What is Control?

Control is a huge subject spanning from self-control through to state control. It is also fundamental to wellbeing, particularly when needs are not being met.

Control is such a familiar concept that a lot of our thinking about it is implicit. We don’t think ‘how will I control the pot when pouring the tea’. We just do it. We do sometimes think ‘how will I control my budget or business?’ or ‘how will I exercise self-control?’. Even then we think of control almost automatically and in the restricted situation in question e.g. how will I resist eating too much cake?

We don’t often think of control in an abstract way that applies all the way across the human spectrum from self-control to state control.

What is Control?

In an abstract sense control is about doing things that have predictable outcomes. Without predictability you can act but you do not have control.

Definitions of control span from engineering to politics. Here is an animation that considers control, where control can be perceived to be located (locus of control), and the attribution of success or blame.

YouTube Video, Locus of Control Definition and Examples of Internal and External, Rosario Uranda, May 2014, 5:45 minutes

Some dictionary definitions of control include:

  • the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events
  • the ability to manage a machine, vehicle, or other moving object. “he lost control of his car”
  • the restriction of an activity, tendency, or phenomenon. “crime control”
  • the ability to restrain one’s own emotions or actions. “she was goaded beyond control”
  • a means of limiting or regulating something. plural noun: controls
 “growing controls on local spending”
  • a switch or other device by which a device or vehicle is regulated. “he had the chance to take the controls and fly the glider”
  • the place from which a system or activity is directed or where a particular item is verified. “passport control”

Unmet Needs and Control

Whether it be in the individual or in society generally, unmet needs require control. If needs are fully met, control is unnecessary. Individuals and societies tend to not even notice when needs are being met. They take it for granted. They just get on with what they normally do, as if on automatic pilot. They continue to act out current habits. This is the path of least resistance and saves resources.

When needs are not being met we are frustrated or surprised, and have to start thinking through what is going wrong, what is to blame and how to change it. This is explored more fully in the next blog which looks at the prerequisites to achieving control. The focus here is on looking at control across the spectrum and highlighting that the same mechanism is at play in all control systems. It is only necessary to exercise control when things are going wrong. When corrective action is needed, but there is no clear path to how it will be effected, then wellbeing can suffer. This either drives the finding of remedies or, if they cannot be found easily or they are thwarted, starts down the road to demoralisation.

While there does seem to be a hierarchy of needs in the sense that basic biological needs and survival are more fundamental than, say, self-actualisation, in practice, as individuals and in society, we multi-task and address needs in parallel. Also, when one need is satisfied, if we have sufficient resource, we turn our attention to needs on the next level. It is no coincidence that many computer games have ‘levels’ and that mastery at one level progresses the player to the next. Lack of resource hinders progression because all effort is being used to maintain the current level or prevent slipping down the hierarchy. Wellbeing suffers when we believe we have insufficient control to address the satisfaction of the level of need that we have grown used to.

Although there is no control without choice, having more choice does not necessarily mean having greater control. In fact, too much choice may impair a sense of control. This is interesting because much of traditional economic theory assumes that more choice means more control and hence greater levels of wellbeing.

TED Video, Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice, July 2005, 19:33 minutes

In the theory of wellbeing described later, a control mechanism is proposed that can be likened to agenda management. For the individual, priorities on agenda items are constantly in flux, primarily in response to changing physical and emotional states (often triggered by events or changing circumstances). There may be hundreds of items on the agenda, all competing for attention, but only some make it into conscious thought. There are only limited resources to manage the agenda and too much choice can interfere.

As elsewhere in this blog, the individual is considered first, then the larger structures in society.

Self Control

In the individual self-control is often thought of in terms of not doing what you want now in order to achieve greater benefit later. This is to do with the control of thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

This video looks at common problems of self-control and speculates on some strategies to make self-control easier. It seems that trade-offs between pleasure now and the future are subject to something akin to the economics of discounted cash flow where having something in the present is valued much more highly than something in the future.

TED Video, Self control, Dan Ariely at TEDxDuke, April 2011, 17:48 minutes

The following video looks at some myths about self-control. It teases apart ‘want’ from ‘happiness’ – having a desire for something does not mean that having it will make you happier. It also shows that you can ‘train’ willpower through practice. Guilt and shame are not effective motivators for self-control. Behaviours are more effective in leading change – not thought or emotions.

