Many of our basic human needs are pretty obvious, like our need for food, air, and water. Other needs are less obvious though, like our need for control. We all have a basic need for control in our lives. We might express our need for control to varying extents and in different ways, but our need for control has a strong influence on all of our lives.
Just like food or water, we can see how important control is to us by seeing how we feel when we lack it. A persistent lack of control in a person’s life often leads to depression and anxiety. Anything that makes us feel helpless, lacking fundamental control over our surroundings, can have a lasting impact, particularly if this happens when we are young. Gaining more control of our surroundings, on the other hand, makes us more content and less at risk. Our need for control may help us to protect ourselves, operating as a survival mechanism. A great deal of our technological progress might be thought of as an expression of our need to gain more control over our world and our lives.
Our feelings of control exert a big influence over how we see risks. “The less we feel in control, the less willing we are to take a risk,” said Paul Slovic, a risk expert and professor of psychology at theUniversity of Oregon, explaining to me an example in which we are cutting a loaf of bread. When you cut a loaf of bread, how close to the blade do you place your hand on the bread? Now imagine that someone else holds the knife and is cutting the bread while your hand holds the loaf still. Where would you place your hand in this example? You’d probably hold the bread further away when someone else is holding the knife. I know I would.
Having control allows us to take on risks we might not take otherwise. If we choose to go skydiving, we judge the risk acceptable because it’s under our control. Getting shoved out of an airplane would not feel the same. More commonly, our need for control makes itself known in cars. If someone has a strong need for control, they might squirm with discomfort in the passenger seat of a car, while feeling at ease behind the wheel, driving faster and taking greater risks.
Some people have a greater than normal need for control, making them what some would call “control freaks”. These control seekers often grew up in a chaotic environment as children, one in which their parents were absent or not effectively able to provide a stable nurturing environment, leaving them with a constant sense of anxiety as they grew older. Finding it difficult to soothe the anxiety they carry inside, they reach out to control the people and objects around them. “When you don’t have control over your inside world, you tranquilize and sedate yourself by controlling the outside world and other people,” said Edie Raether, consultant and a practicing psychotherapist for many years.
The quest for control may soothe anxiety for a control freak, but can also antagonize those around them. People tend not to like being controlled, particularly not when it impinges on their own need for control in their lives. Having the right dose of control in our lives seems healthy, but going too far and impinging on the lives of others probably isn’t. Where exactly the line is drawn between having enough control and going too far probably depends on who you talk to.
Glenn Croston is the author of “The Real Story of Risk”, exploring the twisted ways we see our world and the many risks it holds.