Cui Bono

Human behavior unpacked

Freedom and Control

Does being in control really make us free?

I have been thinking a lot lately about freedom and control recently because . . . well, because my therapist suggested that I do this. (Yes, psychologists sometimes need to be in therapy as much as anyone else, sometimes even more so.)


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It seems to me that people often equate freedom with having a lot of control over things. We think we would rather be the boss who has control over other employees than the subordinate or follower who is under the control of the boss. Psychologists reinforce the idea that control is a good thing. Research on locus of control indicates that people with an internal locus of control (people who believe they are in control of the rewards they receive in life) are psychologically healthier and more successful than people with an external locus of control (people who believe their fate is in the hands of external, uncontrollable factors).

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Yet there is a downside to being in control when it involves trying to control other people, because other people don't want to be controlled by you any more than you want to be controlled by other people. In therapy, we often hear that if we do not like the way in which others are behaving, we are better off changing our own feelings about their behavior than trying to change their behavior. The reason for this is that behavioral habits are notoriously difficult to change, even when a person really wants to change his or her own habits; if people are not interested in changing their behavior, it is almost impossible to make them change.

In keeping with a theme I've developed in this blog, a theme of finding interesting and valid psychological insights in what some consider to be fringe science, I want to write a bit about what James Redfield said about control issues in his novel The Celestine Prophecy. Drawing on the work of Ernest Becker, an existentialist-psychoanalytic, cultural anthropologist, Redfield suggests that attempting to control another person's behavior is a type of neurosis, based on childhood feelings of powerlessness. Redfield referred to different strategies of attempting to have a hold over others as control dramas. Attempts to hold sway over others is more obvious in the two active control dramas, The Interrogator and The Intimidator. The Interrogator constantly questions and criticizes the behavior of others, throwing them off-balance and making them feel uneasy. The Intimidator uses violence or threats of violence to get others to comply with his or her wishes. Redfield also identifies two passive control dramas, The Aloof and The Poor Me. The Aloof acts distant and detached, speaking rarely and then only in vague and cryptic ways. This strategy makes others do all of the work in communicating and in coordinating activities. The Poor Me constantly whines and complains about not feeling well. This strategy is meant to make others feel guilty about asking the Poor Me to do anything, forcing them to take care of everything, including the Poor Me.

The ways in which people attempt to control others is not limited to the neurotic control dramas. Many of the ways in which people strive to regulate each others' behavior are regarded as perfectly normal and not at all neurotic. For example, people use flattery and do nice things for others, expecting that they will return the favor. Most of us hold standards of what we regard as appropriate behavior, and we try to change people who do not follow those standards. People will use negative labels such as lazy, foolish, and wrong in attempts to persuade people to change behavior they do not like. Often they claim they are trying to change others for their own good.

A truly free person, according to Don Miguel Ruiz, is immune to both the neurotic and normal attempts of others to regulate his or her behavior. The advice he gives us for accomplishing this is to make the following agreement with ourselves: "Don't take anything personally."


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When we agree not to take anything personally, we regard all attempts by others to control us as statements about them, not about us. By refusing to take threats, criticism, evasion, complaints, praise, or disapproval personally, we act upon our own reality, not upon theirs.

I would add that a truly free person does not attempt to control others, either. Trying to control others, even people who, in our eyes, are misbehaving, is like trying to make water run uphill. Unless you can convince a person that listening to you is in his or her own best self-interest, you are wasting valuable time, which is antithetical to freedom.

Finally, I am beginning to believe that there's a lot to be said for giving up control sometimes, or "letting go and letting God" as they say in the recovery movement. I know that this flies in the face of research on the merits of internal locus of control, self-efficacy, and similar research. Nonetheless, it seems to me that such an attitude has a strong basis in reality. We are much more likely to achieve success and happiness if we allow ourselves to align with greater forces than to fight the flow and deny reality.

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John A. Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.

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