A Delusion of Control: Loss of Agency in Modern Complex Systems

Miguel A. Centeno, Peter W. Callahan, Paul Larcey, Thayer S. Patterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Modern life is in many ways defined by how humans across the world are highly interconnected-and interdependent-through complex global systems. These technologically advanced systems satisfy critical needs through large-scale global networks of communication, transportation, food, healthcare, energy, manufacturing, and finance. The structure and dynamics of these self-organized networks-or complex adaptive systems (CAS)-are studied to analyze systemic fragility and resilience. As we increasingly rely on these globalized CAS, we surrender more and more individual autonomy and agency, diminishing our ability to actually control our outcomes and wellbeing. In this paper, we discuss how the illusion that we as individuals-or even as a society-can fully control the modern complex systems-of-systems that enable modern living is a dangerous optimism bias. However, the anxiety that comes from supplanting this illusion with a diminished sense of control and autonomy, and the resignation that the world is unpredictable, chaotic, and random is an unsatisfying alternative. Instead, we advocate for greater study and understanding of these systems and for the design of governance paradigms that employ the lenses of complexity, global systemic risk, and our inexorable interdependence. Advancements in this research area would enable both individuals and policy-makers to more effectively navigate the complex systems-of-systems that define globalization, with the goal of restoring a greater sense of agency and control in an uncertain world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117309
JournalGlobal Perspectives
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 6 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • CAS
  • adaptive governance
  • cascades
  • complex adaptive systems
  • feedback loops
  • fragility
  • global networks
  • global systemic risk
  • globalization
  • illusion of control
  • networks
  • resilience
  • self-organized networks
  • systems-of-systems
  • tipping points


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