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Life is Control

Control is a phenomenon of the natural world that is the essence of life itself.

It’s a shame that the term “control” has acquired an unwelcome reputation. No-one, for example, wants to be known as a control freak. This is unfortunate because there is a growing science of control that is informed by Perceptual Control Theory (PCT; see sites such as,, which explains that, in the final analysis, we are all control freaks. One of the secrets to living well is to recognise our own and other people’s controlling nature in all that we do.

An informal definition of control could be: “Making things happen the way we want”. This definition describes a process of keeping things the way we want them to be. At every point in time we act to keep the way we want things to be and the way things are as close as possible. If the tv is on channel 9 and I want it to be on channel 7 then I’ll grab the remote and make the necessary adjustment.

This idea of making things happen the way we want can be applied to all living things. If a single cell can’t “make things happen” the way it wants it will soon perish. To be sure, a tiny cell has very basic “wants” but it has them nevertheless.

A “want” in this sense is just a certain internal specification of a particular state of affairs. A single cell has chemical characteristics of its internal environment that must be kept in specified states if the cell is to survive.

A cheetah pursuing a gazelle across the African savannah “wants” to make the distance between it and the bounding gazelle as small as possible. Meanwhile, the gazelle wants to make the distance as large as possible. The animal that is better at controlling its preferred distance is the one who will continue to survive at least until the next meal time.

Since humans are alive they are designed along the same lines as other living things. This means that humans control. Keeping our body temperature constant is a control process, crossing the street is a control process, posting on Facebook is a control process, and typing “the” is a control process.

Babies control, Irish dancers control, and tennis players control. The US Open tennis tournament is being played at the moment and the Singles Champions will be the woman and the man who can control the speed and direction of the tennis ball better than any other woman or man.

Interestingly, our actions or behaviour are just one part of the process of control. In fact, when we come to understand behavior as control we can make a lot more sense of behavior than is otherwise possible. Essentially, we use our actions to reduce and keep reduced the difference between what we want and what we’ve currently got. Behavior, then, is the process of ensuring the want-got difference stays small, and to accomplish this, the same actions can be used to control different things and different actions can be used to control the same thing.

Understanding behavior requires understanding what the want-got difference is that is being minimised at any time. Someone waving his hand on the footpath could be hailing a cab, or catching a police officer’s attention, or saying goodbye to a friend. We cannot tell what people are doingjust by observing their actions. The point of a person’s actions can only ever be established from that person’s perspective in terms of the want-got difference that has got her attention.

Successful living requires having a clear idea of what you want and the means to keep the want-got differences minimised. Problems arise when people want incompatible things at the same time. A

Controlling a perfect evening

person might want help from others, for example, but might also want to push people away. In this situation, trying to reduce one want-got difference will increase the other want-got difference and vice versa. Or, if one person’s idea of the perfect evening is a quiet night in front of the fire with his favorite Zinfandel and another person’s perfect evening is turning up to support her NBL team then these people will find it difficult to spend perfect evenings together.

So it’s time to embrace the control freak in each of us. Learning about our own controlling natures and finding ways to control what we want without preventing others from doing the same will lead to contented and harmonious day to day living for us all.