Illusion of external agency

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The illusion of external agency is a set of attributional biases consisting of illusions of influence, insight and benevolence, proposed by Daniel Gilbert, Timothy D. Wilson, Ryan Brown and Elizabeth Pinel.[1][2]

In a series of experiments, experimenters induced participants to rationalize a choice or experience (called the "optimizing" condition) after which they were more likely to make certain attributions of an external agent, as follows:

  • illusion of influence. Subjects who had been induced to rationalize liking for a teammate were more likely to attribute this liking to the influence of "subliminal messages" which experimenters claimed to have attempted to influence them to the best outcome. In this experiment the experimenters were presumed to have "insight" into the problem and "benevolence" towards participants.
  • illusion of insight. Subjects listened to a song chosen for them by a "SmartRadio" that they were told was benevolent and effective. Some subjects were informed of and rated the song before listening, and these subjects rated the song more highly and were more likely to continue using it, attributing their liking to the device's "insight".
  • illusion of benevolence. Subjects were given a gift; some rated it before receiving it and some rated it afterwards. Those in the afterwards condition rated it more highly (endowment effect). All participants were told that they were given the gift by another (unseen) participant as the best gift for them based on a questionnaire; those in the afterwards condition were more likely to believe that their liking was due to the benevolence of the gift-giver.

Gilbert et al. argued that "participants confused their own optimization of subjective reality with an external agents' optimizing of objective reality. Simply speaking, participants mistook 'the magic in here' for 'the magic out there.'"[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gilbert, Daniel T.; Brown, Ryan P.; Pinel, Elizabeth C.; Wilson, Timothy D. (2000). "The Illusion of External Agency" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79 (5): 690–700. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.5.690. PMID 11079235. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  2. ^ Gilbert, Daniel (2005). "The vagaries of religious experience".

Further reading[edit]