Yesterday we discussed the sad and disturbing career of psychology researcher Ellen Langer, who was was famous (to me) for her 1975 article on the illusion of control, “defined as an expectancy of a personal success probability inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant.” And then, in her own research, she herself became subject to the inclusion of control, and seemed to have developed a side career of hype and pseudoscience.
Actually, though, things may be even worse.
The illusion of control itself does not seem to be as robust as was implied by Langer in her famous 1975 paper; Michael Schulte-Mecklenbeck points us to this 1995 article by Kuhberger, Perner, Schulte, and Leingruber, who report on “four experiments . . . run in order to replicate the findings of Langer and Nichols et al. None of them was successful.” They continue:
Langer’s effect is not easily replicated. Inspection of the literature shows that most references to the illusion of control in the risky choice paradigm relate to Langer’s original work and that there are no replications of her Study 2 in the social psychology and decision theory literature. This is quite surprising, since the illusion of control is one of the more important instances of cognitive illusions . . . mentioned in most textbooks. . . .
Given the great variation in response patterns and the dearth of replications of Langer’s effect, it is an open question whether the effect does actually exist. The two positive reports in the literature (Langer, 1975, and Nichols et al., 1996) may reflect a reporting bias of positive findings in a sea of unreported failures to replicate.
Kuhberger et al. continue on a moderate note:
Perhaps this is too extreme a view to take and Langer’s effect does exist. However, in that case our results suggest that it is highly volatile. It leads to statistically reliable findings only on occasion, and we do not yet know which combination of factors is responsible for it.
Why did we all believe it?
At this point, the question arises: Why were I (and others) so quick to believe Langer’s claims? Indeed, even after hearing about her other shaky research, why did I not question the illusion of control.
As always, a Why question indicates an anomaly, a gap in our understanding of the world.
In this case, Langer’s claim had a lot going for it:
– It was in the classic book by Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky, a book of articles that have been highly influential in psychology and elsewhere, a book which I’ve described as the best edited collection since the New Testament.
– The article is itself well written and tells a convincing story.
– The message of the article rings true. Whatever happens with Langer’s particular claims, the general phenomenon of “the illusion of control” happens all the time.
In that way, Langer’s claimed results are similar to various published claims in evolutionary psychology. The general framework is evidently correct—yes, our brains have evolved, and, yes, we overestimate our chances of success in many settings. But, of course, we already knew all that; the purported contribution of experimental research is to understand these phenomena, not merely to remind us of the truth of some very general theories. The devil is, as always . . . well, you know where the devil is. He’s not going anywhere.