Being in Control

In Struck by Lightening Jeffrey S Rosenthal recalls that in 2002 a group of professional statisticians tasked with planning the annual scientific meeting of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics for July 2004 were initially considering Israel but responded to the increase in terrorism of the period and moved it instead to Spain. Upon looking at the figures, however, Rosenthal shows that between October 2000 and April 2002 319 people were killed by suicide bombing. 750 Israelis died in road accidents during the same period. In other words, delegates were twice as likely to be die in a car crash than in a terrorist attack. Ultimately, of course, the statisticians are right. Statistically, they were safer going to Spain than Israel. But not by much. The point is that they felt much safer. Why?

Control is a key word here. Given a choice people prefer to do things which they think they can control. The more they think they have, the safer they feel, even – as in the case of driving in their car instead of sitting on a plane – that isn’t actually the case.

In general, focussing on the things we feel we can control is no bad thing. In his seminal work The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Steven Covey divides the concerns of the world and its inhabitants into two categories. The universally applicable category is our Circle of Concern. This is, fairly obviously everything about which we are concerned, from the price of petrol to what we’re going to eat for dinner tonight. Some of these concerns, says Covey, are out of our control. There’s nothing we can do about the price of petrol, we might say, so that stays in our Circle of Concern.

But a subset of all the things than concern us is the set of things over which we have some influence. We can decide what we buy to eat for dinner that night and so we focus on that, because that is what effective people do.

There are three points to make about this very elegant way of looking at the world that account for the phenomenal success of the book in the last 20 years.

The first is that no matter how obviously outside of our circle of influence something seems to be, there is usually always something we can do to effect some small measure of control over something. We can’t change global warming single handedly, for example, but we can reduce our personal carbon footprint. As Margaret Meade once observed: “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The second point to make is that once they have proactively identified all the different ways in which they can assume some degree of control over that which initially appeared to be beyond, effective people do NOT spend their time worrying about things in their circle of concern anymore.

Traffic jams, bad weather, random acts of God… all these things may well be naturally frustrating but the only response that makes any sense is “what can I do?” As a Buddhist priest once explained the essence of Buddhism to me “If there’s something I can do about something, I do it. And if there isn’t I forget about it.” It’s a powerful philosophy and approach to life, there’s no doubt about it.

Finally, though, the point that’s often lost on people as they become seduced by the power of Covey’s prose is that however effective they become, however much they grow their circle of influence through the direction of their discipline and the power of their proactivity… there will always, always, always be aspects of their lives which they cannot control. These elements won’t make them any less effective or successful. They won’t mean that they cannot be great leaders of men. But they will mean that there will always, always, always be uncertainty in everything they do and every decision that they take. And that will never sit right with us.

Ceteris paribus, humans don’t like uncertainty or the unknown. When Lisa Simpson tries to hang out with a homeless but harmless saxophone-player, Marge objects and bundles Lisa into a car saying to the vagrant “It’s nothing personal – I just fear the unfamiliar.”

In his benchmark Hierarchy of Needs Abraham Maslow tells us that after the satisfaction of our basic needs, essential to survival, such as eating, drinking, breathing, sleeping and sex, the next most important thing to us as humans is certainty.  Personal security; financial security; health and well-being and a safety net against accidents/illness and the adverse impacts they cause.

We’d rather drive than take a plane because we feel that more control makes us more safe. We’d rather hold a conference in Spain than Israel because by doing so we feel we have minimised uncertainty. But we won’t eradicate it. Not if we want to eat, or drink, or have sex, or travel from A to B.

Every decision we ever take, we take in a world of uncertainty so we need to understand how we deal with it every day because if we do this we can understand a little more about why we do what we do.

Posted 08:58pm by Caspar and filed in Motivation Theories, Uncertainty