The Illusion of Control

May 11, 2020

But man, proud man,

Drest in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep.

(William Shakespeare)

Normally the more uncertain I am, the more I crave control. I want to feel in control, and I want to exert control because I feel safer when I believe that I can control things. But in the current confined-to-home state, I may not be alone experiencing the overwhelming sensation that I control next to nothing. In the face of this great unpredictability, I have the opportunity to consider issues of control in new ways.

At the age of thirteen I was sexually abused by a man high up on a tractor on a hill in rural Rhode Island. The shock of encountering his enormous manly parts is something that I could not shake for many years. But despite the terror and physical trauma of the encounter, I never spoke to my parents about it. In fact, I did not tell anyone about this event for many years. I was afraid that if I confessed, I would no longer be allowed to freely roam the countryside. But I felt guilty, confused and haunted by the incident.  And there were consequences and a shift in my behavior. I became afraid of high places and falling from precipitous heights. I began to eat with a new intensity to swallow my fears and, perhaps as the psychologists suggest, to become less attractive to men. Ever since then, I have struggled with weight issues. And then, over the years, in order to lose weight, in order to take some kind of control over my anxiety, I went on rigid diets.  I was clearly trying to take charge of something amidst what felt like an uncontrollable, dangerous and unpredictable world.

At fifteen, I fell in love with the theater. I do not know how much of my choice to become a director had to do with my need to control the conditions.  Of course, the profession of directing has always had a great deal to do with issues of control.  As a director I felt that I had some control over the atmosphere in rehearsals, control over ethical standards, over the level of respect and listening. I could require a certain dedication and quality of being from the team. I could fire people if they do not rise to the given challenges.  My own career ambitions seemed to be linked my fear of falling, flailing and drowning.

My wife Rena often asks me to stop directing at home. And she is right. I have always been aware that my attempt to control the events in my life have kept me from living fully and with abandon and enjoyment. Over the years, my study of T’ai Chi Chuan and, for a while Aikido, tempered my need for control.  Both are “internal martial arts,” and are founded on strong philosophical principles about yielding completely to an attack and then using the energy of the attack to defeat the attacker. Both Tai Chi and Aikido emphasize the harmony between mind, body and surroundings. Both involve smooth, continuous movements.  Aikido in particular put me face-to-face with my fear of falling, as a great deal of the practice involves tumbling, rolling and falling. 

T’ai Chi Chuan was founded in Taoist principals and philosophy. To vastly oversimplify, Taoism teaches how to live and move in harmony with the existing forces of nature. Imagine a fish that swims in a chaotic sea. The fish is under no illusion that it controls the sea, or other fish in the sea. The fish does not even try to control where it ends up. It just swims. The study of Taoism and T’ai Chi Chuan encouraged me to trust my values and swim in the currents and circumstances that exist from moment to moment.

The Master allows things to happen.

She shapes events as they come.

She steps out of the way

and lets the Tao speak for itself.

(Lao Tzu)

The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control or influence events. We humans have a strong motive to manipulate our environment because the ideal situations in life seem to be ones in which we feel in complete control of the outcome. When we make judgements and decisions about the world around us, we like to feel that we are objective, logical and capable of digesting and evaluating the available information.  When in control, we feel that we shine in other people’s eyes. But in fact, these moments are actually less common than we imagine. Cognitive biases, a type of error in thinking that happens in the midst of processing and interpreting information, distort our thoughts and our perceptions. 

The illusion of control is a cognitive bias which leads me to assume that I have control over outcomes. In fact, I rarely do. Some of the biases are related to memory and others to problems of attention because, in fact, attention is an extremely limited resource. Subtle biases may creep in and influence the way that I see and think about the world. My brain naturally attempts to simplify received information so that I can make decisions rapidly. My haste can produce radical miscalculations. These errors in thinking then can radically affect the decisions and judgements that I make.

Humans, in fact all living creatures, seek patterns in order to make sense of the world. Humans may be the only ones to assign symbolic meaning, sometimes deeply nuanced or with powerful emotional content, to those patterns. And once perceived, we weave narratives in order to explain the illusory pattern. According to recent studies, the feeling of a lack of control increases this penchant for pattern recognition, intensifying the search in order to gain some control. This hyperactive pattern recognition, in turn, drives to false perceptions and a sense of illusory control.

Throughout history, humans have developed rituals and ceremonies to influence events and control the environment. Rites include dances and sacrifices aimed at influencing the weather, improving the crops, ensuring victory in battle, appeasing an enemy, or driving away malevolent ghosts. Of course, now we know that the weather and our environment are not something that we can easily control by wishful ceremonies.  We have come to understand that humans are far less in control of events than previously imagined.

