Who Cares What Others Want?
You should! For your own sake.
Posted Aug 14, 2020
William T. Powers—medical physicist, control systems engineer, and creator of Perceptual Control Theory—famously wrote, “The childhood of the human race is far from over. We have a long way to go before most people will understand that what they do for others is just as important to their wellbeing as what they do for themselves.” (Powers, 1997).
Nice words. Very nice words. But valid? Is it actually the case that what I do for others is just as important to my own wellbeing as what I do for myself? Could this be just another schmaltzy socialist attempt to get everyone to play nicely together? Instead of considering what I do for others, can’t I just focus on getting myself as far up the hill and as close to the top as possible?
These are not rhetorical questions. At least not from my perspective. These questions have been a genuine puzzlement to me. My quandary has been this: Are these words merely expressing the familiar and cozy sentiment that we should be nice to each other, or is it necessarily the case that our own individual wellbeing depends as much on what we do for others as it does on what we do for ourselves?
I briefly considered that the principle of reciprocity might help in this instance, but I realized this dilemma would not be solved by the ethos of scratching each other’s backs. The idea here seemed deeper and more profound than reciprocity. The implication appeared to be much more about what I do for others, regardless of what they do for me. My take on Powers’ (1997) position expressed in these words is that, helping others is good for you, whether or not those others actually return the favor. Hmmm. I wasn’t convinced.
I should clarify that, for the purpose of this exercise, I’m assuming that wellbeing is nothing more complicated than the sense of pervasive contented satisfaction that arises when people are getting what they want. The human condition is to want. We want our bodies to be a certain temperature; to have a certain amount of glucose and oxygen in our bloodstream; to look a certain way; to love and be loved a certain way; to have a certain amount of cash; to access a certain amount of food; to achieve certain things; and on and on for the masterpiece of being human.
So, wellbeing means getting what we want. Pursuing, fulfilling, and sustaining these wants is the process of control we call “life,” which entails pushing back whenever wants are ruffled or disturbed. Would ultimate wellbeing mean finding that place where the pristine state of my wants is maintained with minimal pushback required? A lush and beautiful garden with the only tending needed to thrive and flourish being an odd snip here or there.
We are designed to want. All of us. Not only that, but we are also designed to push back when our wants are shaken or stirred. This is absolutely non-negotiable, not up for discussion. The way we push back will certainly vary, but the pushing back is an inevitable imperative. Powers’ (1998, p. 101) ideas are once again instructive:
I will put this baldly: The primary cause of conflict between people is the attempt by some people to control the behavior of other people. It doesn’t matter whether the means are nice or nasty: Nobody knows so much about the internal organization of another person that it is possible to dictate a behavior, or lack of behavior, that will not disturb something the other is controlling, and thus call forth opposition.
Ironically, this view was foretold by the iconic behaviorist B. F. Skinner. Skinner is best known for his technologies of behavioral control such as positive reinforcement and shaping. What is not as well known about Skinner, is that he also warned of something called “countercontrol.” According to Skinner (1953, p. 321):
… control is frequently aversive to the controllee. Techniques based upon the use of force, particularly punishment or the threat of punishment, are aversive by definition, and techniques which appeal to other processes are also objectionable when, as is usually the case, the ultimate advantage to the controller is opposed to the interest of the controllee… One effect upon the controllee is to induce him to engage in countercontrol. He may show an emotional reaction of anger or frustration including operant behavior which injures or is otherwise aversive to the controller… Because of the aversive consequences of being controlled, the individual who undertakes to control other people is likely to be countercontrolled by all of them.
Heavy words from both Powers and Skinner with both statements emphasizing the importance of control. Control is fundamental to relationships at all levels of social functioning including partnerships, families, communities, and nations (Marken & Carey, 2015). Control is even important in relationships between world leaders. Even world leaders want, and compulsorily push back when their wants are nudged or shoved.
Did you know that, in the world at the moment, there is the ludicrous situation that some low- and middle-income countries pay more each year in foreign loan repayments than they receive in foreign aid? How nuts is that?
Imagine a planet where what people, families, communities, and nations did for each other was as high a priority as what they did for themselves. Perhaps resources such as food would be distributed more equitably. Maybe the myriad of global charities would find themselves out of work and could take up different pursuits.
Back to the metaphor of the hill. It is just a simple matter of pragmatics that, the further one goes up the hill, the less and less land there is, and fewer and fewer people can be comfortably accommodated. So, if 100 people can all happily cohabit the base of the hill, perhaps 50 people can be similarly content halfway up the hill. The higher we go, though, the less real estate there is.
Ironically, however, despite there being less space, there may well be more people vying for the higher ground. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that, in settings where there are hills, elevated positions are often preferred by many people, and can even be a sign of prestige and standing, compared to lower positions. With a steady stream of people heading upward, I think we could make a case that it’s not lonely at the top at all. It’s downright crowded. And unless you work hard to maintain your footing, you’re likely to be jostled down a level or two.
It seems like two features of our design are key to getting to the bottom of Powers’ (1997) quote: we want, and we push back. The less people get what they want, the more pushing back they will do. In a large collection of wanters, if substantial numbers of them are not getting what they want, there will be lots of pushing back.
The hilltop example is relevant here again. The closer people get to the top, the more they prevent, even inadvertently, others from getting to the top, and, therefore, the more push back they will experience from others. Maybe Jack and Jill didn’t fall down the hill after all. Maybe they were pushed. Did someone else with a bigger pail want the water for themselves?
Having got to this place in the article, I just read over Powers’ (1997) quote again and saw the words “what they do for others is just as important to their wellbeing” in a brand new light. I’d only ever considered “what they do for others” from a helping perspective. Sometimes, though, helping efforts can have hindering effects. I’ve realized that there is a third crucial element to this conundrum. The third essential factor is the perspective from which we consider “do for others.” Whether we like it or not, help, if it is to be experienced as helpful, can only be defined by the one being helped, not the one providing the help. The perspective of the one who is being helped is critical. Right now, around the world, there is an abundance of examples of people doing things “for others” that hinder rather than help. Even well-intentioned efforts that have the unintended effect of impeding another’s wants will summon push back.
How much time is spent every day pushing back to rectify dented wants including fending off the push backs from others? If, instead, we helped each other authentically and enduringly, I’m not sure I can comprehend the existence we might create for ourselves. Unbounded wellbeing and unrestrained creativity might conjure relationships, technologies, and discoveries that we aren’t yet able to even imagine.
At this point, I had reasoned my way to a position that now seems inescapable. What we do for others is necessarily just as important to our wellbeing as what we do for ourselves. The balance seems to be the key. If what we do for ourselves far surpasses what we do for others, we are likely to be messing with their wants and then having to deal with the inevitable push back. If what we do for others far surpasses what we do for ourselves, we are unlikely to be getting all of what we want and will be doing some inevitable push back of our own.
A more harmonious, exciting, equitable, and inspiring world for all, requires that we balance what we do for others with what we do for ourselves. Can we collectively figure out how to create this balance? Are we prepared to admit that our helping efforts can actually hinder and, at times, the most beneficial thing we can do for others, is to get out of their way? The stakes are high. The ultimate reward for getting this right, is our own individual ongoing wellbeing.
Marken, R. S., & Carey, T. A. (2015). Controlling People: The paradoxical nature of being human. Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.
Powers, W. T. (1998). Making sense of behavior: The meaning of control. New Canaan, CT: Benchmark.
Powers, W. T. (1997). The childhood of the human race. Email to CSGnet, subject Re: Going up a level, 17 June, 0812 MDT
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.