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A classic survivor test shows us how the illusion of control can sidetrack us from our mission when things get uncomfortable

Let’s try something. Imagine you’ve just crash-landed somewhere in the Sonoran Desert, deep in the American Southwest. Though the aircraft is now a smoldering wreck, you miraculously survived, uninjured and now find yourself all alone as the sole survivor. Temperatures are topping 110 degrees, and you’re stranded.

Thankfully, you’ve managed to find a few supplies in the wreckage. But while some of the things are vital to your survival, others are useless. To stay alive until rescuers arrive, you must decide which among these items are most important:

  • A loaded .45 caliber pistol
  • A book titled Edible Plants and Animals of the Desert
  • A bottle of salt
  • 10 one-gallon jugs of water
  • Red and white parachutes
  • A compress kit with gauze
  • Two quarts of brandy
  • A sectional map of the area
  • A flashlight
  • A jackknife
  • A topcoat
  • A plastic raincoat
  • Two pairs of sunglasses
  • A cosmetic mirror
  • A magnetic compass
Now, quickly rank the five most important items. Start with what’s most vital and assign it a one. Then, work your way down to five. What are the few things you’ll most need to ensure you’ll live to see your loved ones again?

Did You Survive?

How you ranked these items depended on what you planned to do next. If you decided to stay right where you were, you would’ve picked supplies to help you signal for help (like the mirror) and decrease dehydration (like the water and the topcoat) as you waited for rescuers to arrive. And guess what? You would have likely survived. Because a search-and-rescue team would have been dispatched based on your last known position (LKP). The closer you are to that position, the more quickly you’ll be found.

However, if your strategy involved leaving the crash site—maybe you thought you would take the map and compass to help you hike to civilization and the gun to make your way through the wild—I’m sad to inform you that you likely wouldn’t have made it.

Versions of this exercise have been used for years in various trainings. Most people fail, including me, e.g., when I took the test as an MBA student at Stanford. The assignment was part of a class on organizational behavior, intended to tease out group dynamics in making difficult decisions. The debate on the right strategy was tumultuous, but by the end of the class, every team guessed incorrectly, except one. (The group with the former F-18 fighter pilot had an unfair advantage.)

Why is it that nearly everyone chooses to venture off into the unknown when the better option is to stay in one place?

One word: control.

What Is the “Illusion of Control” Bias?

The illusion of control bias, a term first coined by psychologist Ellen Langer, is a tendency for people to believe they have more control over outcomes than they actually do. For example, gamblers are known to throw dice harder when hoping for high numbers.

In the survival scenario, for most people, staying put and doing nothing just seems like a bad idea. Trying to make the journey to the nearest town just feels better and more productive than waiting in place for an indeterminate amount of time, hungry, alone, and with nothing to do. We have a strong desire to alleviate discomfort, including the type that’s psychological.

Here’s an example: have you ever noticed someone pushing the “call elevator” button, even though the button is clearly already lit? I must admit, I’ve done it myself. Particularly when in a rush, I want to make sure the button has been pressed correctly—as if there were a way to press it incorrectly! It’s not rational, and yet in the moment, I can’t help myself. I’m craving control. (Fun fact: The “close door” buttons in most elevators made since the 1990s are created for emergency personnel with a key or special instructions, not for the general public. So that anxious Joe pressing the button over and over is actually doing nothing.)

This need for perceived control is a fixture of everyday life. Whenever I’m writing an article, I feel the urge to Google something. It’s easy to justify this bad habit as “doing research”—but deep down, I know it’s often just a distraction from difficult work. I’m anxious about succeeding in the task before me, but I know I can complete that Google search successfully. It’s an action I can take to feel in control—if only for a moment—even though I know the better decision is to stay with my head down and keep writing.

Another common trigger is boredom. Boredom is uncomfortable, and when you’re feeling bored, you have an urge to get that discomfort under control. For that discomfort, something like a mindless social media check can feel like a salve. It’s an action you can take to feel in control of a situation that’s uncomfortable—and that control is what you’re really craving. Most of us face hundreds of these small battles every day. Internal triggers prompt us to engage in distracting habits and behaviors: an app, a snack, a cigarette.

How Do You Overcome the Illusion of Control?

The good news is that as soon as you understand this trap, like a member of the Air Force who’s trained in survival, you can arm yourself with the skills necessary to avoid it. One of these skills is to identify the feeling or thought behind your urges: when you find yourself about to do something besides the thing you should be doing, find the internal trigger that is prompting you to do so. Are you feeling anxious, restless, maybe even poorly qualified for the task? Another strategy is time-boxing your schedule, which means deciding what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it and then making a schedule that helps you stick to your goals.

These tools will help you see beyond the illusion of control and reap the benefits of real agency, which you’ll need to not only survive, but thrive.