How Far We’ll Go to Feel in Control: When we don’t have a sense of control, we just make it up.
Earlier this year, Amy Robach, a 40-year-old ABC News journalist, appeared on Good Morning America with a startling new look: short hair. The veteran broadcaster was diagnosed with breast cancer last October, and has since undergone a double mastectomy and two of eight total planned rounds of chemotherapy.
“I decided I was going to take control of one thing away from the cancer,” she explained, “so I got my hair cut.”
Haircuts, of course, don’t give us control over anything (except, perhaps, our hair). But they can provide us with something just as important—a sense of control.
In the early 1970s, the late Stephen Sales, a psychology professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, examined how people react during times of great societal stress, such as the Great Depression. When Sales compared the membership records of various churches, for instance, he noticed a stark difference: When it came to authoritarian churches, the Depression was good for business. During the Depression, every one of them added converts. But this was not true of the non-authoritarian churches. Denominations like the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians foundered. During the depths of the Depression, for instance, the Presbyterian Church in the United States attracted about 30 percent fewer converts than it did during more prosperous times. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, by comparison, drew flocks of new parishioners—about 68 percent more during the Depression than it had during good times.
This kind of response was not isolated. The 1930s also spawned a desire for power and toughness not only in religion, but also in one of that era’s predominant media forms: the funny pages. Sales found that only two of the 20 comic strips initiated in relatively placid 1920s—Buck Rogers and Tarzan—stressed the power of the main character. But in the decade that followed, this number soared—12 of 21 comic strips started in the 1930s emphasized the power of the protagonist. Among them were characters like Superman, Dick Tracy, and The Lone Ranger.
In uncertain times, people even turn to tougher dogs. During the relatively calm period of 1959-1964, Sales found that “attack dogs” like Doberman Pincers, German Shepherds, and similar breeds accounted for only 9.8 percent of all dogs registered by the American Kennel Club. During the tumultuous period of 1967-70, this rose to 13.5 percent. The breeds that suffered the greatest drop in popularity during this period were the weak and the puny—lap dogs like Pomeranians, Boston Terriers, and Chihuahuas.
More recently, other researchers have documented just how essential a sense of control is for mind and body alike. Having a sense of control, for instance, has been consistently linked with physical health. People who feel in control of their lives report better health, fewer aches and pains, and faster recovery from illnesses than other people do. They also live longer.
Indeed, having a sense of control is so important that if we don’t have it, we make it up. In 2008, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky demonstrated that when people are made to feel as if they have no control they will literally see things that don’t exist, such as patterns where there are no patterns. A lack of control, they found in their experiments, actually increases the need to see structure and patterns. And where none exist, we will manufacture them. Experiencing a loss of control led the people in their experiments not only to desire more structure, but to perceive illusory patterns.
“The need to be and feel in control is so strong,” they wrote, “that individuals will produce a pattern from noise to return the world to a predictable state.”
Add it all up, and we find that when times are tough, people turn to unlikely sources to help them regain a sense of control—authoritarian religions, bigger dogs, tougher comic book characters, even shorter hair.
As silly as that may sound, there’s a moral to the story: It’s important for us to feel in control—even if we’re not. And if it takes a little self-deception to get us there, it’s a trip we’ll happily take.
Sales, S.M. (1972). Economic threat as a determinant of conversion rates in authoritarian and nonauthoritarian churches. J Pers. Soc. Psychol., 23, 420–8.
Sales, S.M. (1973). Threat as a factor in authoritarianism: an analysis of archival data. J Pers. Soc. Psychol., 28(1): 44-57.
Schulz, R. (1976). Effects of Control and Predictability on the Physical and Psychological Well-Being of the Institutionalized Aged. J Pers. Soc. Psychol., 33(5): 563-73.
Lachman & Weaver (1998). The Sense of Control as a Moderator of Social Class Differences in Health and Well-Being. J Pers. Soc. Psychol., 74(3): 763-73.
Whitson & Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science; 322(5898):115–7.