Feeling a lack of control generally makes us feel anxious and drives us to enact superstitious rituals that promise to alleviate that anxiety. Mostly rooted in religion, folklore and mythology, superstition is a conscious strategy to control the environment.  Superstitions and magical thinking – the belief that an action, symbol or event can cause and outcome when there is no logical connection – have long helped humans make sense of a chaotic world. They give an illusion of control in the belief that we can invite good or bad luck.  This is why professional sports players and high-stakes gamblers tend to be superstitious. They have high stakes in an outcome over which they have incomplete, or even no, control. Gamblers tend to roll dice harder if they want a higher number and softer if they want a lower number. People at slot machines will try to control the outcome by the way they press the handle. We knock on wood for luck. OCD activity is an attempt to control life. Of course, all of these physical actions have no real impact upon the results even though people like to think that they are rational and that they give considerable thought to things before doing them.

Perhaps a huge cognitive bias sprang into being during the eighteenth century, in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment. A handful of European intellectuals and philosophers proposed that science and reason could outmaneuver mystery, chaos and our connection to the great cycles of nature. The Enlightenment questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. This time period also saw a burgeoning interest in understanding and using science rather than religion to explain natural phenomena. In the guise of humanism, in the sense of “maximizing human flourishing,” humans placed themselves at the center of the universe, proposing that thinking and analyzing, the ability of the mind to rationally think through problems, could lead the charge in reorienting politics, philosophy and science. This shift instilled in us, to this day, a sense that we deserve certainties about the future.

But, in fact, uncertainty is intrinsic to the human condition. As much as we try to surround ourselves with as many guarantees as we can, we inhabit a sea of uncertainty. The Age of Enlightenment may have been the strong impetus in the human attempt to dominate the world through productiveness, political revolutions, industry, science and technological developments.

And now, in 2020, this forward momentum, this seemingly unstoppable progress, has come unexpectedly to a crashing halt. But this is not the first time that the pause button has been hit. We were taken by surprise with fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the collapse of the World Trade Center 2001.  These events happened unexpectedly, although in retrospect perhaps they were, as the Coronavirus, inevitable. But we were not prepared and governments who knew about the threats did not prepare.  Now, in the rush to control the virus, we see how little, in fact, we do control.

Right now, the true nature of uncertainty is present and palpable. The vast number of job losses caused by the Coronavirus shutdown rises daily. The uncertainty about when it will be safe to be reunited with family, friends and co-workers is real and actual.  The inability for many to comfort those in hospitals feels untenable. I cannot stop imagining the suffering and loneliness of the people who are dying and the suffering of those who love them and are forbidden any kind of expressions of tenderness and love, not to mention the lack of  the rites that are essential to mourning and elemental to any civilization.

But perhaps, in the light of this pandemic, we can shift our expectations. The prospect of a secure future was always an illusion anyway. Currently, we know very little about the Coronavirus, about its origin or its real harmfulness. We are facing a great unpredictability and perhaps an upcoming social upheaval with radical economic consequences. In this new landscape we can reflect upon uncertainty and re-evaluate our assumptions about what matters.

Moving forward, we will definitely be called upon to innovate, to activate our imaginations in new ways and proceed with empathy and dignity. We will be required to invent a new reality within unfamiliar circumstances. These innovations and the actions that will have to happen in order to arrive at them will require reason, ingenuity, trust and courage, plus an openness to new scientific, social, economic and political paradigms.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine
their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world
and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice
and hatred,our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies
behind us.Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another
world. And ready to fight for it.

(Arundhati Roy)

During these past two months, Rena and I have been living in lockdown in London with Mabel, our swiftly growing Golden Retriever puppy.  Each morning we walk Mabel in Kensington Gardens, not far from our home. British citizens are currently allowed to enter the parks once a day for exercise or to walk their dogs. In the park we have become friendly with a family and their little Labrador puppy named Leo.  Now we time our visits to the park to coincide with Leo and his family. Mabel and Leo adore each other, and we all never tire of watching the two puppies roll over and over one another with gusto and joy. These daily encounters have generated a special significance in our lives during this period of Coronavirus. Our meetings in the park have become meaningful. One day last week, Rena and Mabel and I showed up in the park and Leo and his family were nowhere to be found did not answer our phone calls. We inadvertently began to worry about the wellbeing of our new friends. We had become entangled in the new meanings of our new relationships. 

A fundamental trait of human intelligence is to create meaning, to attach meanings to the objects that we perceive in the world, to our relationships with others. We give meaning to the phenomenal world. The meaning of friendship matters. The new meanings that we engender in this current paradigmatic shift will matter. What we can control turns out to be our own attitude to the shifting circumstances and we can, to a certain extent, control our physical, emotional and mental postures. And we can create and celebrate new meanings that arise from our new circumstances.