Does Choice Cause an Illusion of Control?

Psychol Sci. 2021 Feb;32(2):159-172. doi: 10.1177/0956797620958009. Epub 2021 Jan 5.


Previous research suggests that choice causes an illusion of control-that it makes people feel more likely to achieve preferable outcomes, even when they are selecting among options that are functionally identical (e.g., lottery tickets with an identical chance of winning). This research has been widely accepted as evidence that choice can have significant welfare effects, even when it confers no actual control. In this article, we report the results of 17 experiments that examined whether choice truly causes an illusion of control (N = 10,825 online and laboratory participants). We found that choice rarely makes people feel more likely to achieve preferable outcomes-unless it makes the preferable outcomes actually more likely-and when it does, it is not because choice causes an illusion but because choice reflects some participants' preexisting (illusory) beliefs that the functionally identical options are not identical. Overall, choice does not seem to cause an illusion of control.

Keywords: choice; illusion of control; open data; open materials; preregistered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Illusions*
  • Probability