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The illusion of external agency – part 1



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So I was reading through some papers and found an oldie but a goody by Gilbert et al[1] that I’d like to share. This paper aimed to experimentally test what the authors call ‘The illusion of external agency’, or in simple terms, the idea that a greater being looks out for your well-being. Now before this turns into a punch-throwing, ninja-kicking debate about the existence of God, I’d like to directly proclaim that this blog post isn’t going to argue one way or the other on this issue, but instead is going to discuss a possible mechanism in which our brain is smarter than we think. This is a long post, so we have split it into two – today’s will give you the background to the study and the next post will specifically discuss the study itself.

The crux of Gilbert et al’s paper relies on the idea that people are very good at modifying ambiguous feedback as well as selectively attending to, encoding, and retrieving information in order to create their own personal environment that allows them to feel satisfied with their achievements.[1] By using these processes people tend to transform objectively suboptimal outcomes into subjectively optimal outcomes. For ease of reading, I’ll call these outcomes ‘truly mediocre’ versus ‘falsely great’. Interestingly, this is particularly common in situations where the outcome cannot be changed. But most interestingly, while we can detect this in others (eg, he is making the best of a bad situation), we are pretty terrible at detecting this in ourselves. For example, participants predicted that they would be just as satisfied with a picture they could later swap for a different one as with a picture that they could never swap.[2] However, when actually tested, participants were more satisfied with the photograph that they could not swap[2] supporting the idea that when outcomes are unchangeable, people are more likely to turn ‘truly mediocre’ into ‘falsely great’. This subjective transformation is often termed a psychological immune response, in that it is our brain kicking in to protect us from the emotional consequences of undesirable outcomes.

The illusion of external agency is thought to arise from this undetected transformation of ‘truly mediocre’ outcomes to ‘falsely great’ ones. Before we can discuss the illusion part, we have to consider what attributes an ‘agent’ would have to possess in order to intentionally cause you to experience an optimal outcome.[1] An agent must know which of the possible outcomes is actually optimal (insight), must want you to experience this optimal outcome (benevolence) and much be capable of influencing events so that the optimal outcome actually occurs (influence).[3] If an outcome is objectively optimal (eg, ‘truly great’), these attributes allow you to infer the knowledge, motivation and ability of the person responsible for bringing the outcome about.[1] For example, if your friend (let’s say a boy) gives you your favourite flowers, he demonstrates that he knows what you like, wants you to have it, and is able to purchase it.

However, if a person has created a ‘falsely great’ outcome from a ‘truly mediocre’ outcome, use of these three qualities can lead to illusions of external agency. For example, if a person applies to two jobs and would really like to get Job 1 but doesn’t get it and is instead offered Job 2, there is a chance that the illusion of external agency can come into play. First, as the outcome cannot be changed, a person (let’s say this person is a girl) is likely to decide that Job 2 actually was the best job (changing ‘truly mediocre’ to ‘falsely great’), but not realize that she has done this. So in her mind is a strong belief that she got the right job and thus she may mistakenly conclude that the outcome was actually ‘truly great’. So when she experiences what appears to her to be a ‘truly great’ outcome whose occurrence ‘defies the odds’ (eg, I tried so much harder to get Job 1 and yet I still got Job 2 – the best job for me – how?), she may conclude under some circumstances that the occurrence was due in some part to the actions of an external agent. Maybe this external agent was the old boss who put in a good word for her, the interview staff who knew the job was perfect for her, or God?

About Tasha

Tasha Stanton post doc bodyinmindTasha Stanton is a postdoctoral research fellow working with the Body in Mind Research Group both in Adelaide (at University of South Australia) and in Sydney (at Neuroscience Research Australia). Tash has done a bit of hopping around in her career, from studying physio in her undergrad, to spinal biomechanics in her Master’s, to clinical epidemiology in her PhD, and now to clinical neuroscience in her postdoc. Amazingly, there has been a common thread through all this hopping and that common thread is pain. What is pain? Why do we have it? And why doesn’t it go away?  Tasha got herself one of the very competitive Canadian IHR post-doctoral fellowships and is establishing her own line of very interesting investigations.  Her research interests lie in understanding the neuroscience behind pain and its clinical implications. She also really likes nifty experiments that may have no clinical value yet, but whose coolness factor tops the charts. Last, Tash is a bit mad about running, enjoying a good red with friends and organizing theme parties. Tasha, aka Stanton Deliver, was the all round best performer at the Inaugural BiM Table Tennis Comp.

Here is Tasha talking more about what she does and a link to her published research.
We have put BiM author’s downloadable PDFs here.



[1] Gilbert, D., Brown, R., Pinel, E., & Wilson, T. (2000). The illusion of external agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79 (5), 690-700 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.79.5.690

[2] Gilbert DT, & Ebert JE (2002). Decisions and revisions: the affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82 (4), 503-14 PMID: 11999920

[3] Russell B. The faith of a rationalist. In: The collected papers of Bertrand Russell (1997, Vol. 11, pp.83-88). JG Slater & P Kollner (Eds). London: Routledge. (Original work published 1947).

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