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Bias of the Illusion of Control

A cognitive bias whose effects are noticed in many situations, especially in the pathological game.

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Cognitive biases are deviations from the “normal” mental processing that make us think irrationally in certain situations, creating a distortion of the causes and consequences of a situation.

In this article we will know one of them, the bias of the illusion of control, which appears especially in disorders such as pathological gambling or pathological gambling. We will know its characteristics, why it appears and how it maintains the behavior of playing in the individual.

Cognitive biases

A cognitive bias is a psychological effect that produces a deviation in the mental processing, which leads to a distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what we generally call “irrationality”.

This irrationality appears on the basis of the interpretation of the available information, even if this leads to illogical conclusions or the data have no relation between them.

The bias of the illusion of control: characteristics

The illusion of control or bias of control illusion, was defined by the psychologist Ellen Langer in 1975. It is the mistaken belief that one can perform some type of action, or that has strategies to control the appearance of events that actually they are produced by chance. That is, the result of such events is actually independent of any variable present in the conditions of the event.

Thus, broadly speaking we can speak of the bias of the illusion of control as the tendency of people to believe that they can control, or at least influence, the results in which they have no influence. More specifically, this bias has been found in the pathological game, as we will see later.

Pathological game: characteristics

The pathological game, commonly called pathological gambling, is considered a mental disorder, according to the DSM-5, which classifies it as addictive disorders not related to substances, for sharing many characteristics with drug addictions (withdrawal syndrome, dependence and tolerance).

For its part, the term addiction is defined as:

“The loss of control, with intense urgency to seek and receive a drug, although it produces adverse consequences.”

In the pathological game, the individual feels an unstoppable need to play, which ends up having a negative impact on their daily life and functioning on a personal, social, family and academic or work level. Many of the players end up in debt to themselves and their families, as well as losing money and property. They also become liars to hide their addiction and economic losses.

The bias of the illusion of control appears very frequently in the pathological game. Especially, it appears in those conditions that the player himself can control, and he ends up thinking that “he has control over the situation, that he” will be able to earn more money if he proposes it “, as if this depended on him, when in reality not like this, since everything is random or commonly called as a result of “luck”.

Thus, the bias of the illusion of control is one of the most characteristic beliefs of these players.

Illusion of control in the pathological game

The bias of the illusion of control favors the player to continue playing despite the damage that this is causing; This occurs because the player “believes that he can control chance” and therefore the results, although not always consciously.

In addition, players have more superstitious thoughts about the game than non-players, such biases and heuristics are not due to pathologies of thought, but may appear in any person subjected to certain conditions (such as those that appear in the game of chance) .
Authors such as Chóliz, M. (2006) suggested that certain conditions of the game (for example, being actively involved in a task), favor the belief that one can have control over the result, even though one is facing events. random (like the game). This hypothesis was confirmed by studies on the subject.

Thus, as we have seen, the bias of the illusion of control favors the maintenance of the pathological game in the player. But in addition to this bias, there are different reasons why a person maintains the behavior of playing: for example, the fact of forgetting the problems (evasion), of obtaining profits or compensating for the absence of social relations.

All this causes a loss of control in the player, which in turn generates anxiety and depression.

These can lead to the person ending up putting risk in their life and functioning, due to thoughts and suicidal behaviors in the phase of despair and despair, which appears in advanced stages of the pathological game.

Hypothesis of the illusion of control

Langer (1975) proposed a series of hypotheses to explain why the bias of the illusion of control appears. In his main hypothesis, he argues that this phenomenon occurs when situations of chance include elements typical of situations that can be controlled.

In several experimental studies the Langer hypothesis has been tested and proven, both in laboratory situations and in natural situations. These elements that influence the appearance of the bias are:

1. The choice

Following Langer’s hypothesis, it follows that players will have more confidence in winning if they can choose the numbers of a lottery than if they do not choose them, for example, since that entails a choice.

2. The stimulating and responsive familiarity

Players will have more confidence in winning if they can play a familiar lottery (vs. a novelty).

3. The competition

On the other hand, the player will have more illusion of control if he plays against an opponent insecure of himself than against a safe one.

4. Active and passive participation

Finally, if the player, for example, can roll the dice himself instead of another person (active participation), this will also encourage the bias of the illusion of control. On the other hand, the bias will also increase if you spend more time concentrating on the game (passive participation).

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