The Yellow Clarinet

The illusion of control is a very important thing.

How many superstitions about bad luck are there?  The number 13, walking under a ladder, breaking mirrors, real flowers on stage - there are numerous (probably too many to count) variations on what should or shouldn't be done to influence the luck on has.  Some of them seem kind of obvious - walking under a ladder doesn't seem terribly brilliant to start with, as something or someone might fall off, but I'm not sure how many people need to be advised not to randomly break mirrors (it seems, at best, a fractured hobby).  Some of them likely arise from random collusion of incidents or from historic prejudice.

Most people think most superstitions are silly - except their own.  I know hardened atheists and skeptics who knock on wood.  Of course, the "mote in my eye/twig in your own" phenomenon is fairly common among various belief systems, and they are, after all, a kind of extension of the same phenomenon: the need to exert or at least pretend to exert some control over the random events in one's life.

But there is a more practical, more sinister side to this illusory sense of control.

How many times have you heard, "It's his own fault he got mugged - he was in that part of town after dark!" or, "Tsk, she would have been fine if she hadn't been wearing a dress like that" or similar statements?

It's the same thing: this notion that the person (in this case the victim) had control over how the situation played out.  While this may be true to an extent, in situations where the person is the victim of a crime, there is only one person who had 100% control over how the events played out:

The criminal.

The concept is known in psychology as Defensive Attribution Hypothesis - the notion on the part of the bystander that "if only she/he/they had done (something) different, this wouldn't have happened."  The "goal", if one can call it that, is to determine causal mechanisms for the event that the bystander has control over and, therefore, that the bystander can use to prevent the event from happening.  It's a psychological defense mechanism: "this can't happen to me because I'm in control."

The primary problem, though is that if the bystander is in control, then so was the victim (at least theoretically), which means that, according to the bystander, the victim is at fault for being robbed/attacked/(insert crime here).

On the surface level, this is ridiculous.  I hear, in the virtual echo chamber of the internet, the audience saying, "Well, of course not, but..."

No "but".  No qualification.  The only person who has control over - and thus responsibility for - committing a crime is the criminal.  One can speak of ways to reduce risk - after one has plainly and unambiguously acknowledged this fact.  One can talk of how to defend one's self - after one has admitted that the need for defense is entirely because of the attackers, not the attacked.

The illusion of control is a very important thing.  It helps people to maintain at least a fleeting sense of security in a world where very few things are guaranteed.  However, it is an illusion.  Try to remember that the next time you wish someone "break a leg" or hear about a woman being raped.

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