TED Video, ‪The Science of Willpower: Kelly McGonigal at TEDxBayArea, May 2012, 15:43 minutes

Exercising self-control makes you tired. Control uses up a resource – you have a limited capacity for self-control. The more self-control you use to achieve one goal, the less that is available for another.

YouTube Video, Willpower: Self-control, decision fatigue, and energy, RSA, May 2012, 15:49 minutes

Self-control also includes the autonomic control of physiological functions in the body. The relationship between the control of physiology, emotion, thought and behaviour is explored in detail later.

Do we have Control?

Beliefs about whether you have control over your own destiny can be considered from both a psychological and a philosophical perspective.

Here is a YouTube playlist about locus of control and its relationship to self-esteem, predictability, personality and much else. The sheer quantity of videos on this subject implies that many people think it is both important and a central concept in the understanding of control.

You Tube Playlist, Locus of Control, About 100 Videos

There are many examples in the psychological literature about the irrationality of decision-making:

TED Video, Are we in Control of our own Decisions, Dan Ariely, December 2008, 17:18 minutes

From a philosophical perspective to have control implies freewill. But what is freewill? This is considered in more datil in the blog ‘Are we free?“.

Control by Society, Peers, and Family

The next video is a demonstration of social control and how social control can transmit across groups. Peer pressure can be explained in terms of the resolution of dissonance between the values/standards of the individual and the values/standards of the peer group. This is identity control theory concerned with the development of personal identity.

YouTube Video, Social Conformity – Brain Games, Mohamed Squalli, December 2015, 3:39 minutes

More on peer pressure, especially for young people, can be found at:

Control within relationships is a common issue. In this video dependence, isolation and obligation are identified as control mechanisms. It also suggests that control and trust cannot co-exist.

YouTube Video, Relationship Advice: How to Recognize Control, TheArtofUnity.com, December 2013, 2:49 minutes

Parental control strategies have been classified into different parenting styles such as authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. These vary in two main ways – how demanding the parent is and how responsive they are. For example, authoritative parents are both highly demanding and highly responsive.

YouTube Videos, Baumrind’s Theory of Parental Styles, Brett Westhaver, April 2014, 10:51 minutes

Children often suffer the consequences of family conflict.

YouTube Videos, P!nk – Family Portrait, PinkVEVO, October 2009, 3:49 minutes

Control in Organisations

Here is a study of how control flows through the global economy, and how concentration of power in the hands of a small number may leave us all vulnerable.

TED Video, Who controls the world?, James B Glattfelder, TEDxZurich, October 2012

Having debt imposes strong constraints on the individual. It is a powerful form of control. It can be debilitating and ultimately life-threatening. Knowing this, the banking industry has been chastised and reigned back for the practice of leading people into greater and greater debt.

However, the banks are not the only forces working against equality. The recent leak of the Panama Papers reveals the extent to which individuals and corporations use off-shore tax havens to hide the beneficial owners of assets.

YouTube Video, The Panama Papers: Secrets Of The Super Rich, Journeyman Pictures, April 2016, 43:46 minutes

Shockingly, the following video was put up on YouTube by an organisation that trades in foreign exchange. When played an advertisement appears in the middle of the screen obscuring the content. It is not obvious how to get rid of the advertisement (mouse-over, then click ‘x’ in top right corner). One wonders what the motive of the organisation that posted this BBC documentary video might be and who they think might be looking at it.

YouTube Videos, BBC Documentary – The Money Trap – How Banks Control the World Through Debt, wwwFNIBco, November 2012 2009, 39:30 minutes

George Monbiot at The Guardian has written an excellent series of articles looking at some of the insidious impacts of corporate power and asking why neither individuals nor governments do much about it. One way or another, we are all caught up in their control in many aspects of our lives. When will we get another political party brave enough to stand on this platform?

List of Articles, Corporate Power – Authored by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 1997-the present, More that 20 articles

In his book ‘Capital in the Twenty-first Century’, the contemporary French economist Thomas Piketty claims that income inequality has increased dramatically since the late 1970s. There has been a particularly dramatic rise in the share of total income going to the very highest earners with 60% of the increase in US national income in the 30 years after 1977 going to just the top 1% of earners. He also provides data showing that the only section of the US population that has done better than the top 1% is the top 10th of that 1%, so it seems the top 100th of the 1% have done best of all. Some question whether it is really income inequality, as opposed to capital inequality, that is growing but one way or another from an economic point of view it looks as if society is getting progressively more unequal across the world and it is argued here that this is significantly contributed to by a set of commercial practices that come about in part as a result of globalization and consequent depersonalization – in particular the separation of the creators of products and services from their users and the consequences of their use.

