have real control. Asking yourself to figure out if you really have control seems to be an important exercise. Don suggested thinking carefully about the relationship between cause and effect. Is it really about luck or effort? It’s pretty safe to say that wearing your favorite team jersey, the one with the lucky tear in the sleeve, isn’t likely to affect your favorite team’s chances in the playoffs. Blowing on your hands while throwing dice isn’t going to affect the outcome, but staying in school actually can increase your IQ. Practicing the piano religiously really can make you sound like a maestro, and staying away from junk food really will boost your chances of improving your health.
You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can subscribe for free in your favorite podcasting apps. That way you won’t miss an episode. Next time, we look at how scarcity of money or time or other resources can affect behavior in surprising ways. I’m Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.
Speaker 8: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.