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Psychon Bull Rev. 2014 Aug;21(4):1087-93. doi: 10.3758/s13423-014-0584-7.

Reducing the illusion of control when an action is followed by an undesired outcome.

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Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain,


The illusion of control is the belief that our behavior produces an effect that is actually independent from it. This illusion is often at the core of superstitious and pseudoscientific thinking. Although recent research has proposed several evidence-based strategies that can be used to reduce the illusion, the majority of these experiments have involved positive illusions-that is, those in which the potential outcomes are desired (e.g., recovery from illness or earning points). By contrast, many real-life superstitions and pseudosciences are tied to negative illusions-that is, those in which the potential consequences are undesired. Examples are walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, or sitting in row 13, all of which are supposed to generate bad luck. Thus, the question is whether the available evidence on how to reduce positive illusions would also apply to situations in which the outcomes are undesired. We conducted an experiment in which participants were exposed to undesired outcomes that occurred independently of their behavior. One strategy that has been shown to reduce positive illusions consists of warning people that the outcomes might have alternative causes, other than the participants' actions, and telling them that the best they can do to find out whether an alternative cause is at work is to act on only about 50% of the trials. When we gave our participants this information in an experiment in which the outcomes were undesired, their illusion was enhanced rather than reduced, contrary to what happens when the outcome is desired. This suggests that the strategies that reduce positive illusions may work in just the opposite way when the outcome is undesired.

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