Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Limits of Control

By Leonard Mlodinow

My mother had always feared domestic animals, but now as a plump neighborhood cat ran up our driveway, she gazed at the feline, and revealed that 70 years ago she had had a pet cat. Her 87-year-old eyes teared up. Her cat was white, she said, and so thin you could see its ribs. Still, she loved to cuddle it. It wasn’t a house cat – it couldn’t have been, because she was imprisoned at the time, in a forced-labor camp the Nazis set up in Poland, the country where my mother was born and raised. Back then she was as emaciated as the cat, but still she shared her food with it. It gave her comfort she said, and it was a way of fighting back, to help this animal that, like her, the Germans planned to let die.
The need for control can inspire great achievements, such as dams, medicines and chocolate souffl├ęs, but it can also lead to sub-optimal behavior

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim concluded that survival in Nazi concentration camps depended on “one’s ability to arrange to preserve some areas of independent action, to keep control of some important aspects of one’s life despite an environment that seemed overwhelming.” Studies suggest that, even in normal conditions, to be happy, humans must feel in control. We are currently confronting economic hardship that, though a far cry from the horrors of World War II, has eroded the feeling of self-determination for many of us.

Eliminate control, and people experience depression, stress and the onset of disease. In a study of elderly nursing home patients[1] , one group was told they could decide how their room would be arranged, and could choose a plant to care for. Another group had their rooms set up for them and a plant chosen and tended to for them. Eighteen months later 15 percent of the patients in the group given control had died, compared with 30 percent in the passive group.

The need for control can inspire great achievements, such as dams that prevent flooding, medicines to ease our lives, and perfectly confected chocolate souffl├ęs. But it can also lead to sub-optimal behavior. Though people generally view “control freaks” in a negative light, that need makes us all vulnerable to making bad decisions – especially when it comes to money. Studies show that people feel more confident they’ll win at dice if they toss the dice themselves than if others toss them [2], and that they are likely to bet more money if they make their wager before the dice are tossed than afterward (where the outcome has been concealed)[3]. They’ll value a lottery ticket more if they can choose it than if it is given to them at random[4]. And in a well-known 1975 study in which Yale University students were asked to predict the results of coin tosses, a significant number of presumably intelligent Yalies believed their performance could improve through practice, and would have been hampered if they’d been distracted.[5] In each of these situations, the subjects knew that the enterprises in which they were engaged were unpredictable and beyond their control. When questioned, for example, none of the lottery players said they believed that being allowed to choose their card influenced their probability of winning. Yet on a deep, subconscious level they must have felt it did, because they behaved as if it did.

That people are prone toward feeling in control even when they are not probably endowed our species with an advantage at some point in our evolution. Even today, a false sense of control can be beneficial in promoting a sense of well-being, or allowing us to maintain hope that a bad situation can improved.

My mother’s illusion came to an end when, one day, her labor camp cat stopped coming. She never learned exactly what happened to it. Unfortunately, that became a template for nameless outcomes by which her sister, her father, and most of her friends disappeared. Of her many illusions of youth that the Nazis snuffed out, the feeling that she could control her destiny was one of the most difficult to accept. But for my mother, and for all those who lived through similar experiences, surviving meant not only possessing a special toughness of body, but also of mind. She found a way to face the world without the illusion of control, of dealing with life as it comes, day to day, without expectation.

On a far different scale, we face losses today. To economists our plight is a “severe downturn,” but to me it feels like a roller coaster ride in which I discover, first, that I have no seat belt, and then, that the concession operator is Norman Bates. Given my jitters, it is a comfort to know that my mother survived a far worse experience and yet maintained the capacity to be happy when, for instance, her grandchildren hug her, or she discovers a tasty new sugar-free dessert. But more important is what I’ve learned from the fact that the current events don’t seem to bother her.

It’s not that my mother hasn’t lost money, or that she doesn’t need it. She isn’t bothered because her early experiences of utter powerlessness taught her to give herself up to what she calls fate. Understanding my own need for control – and exactly why I cannot have it – I now take comfort in letting go of the illusion, and accepting that despite all my efforts and planning some aspects of my future are beyond my sphere of influence. That realization has given me permission not to kick myself for the losses I have incurred. That can be a liberating thought in trying times like these, or any times at all.

For the curious reader, here are the studies referred to above:

[1] Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin (1977). Long-Term Effects of a Control-Relevant Intervention With the Instituitonalized Aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35, 12, 897-902)

[2] Dunn, D. S., & Wilson, T. D. (1990). When the stakes are high: A limit to the illusion of control effect. Social Cognition, 8, 305–323

[3] L.H. Strickland, R.J. Lewicki, and A.M. Katz (1966). Temporal orientation and perceived control as determinants of risk-taking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 143-151.

[4]Ellen J. Langer (1975),The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, 2, 311-328.

[5] Langer, E. J. & Roth, J. (1975). Heads I win, tails it’s chance: The illusion of control as a function of the sequence of outcomes in a purely chance task. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34, 191-198

Leonard Mlodinow teaches randomness to future experimenters at Caltech. His books include “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” and “Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace.” More of his writing and information about his work can be found at his Web site.

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