Homeopathic air conditioners

People love control. We all love to be in charge at least of our own lives.

Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don’t. Except that it seems many of the times when we get it we don’t. At least when we think we get it we don’t.

Head hurting yet? Go take a homeopathic headache tablet. I’ll wait.

Control versus quiet

My favourite example of how control has positive effects is from this research (paywall for full article). Here’s the abstract:

A laboratory experiment was conducted to investigate the behavioral consequences of adaptation to high-intensity aperiodic noise, under conditions where subjects believed or did not believe they had indirect control over termination of the noise. The findings showed that among a group of college males, the work of adapting to uncontrollable, in contrast to controllable noise resulted in heightened overall tension (tonic skin conductance) and impaired performance efficiency after termination of the noise. Several theoretical explanations of these results were discussed, including interruption-based helplessness. The relationship of the present experiment to previous noise research by the authors was also considered.

In other words, they took two groups, asking individuals in both groups to complete a set of difficult questions with loud noise in the background. Individuals in one group had a button to turn off the noise, the other didn’t. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group with the button performed better on the test than those without. The interesting aspect here is that hardly any actually pressed the button to turn off the noise.

It wasn’t the noise that was causing poor performance, but rather the lack of control of the environment.

The illusion of control

On a slightly different note, there are several areas where individuals are tricked into thinking they have control.

The vast majority of “close door” buttons in lifts do not do anything.

The vast majority of buttons on pedestrian crossing in New York don’t do anything.

Many thermostats in office buildings are there only to provide the illusion of control over temperature for employees.

Makes me feel slightly philosophical about making fun of homeopaths. Although I’m not about to stop that just in case it works.

Published by David Kirk

The opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and other commenters and are not necessarily those of his employer or any other organisation. David Kirk runs Milliman’s actuarial consulting practice in Africa. He is an actuary and is the creator of New Business Margin on Revenue. He specialises in risk and capital management, regulatory change and insurance strategy . He also has extensive experience in embedded value reporting, insurance-related IFRS and share option valuation.

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1 Comment

  1. This makes sense. I struggle to study in a library. Even though it’s quieter than at home, I have no control over the other cellphone-philiacs who upset my study routine.

    I’m much more productive at home where I know I can close a door or chase the dogs out.

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