The Illusion of Control
“Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee/Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep? *** In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,/And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars.” —From Lady Percy’s soliloquy in Henry IV, Part I
Toward the end of World War II, and afterward, psychologists tried to come to grips with a phenomenon then called “combat fatigue” or “shell shock.” Of course, this was hardly a new condition. Shakespeare’s version of Harry Percy (Lord Hotspur) seems to have suffered from it, as suggested by his wife’s imploration in the quote, above—and Harry lived in the late Middle Ages.
But during the Second World War thousands of soldiers had experienced those conditions and many of them had been charged with dereliction of duty. A few hundred had been charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy and had been executed.
In the face of this, social scientists and even some senior officers in the British and American military began to wonder whether there might be something else going on here. As they began to study the phenomenon they noticed that the incidence of combat fatigue was higher among soldiers who held certain kinds of military jobs and that it was almost nonexistent among soldiers who held other kinds of jobs. And this was true even if the men were otherwise indistinguishable from each other.
Eventually the investigators discovered that the key predictive factor for combat fatigue was whether a soldier believed that he had at least some control over his fate. Men who believed they were exercising control had far lower incidences of combat fatigue, even if that feeling was almost completely illusory.
Consider the example of gunners on B-17 bombers, versus the pilots of those planes. Waist gunners (my father was one), ball turret gunners and tail gunners were strapped into tiny plastic bubbles, sitting ducks really, completely dependent on the pilots, co-pilots, navigators and bombardiers for their survival. Unsurprisingly, these men suffered very high rates of combat fatigue.
Pilots, meanwhile, literally sat at the controls of the plane. A pilot could cause the plane to climb, descend, bank left or right, speed up, slow down. Pilots felt that they were very much in control of their fates and, also unsurprisingly, they experienced very low rates of combat fatigue.
And yet, a pilot’s belief that he was in control was almost completely illusory. If a B-17 returned safely from its mission—daylight bombing over the German heartland—it was due primarily to good luck. The stark fact was that pilots and gunners on B-17s suffered almost identical casualty rates. Another stark fact was that after many days of uninterrupted combat, virtually every soldier suffered symptoms of combat fatigue.
As a result of this work, DSM-I (the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952) included a condition called “gross stress reaction,” and the most recent edition, DSM-V, more familiarly calls the condition PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder. PTSD can arise from any number of stressful conditions, and is found among combat soldiers, rape victims, people involved in natural disasters, and so on.
Roughly two decades later a Harvard professor named Ellen Langer—the first woman to receive tenure in the Harvard Psychology Department—conducted an elegant series of experiments designed to get at the conditions that made people feel they were in control or they were not in control. What she found was that we feel we are in control—and, therefore, we are emotionally and physically healthier and more successful—in these circumstances:
- We appear to be using skill
- We have manageable choices
- We are in competition
- We are involved in the decision making
When all or most of those conditions don’t exist, we are in a position analogous to soldiers who are likely to suffer combat fatigue. We are intensely uncomfortable, we make poor decisions, and we are likely to be unsuccessful at whatever it is we are doing. When the conditions are present, we are comfortable, make good decisions and are likely to be successful.
Well, okay, but at this point you are likely thinking to yourself, why in the world are we talking about this subject? To which I respond as per usual: tune in seven days from now for the next exciting installment of “The Illusion of Control.”
Next up: The Illusion of Control, Part II