Roy Baumeister
The Cultural Animal

In essence, the researchers had found that the simple act of having to press a button was sufficient to cause the death of a monkey. The electric shocks were not responsible for the death or ulcers, because the yoked monkey received exactly as many shocks as the executive monkey yet was fine. Actually, in most cases, neither monkey received very many shocks, because the executive monkey typically performed his duties very effectively. Americans were fascinated because the findings seemed to suggest that the pressures and responsibilities of executive life could be lethally stressful.

But wait. The executive monkey, after all, was the one who had control over the situation. Did Brady's findings indicate that having control might be bad for ones health? Follow-up studies cleared up the complex processes underlying the dramatic findings in the executive monkey studies. Lack of positive feedback and a high demand for many responses were the main contributors to the stress of the executive monkey. Having control is itself a beneficial thing, and most subsequent studies confirmed that having bad things happen to you with no control is the most aversive and harmful situation. (The yoked monkey did not have control over the shocks he got, but then he hardly ever received any shocks, because the executive monkey performed well, and so the lack of his control did not matter in that study.)

The ill effects of lacking control have been documented in many studies. Getting ulcers from being exposed to bad events beyond one's control is only one form. Learned helplessness is another very destructive outcome of being subjected to uncontrollable events. This pattern was first demonstrated with nonhuman animals. Thus, a dog would be put in a cage with a barrier between two parts, and shortly after a light flashed a mild electric current would be run through the metal flooring on one side. The dog would typically yelp with distress, run around, eventually stumbling across the barrier to safety. After a few trials, the dog would stand calmly by the barrier and step across as soon as the light flashed, thereby avoiding any pain. However, if the dog had previously been strapped down and subjected to electric shock that could not be escaped, it would fail to learn how to cross the barrier to safety, and instead it would simply lie down and cry when the shock commenced. Thus, intelligent animals seemed capable of learning that the situations was hopeless and that attempting to exert control was futile, and they would generalize that destructive lesson to new situations.

The eminent psychologist Martin Seligman proposed that learned helplessness was an important factor underlying many human failures, including depression, voodoo deaths (self-fulfilling prophecies based on knowing that someone has cast a supposedly lethal spell on you), suicide, and school failure. Actually, the patterns of learned helplessness have not been found as consistently with human beings as with animals, although this may be due to the fact that college students (the most common research participants) have generally accumulated many years of experience in knowing that they can control their environment by the time they show up for a laboratory experiment. In other words, people have a strong expectation of being able to exert control. For example, when you put money into a vending machine and it refuses to give you a can of soda pop, you do not typically fall into learned helplessness. On the contrary, the typical response is to try that much harder to exert control, such as by pressing the buttons again, trying other buttons, or even banging on the machine. (In the United States alone, several deaths are caused every year when people are crushed by vending machines that they were attempting to manipulate by shaking and jostling—foolish and self-destructive, yes, but not helpless.)

One way to interpret these findings is to suggest that humans inherited the drive for control from other animals but the drive was somewhat changed in the process of human evolution. Perhaps evolution made humans more intent on seeking control by alternate routes when they failed at first. Alternatively, the human patterns may reflect the same desire for control as is found in other social species—but combined with the more complicated cognitive and action systems that human beings have. Just as people can substitute one response for another, they can quickly envision alternate routes to the same goal, and so when the first one is blocked they move along quickly to try another. In any case, the operation of the drive for control in humans does contain some features that seem to be distinctively human, especially the refusal to be discouraged or become helpless in response to initial failure.

The health benefits of control were demonstrated in a different way by Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin. They noted a pattern that old people in the more expensive, seemingly more supportive nursing homes seemed to die more rapidly than the residents of the ostensibly less helpful homes, and they thought that the problem with the more expensive homes might be that everything was done for the person, thereby depriving the person of any direct control over the environment. In an experimental study, they gave a sample of nursing home residents the responsibility of taking control of their environment, while the rest were told that the staff of the nursing home would try to take care of them. In particular, people in the active responsibility group were each given responsibility for watering and caring for a potted plant, while those in the other group had plants put in their rooms but the nursing home staff took care of them. The people who were induced to take responsibility for themselves and for the potted plants did indeed become more active, and these gains were accompanied by greater feelings of happiness and alertness. More important, they fared better with regard to health, as indicated in physicians' ratings of the medical records at the nursing home. The most dramatic finding was that the people in the high responsibility group were less likely to die during the year and a half following the study. Thus, the results suggest that having control can lead to better health and longer life.

Even illusions of control can provide health benefits. Some women who suffer from breast cancer develop unsubstantiated theories about how they can gain control over relapse, and these women are rated by nurses and others as coping and recovering better than the women who do not cultivate such illusions of control. Experimental demonstrations of the so-called panic button effect have confirmed that believing one has a possible escape route makes problems much more bearable. In these studies, people were first required to listen to stressful blasts of noise while they worked at some task. By random assignment, half the group was told that if the noise bothered them too much, they could press a button to turn it off, but the experimenter asked them to try not to press the button unless the noise got really bad. Nobody actually pressed the button. Still, these people showed fewer negative aftereffects of stress (including loss of frustration tolerance and inability to concentrate) than people who had endured exactly the same amount of noise without having the panic button. Somehow, the false belief that they could potentially exert control reduced the stress that people suffered.

The panic button effect has profound implications. It suggests that what is harmful in stress is not the bad event itself so much as the threat that it could continue and get worse. The panic button did not objectively reduce the amount of noise, but it removed the threat. The person could say, 'Well, if it gets worse, I can always press the button.' Quite possibly, the same dynamic operates in many bad situations in life—fatigue, poverty, hunger, sexual frustration, dental surgery, and more. People can tolerate things much better if they believe they can exert control if it becomes necessary.

Control thus qualifies as a need rather than merely a want: People who lack control suffer seriously adverse consequences. There is, however, plenty of evidence that people want control too and feel upset or unhappy when they do not have it. In particular, a loss of control when one had previously enjoyed control often elicits sharp protests and distress, sometimes extending to aggression. Jack Brehm's theory of reactance proposed that people are widely and fundamentally motivated to maintain their freedom of action, and many studies have shown that people resent having options taken away from them, even if these were not options that they had been intending to use. In one standard experimental paradigm, for example, the research subject looks at a series of posters and rates how much he would like to have each one. The experimenter has in fact promised that the subject can keep one of the posters. After the rating is done, however, the experimenter says that the subject's third-favorite poster is actually unavailable, and under some pretext the subject is asked to rate them again. Typically, the subject gives a higher rating to that poster after hearing that he cannot have it.

Another response to lack of control is to cultivate false, almost superstitious beliefs of control. That is, if real control is unavailable, people still prefer to imagine that they have control. Undoubtedly, a great deal of superstitious, magical, and even religious behavior is driven by the feeling that important outcomes can be controlled by ingratiating or manipulating these powerful, mysterious forces. For example, few theological experts believe that prayer can actually induce God to alter the trajectory of a ball, but many athletes and fans have been known to pray for divine assistance when the game is on the line.

There are many varieties and spheres of control. As already said, harmony with one's environment is one overriding goal, and changing either the self or the environment is a vital means of achieving that harmony. In particular, human life is marked by ongoing processes of change, both within the self (including both biological and psychological changes) and within the environment (both the physical and the social). Yet change is often stressful, in part because it can produce new problems, threats, and difficulties. Life is change that yearns for stability, and many human activities seem designed to make the environment more stable. And if the environment cannot be objectively changed to increase stability, then learning to predict the environment is a good substitute because the person can anticipate the changes and prepare for them.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.