The importance of control

October 1, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

Of course the experience of control is important, though it’s not obvious just how important it is to our well-being. As it turns out, it is critically important.

My good friend Ebonmuse, one of the contributors to this blog, recommended a book called Forty Studies That Changed Psychology: Explorations into the History of Psychological Research, by Roger Hock (2005).  It’s a terrific resource, containing the essentials regarding 40 classic psychological experiments, along with worthy commentary and additional resources.

I recently flipped open the book and read of an experiment regarding the issue of “control.”  It is a summary of an experiment run by E.J. Langer and J. Rodin in 1976.  We make numerous choices regarding our lives every day.  When our sense of “control” is thwarted, we immediately experience frustration and anger.  We usually solve this problem by rebelling, “by behaving in ways that will restore your perception of personal freedom.”  In fact, we often react to the loss of control by refusing to do the thing ordered or by doing the opposite.  “This tendency to resist any attempt to limit our freedom is called reactance.”

As the authors point out, we are much happier and more productive to the extent that we have the power to make choices regarding our lives. The importance of having control over at least some details was well illustrated by Langer and Rodin, in cooperation with a nursing home in Connecticut.  The patients were divided into two groups.  One served as a control group, to whom their activities were dictated by the home’s administration.  The other group was invited to (but not required to) rearrange the furniture in their rooms, adopt a potted plant (and take care of it) and decide whether to (and when to) attend movies.  When the patients were evaluated three weeks later, the results were dramatic.  Those who were invited to exercise autonomy over their lives (even in these minor ways) were dramatically more happy, active and social.  These differences were still measurable over the long term (18 months following the study).

I don’t know the extent to which these findings can be extrapolated to our jobs, homes and government, but this extension is, indeed, tempting. This extension was invited by the Roger Hock:

Think for a moment about events, settings, and experiences in which very little personal control over your behavior was allowed.  You probably remember those experiences as more uncomfortable, more unpleasant and significantly less enjoyable than events where you could choose what to do and how to act.  In most of life situations, increasing your degree of behavioral choice, and that of others, is a goal clearly worth pursuing.

Further, what is the expected result when the candidates for elective national office are preselected by powerful corporate interests?  Are the People placated by the illusory choice the get to “make” on election day, or do they become detached from the political system due to the lack of real choice?  History would suggest some of both.

The twist at the end of this article is an issue I’ve addressed earlier in this blog, the problem of too much choice.  This issue was addressed in detail in the Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. 


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Category: Civil Rights, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    There is no control, only the myth of control. Unless you are God.

    Erich, are you God?

  2. Soviet Bear says:


    If Eric is God, you're in trouble now. Blasphemer.

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