Every day, shortly before nine o’clock in the morning, a man with a red hat stands at a busy traffic light and begins to wave his cap frantically. After five minutes he disappears.
One day, a policeman comes up to him and asks: “Sir! May I ask what you are doing?”
“I’m keeping the giraffes away,” replies the man.
The puzzled policeman looks around and tells him, “But there aren’t any giraffes here.”
“Well, I must be doing a good job, then.” says the man proudly.
You would conclude that the man with the red hat wasn’t in the pink of his mental health. However, is it just a case of misplaced understanding of causation vs correlation? Actually, there is more to it.
The man’s belief, that absence of evidence (giraffes) is a proof of his prowess in controlling giraffe traffic, is the result of a behavioural bias called Illusion of Control. It’s the tendency to believe that we can influence something over which we have absolutely no sway.
So where does this behavioural quirk come from? In millions of years of evolution, Mother Nature has hard-wired this cognitive bias in the human brain to increase the chances of survival in a hunter-gatherer environment. It’s nature’s way to deal with uncertainty.