The illusion of control

I was recently reading “Press me! The buttons that lie to you” (

In brief, psychologist Ellen Langer, now a professor at Harvard, dealt one set of cards in a haphazard order during a five card draw game of poker. “Everybody,” she says, “got crazy. The cards somehow belonged to the other person even though you couldn’t see any of them.”

In 1975 she wrote a paper that described the significance of these beliefs and coined a term for the effect that they had on people. Langer called it the “illusion of control”.

When I read that phrase, there was a disjointed part of me that felt like I was reading an article about politics. It sometimes seems like we are just pressing a Placebo Like Button, especially when our only choices are to vote for one of the slightly lesser of two evils.

It turns out that there are quite a few buttons that exist only to make us feel better. Sometimes it’s that “press button to cross street” one, sometimes it’s voting Democratic in a district that has been gerrymandered into Republican control. Or vice versa.