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The illusion of control

De-calibrated thermostat control on a storage heater

Scott Adams recounts an anecdote illustrating the ‘illusion of control’ and how important it is to many people – even to the extent that it is the single defining characteristic of mankind which one might use to explain human behaviour to aliens:

“The maintenance man is moving the thermostat in our office today. I started talking with him about the “Thermostat Wars” [from Dilbert comics]. He told me about one office with 30 women where they could never get the temperature to an agreeable level. At his suggestion they installed 20 dummy thermostats around the office. Everyone was told that each thermostat controlled the zone around itself.

Problem solved. Now that everyone has “control” of their own thermostat there is no problem.”

To what extent is the illusion of control, rather than real control, what most people really want in their products?

Do they care that their personal data may be encrypted and held to ransom by a software company, so long as they feel ‘in control’ in everyday use (e.g. the ability to change the colour scheme)?

And how should designers respond to this issue? Are there any examples of products (other than, say, children’s toys) deliberately designed with fake controls to make the user feel in charge even though he/she isn’t? (Fake solar cell calculators are interesting, but not quite the same issue)

P.S. On the other hand, it’s worth considering the opinion expressed by the Audi A2 owner, that she didn’t find it a disadvantage having to take her Audi to a ‘specialist’ in order to open the bonnet (hood). Is even that basic level of control (being able to see the engine) too much for some people? Is it because, say, a thermostat affects people personally (temperature) whereas a car engine is something dirty, difficult, complex, for someone else to worry about?


  1. You know when a statement is true when you laugh out loud! Thank you.

    Marriage has many aspects of this issue.

    Not the least that in many societies – it appears that men control things. This is especially true in traditional societies – but behind the scenes women offer their men the illusion of control but in reality make most of the key decisions.

    There is a wonderful scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the women detail how this illusion works as they set up a manipulation plan to get the father to agree to let the daughter work away from the family.

    So we men can strut our stufff as our wives, daughters and women friends smile behind their hands in the knowledge that real control rests with them

  2. Patrick

    The classic “illusion of control” is the door close button in a lift which 99% of the time is not wired up but its inclusion reduces complaints about the speed of the lifts.

  3. Anonymous

    FWIW, I have done the thermostat trick myself. The HVAC systems were in the process of being upgraded and I ended up having a ton of old thermostats left over. The newer HVAC systems were FAR more accurate and consistent, yet complaints were higher. So, we hung the old thermostats on the walls one night near the complainers and complaints went to 0.

    As far as the Door Close button on lifts, does anyone know why they fail to connect these? The lifts in my flat have such buttons, which actually do work! BUT, I do realise this is a rare situation.

  4. Pingback: Placebo buttons, false affordances and habit-forming

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