YouTube Video, The Huffington Post Live – Elizabeth Warren & Thomas Piketty Discuss Nature & Income Inequality, 2 Jun 2014

In 1980 the CEO of a company earned on average 42 times the amount of the average employee. In 2000 this rose to over 400 times.

BBC Radio 4, Clinging on: The decline of the middle classes, David Boyle, February 2015, 38 minutes

If inequality is divisive, what is the answer?

Statistics would seem to demonstrate that all the attempts to even out wealth over the last two hundred years may have come to nothing. There seems to be agreement across the spectrum that this is divisive, but the problems are systemic. They cannot be tackled piecemeal or locally.

BBC Radio 4, The Price of Inequality, Robert Peston, February 2015, 28 minutes

One suggestion is a new international ‘Magna Carta’ to help firm up on the ‘rule of law’ and fairness; freedom of choice and movement; and openness and transparency.

BBC Radio 4, A Modern Magna Carta, Helena Kennedy, February 2015, 28 minutes

Roberto Unger, proposes that we should sideline monetary transactions as the glue that holds society together in favour of caring interaction.

BBC Radio 4, Analysis, Recorded at LSE and Broadcast 18th Nov. 2013, Roberto Unger, Progressive Political Thinker

In the modern fast moving business environment it is argued below that control has to give way to empowerment. Only devolved decision making can respond quickly enough to the rapid pace of change. This video also makes the connection between trust and control.

TED Video, Charlene Li: Giving Up control: Leadership in the digital era, November 2014, 10:33 minutes

State Control

A constitution is a set of rules for the organisation of a nation or any other social unit. Not all states have a single written constitutions but unwritten constitutions, like in the UK, can still control the way in which responsibilities are allocated and the law is applied. The constitution, whether written or not, is the purported control system, especially in the sense of control as an inhibitor of socially undesirable behaviours.

Philosophy Bites Interview – Audio, John Gardner on Constitutions, March 2013, 17:29 minutes

For democratic governments the flip side of control is responsibility. Where the objective of control is to act to avoid conflict by ‘fairly’ reconciling between value systems, decisions have to be made about the control system itself.

Philosophy Bites Interview – Audio, David Miller on National Responsibility, April 2008, 13:30 minutes

Empowerment is the devolution of control from larger social structures to small ones. At its limit it is a transfer of control from the state to the individual. As an illustration of empowerment, control in healthcare can mean taking control of your healthcare budget – also known as ‘Self Directed Support’

Government strategy also encourages self-management as a potential solution to growing demands on healthcare, as well as devolving control to the individual with the greatest interest and potentially the greatest knowledge about their own health – the user of health services.

YouTube Video,What is Self-Management, KYOHealth, November 2012, 4:06 minutes

A Different Type of State Control!

The notion of control is very well defined in engineering. There is a whole mathematics of state-space control systems. The following video is just the first in a sequence that takes students from simple first principles of controlled inputs, black box states, and output prediction.

YouTube Video, Introduction to Linear Systems (Dr. Jake Abbott, University of Utah), Utah Telerobotics, January 2012, 35:25 minutes

This blog is working towards a state-space description of control units in the individual and in society. There is no suggestion that the system is deterministic, nor that it can be described in anything but the most loose and abstract sense. However, it does claim the possibility that fully developed it will be considerably more accurate a description than that offered by, say, classical economic theory on which many of our ideas about organisational design are currently based.

In This Blog: ’Unmet Needs Require Control’ control has been looked at broadly across the spectrum from the individual to the state, and the role of control in satisfying unmet needs has been identified.

Up Next: ‘Knowledge is Power to Control’ looks at the relationship between wellbeing, control, belief, orientation and purpose.

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

Posted in Control, Happiness, Health, Influence, Mental Health, Mental Health, Mind, Need, Needs, Power, Satisfaction, Well-Being, Wellbeing, Wellness Tagged with: , , , ,

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.