What Happens to Us When We Feel Powerless

We all want some kind of control in our lives. When our control in one area is restricted, we look for another outlet.
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Control is an important aspect of our psychological well-being. Many of the most frustrating situations in life involve cases where events are happening around you, and you have no say in how they turn out. Patients suffering from significant illnesses must come to grips with the lack of control they have over their disease. Low-level employees in a business may be frustrated by their inability to control their work day.

An interesting paper in the August, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Ena Inesi, Simona Botti, David Dubois, Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky examines two sources of control in our lives: choice and power. They suggest that the motive for control is so important in our lives that choice and power can substitute for each other.

Their logic is straightforward: If the goal that is important to people is control, then in situations in which people do not have power, they should seek situations that give them more choices. In situations in which people have limited choices, they should seek power.

The authors test this possibility in a series of studies. In one study, participants read about being the boss or being an employee and had to imagine how they would feel and what they would do in this role. This task creates a reliable difference between people in how much power they perceive they have.

Then, participants were told about two stores selling eyeglasses. One store was close by and had a choice of three pairs of glasses. The other store was farther away and had a choice of 15 pairs of glasses. When people were asked how much farther they would be willing to drive to get the larger assortment, people who were made to feel that they had low power were willing to drive 10 miles on average to get to the store. People who were made to feel that they had high power were willing to drive only about 6 miles.

Another study demonstrated the opposite effect. In this case, people first read a scenario in which they had to make a choice about a consumer product. The choice involved either three options or 15 options. In this case, the smaller set made people feel like they had less control over their choice than the larger set.

Next, people evaluated the features of jobs they might take on. Some characteristics were those associated with being the boss. Others were associated with job enjoyment, but were not related to power. People's ratings of the features related to job enjoyment were not affected by which choice set they encountered. But, people rated the features associated with being the boss as more attractive after making a choice from a small set than after making a choice from a large set.

Finally, a third set of studies manipulated both people's feeling of the degree of choice they had as well as the amount of power they had. Of importance, people acted similarly when they had either high power or lots of choice as they did when they had both high power and lots of choice. As long as people felt they had control in some way, that was enough.

Putting all of this together, we all want some kind of control in our lives. When our control in one area is restricted, we look for another outlet. That means that it is worth spending some time thinking about the areas of your life in which you can exert some control. Perhaps you have a creative outlet in which you feel you have mastery. One reason why these kinds of creative outlets are therapeutic is that they provide you with an arena in which you have control that you can use as a refuge when other elements of your life feel out of your control.

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