Why We Think We Can Control Others
I’m amused, in a kind of dystopian sort of way, when I read some of the various “advice” columns that seem to be everywhere in this Internet age. One question that pops up repeatedly is some version of “How can I get [other person] to [something the writer wants them to either do or stop doing]?”
These are, as far as I can tell, asked in complete sincerity, apparently with the expectation of a workable reply. The writers seem to consider this kind of query to be as valid as inquiring about the current price of a given stock, the atomic weight of an element, or the showing times of a current movie. Ask a question, get an answer.
The part that makes me cringe is the simple fact that YOU CAN’T GET SOMEONE ELSE TO DO SOMETHING THEY DON’T ALREADY WANT TO DO UNLESS YOU FORCE THEM OR THREATEN THEM AND EVEN THAT USUALLY DOESN’T WORK EITHER AND BESIDES IT’S HORRIBLY WRONG AND A BIG PART OF WHY OUR WORLD IS SO HOPELESSLY MESSED UP.
Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another PERSON for this to apply. I had a cat a few years back that became seriously ill; one of my duties as “nurse” was to keep track of his weight. I (naively enough) bought a rather expensive infant scale so I could record his weight accurately and regularly. I figured, no problem – put the cat on the scale, write down the weight, all done.
My girl friend, Elizabeth, ever so much wiser than I, had a good laugh when I told her of my plans. “There’s no way that cat (Vanilla, rest his kitty soul) will put up with that. You’re delusional.” Well, she didn’t sugarcoat it, anyway.
And she was 100% right. The scale had a nice plastic tray, which I even lined with a fluffy towel to make it completely comfortable for Vanilla. I carried him over to the scale, set him in it, and wrote down his weight. Ha! Told you it would work!
Actually that’s what happened in the alternate universe my brain had been occupying. In THIS one, Vanilla sprang off that scale so fast you’d think it had been electrified. Serious illness or not, he had plenty of strength to resist any and all efforts on my part to get his weight. It was a digital scale! It would have taken 2 or 3 seconds at the most for me to have gotten a reading! But no way, no way on Earth was he putting up with this.
(Robert Heinlein once said you should never try to out stubborn a cat. He was right.)
In the end I resorted to coercion: I had to put Vanilla into a laundry bag to get his weight. This didn’t go over well either but I managed to get it done.
None of this should be terribly surprising to anybody. We all understand that just about all living creatures – bugs, bacteria, bobcats, babies, you name it – want to do what they want to do, regardless of someone or something else’s wishes. This fact is a big part of what makes our world go around.
So how can otherwise intelligent people ask, with all apparent sincerity, something as blindingly impossible as “How can I get Jasper to put his dirty socks in the hamper?” Or even more ludicrously – “How can we get those politicians to stop saying whatever we want to hear so they’ll get elected, at which time they go ahead and do whatever they want?”
At the risk of spoiling the fun by becoming somewhat serious, I think I can answer that.
I think many of us, somewhere in our secret hearts, really do think we can control what someone else does simply because we have had so much experience of having it done to us.
Or maybe we simply WANT to control someone else in order to settle the score, at least somewhat. Or, since it was done to us, it must be the right thing to do. (This last requires that we forget or at least minimize how much we hated having our preferences overridden).
But it generally doesn’t work. What’s worse, the ongoing attempts to come up with the magic formula, the right words, whatever it takes to “get” the desired response – all this takes the focus away from the one person you DO have control over – yourself.
And the letters written to the advice columns avoid the question that COULD be answered: "What can I do about the fact that [other person] is [doing / not doing] [x, y or z]?"
One of the secrets to getting along with each other on this troubled planet is to maximize the control we have over our own lives, which reduces the need we have to control others. Unfortunately, this requires strong individuals and weak groups -- the exact opposite of our warlike, immature social preoccupations.
You can still maximize your own control over your own existence, even if the range available to you isn't as wide as it might be in a saner society. Starting here, rather than immediately looking for ways to control someone else's behavior, is one of the keys to reducing conflict. Figuring out a variety of ways to make this become instinctive is one of the goals here at theroommatecoach.com.
ps Here is a great quote by Thomas Szasz on the subject:
Why is self-control, autonomy, such a threat to authority? Because the person
who controls himself, who is his own master, has no need for an authority to be
his master. This, then, renders authority unemployed. What is he to do if he
cannot control others? To be sure, he could mind his own business. But this is a
fatuous answer, for those who are satisfied to mind their own business do not
aspire to become authorities.