Feeling Powerless and Being Powerless

Feeling helpless is not the same as being helpless.

Some time ago, I came across a study in Science magazine that describes how feeling a lack of control affects the decisions you make. A new study by the same researchers develops these results.

Contrary to what you might expect, this research isn’t about the stress response but about the stories you tell yourself to make sense of what’s happening to you. When they felt that they had little control, the experiment’s subjects tended to have explanations using what the researchers call illusory patterns: “the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli.”

Conspiracy theories, rituals, and superstitions are some of the common practices these researchers attribute to our need to tell ourselves a story that gives us some feeling of control in situations where we don’t think or feel we have any. I pause here to point out three things.

First, the whole point of this work is to show how the think part and the feel part are tightly joined even though they are quite different experiences: the “think” is cool and is about assessment and calculation; the “feel” is hot and is about what moves us to take action.

Second, these researchers make a profound mistake when they imply that feeling helpless makes people susceptible to irrational explanations. In contrast, I’d say that most conspiracy theories, rituals, and superstitions in fact have a rational basis—otherwise, they’d make no sense at all. In other words, they might seem like lunacy to allegedly normal people, but what normal people believe is not always true.

Third, the researchers make a common category mistake by confusing an illusion with a delusion. The researchers want to say that a conspiracy theory is an illusion and therefore false. But an illusion is something like a card trick or a mirage: you think it’s one thing when in fact it’s another. And in the case of card tricks, it’s an intended deception—the whole point is that the illusory explanation seems to be but is not supported by the facts. In contrast, a delusion is an explanation that doesn’t even seem to be supported by the facts.

This, however, doesn’t affect the implications we can draw from their results. On the contrary, it adds an important layer to your understanding of what to do when you feel helpless.

In the original experiment, the researchers manipulated a variety of situations ranging from an image recognition test to a stock market game. Half the people were made to feel they lacked control in the situation and then were tested to find out whether they saw patterns that weren’t there. For example, whether they saw images on a computer screen that in fact had nothing but visual noise.

In the later experiment, the situations were less mechanical and more social: less about interacting with a machine and more about interacting with other humans.

In both experiments, the researchers did indeed find that those made to feel a lack of control were prone to recognize patterns where none existed. The explanation they offer is that what these people were seeing registered in two places: the cognitive brain and the emotional brain. Both areas of the brain look for patterns—and for obvious reasons. The emotional brain registers patterns for immediate action—go to it, get away from it, don’t care about it. The cognitive brain registers patterns for thought and evaluation—looks like a good thing, but on second thought maybe not. Joseph LeDoux, the author of The Emotional Brain, observes that the emotional brain trumps the cognitive brain.

So the emotional brain gets the message that you don’t have control. That prompts the cognitive brain to come up with a pattern, explanation, or story that gives the experience structure that in turn gives you a degree of control and thereby reduces the emotional hit of fear and anxiety experienced by the emotional brain.

The people who were not set up to feel a lack of control responded in the way that the researchers (and by implication, sensible people generally) would expect—for example, they did not see images in a computer screen. More importantly, when people in the lack-of-control group were told to envision a situation in which they had a high degree of control, they performed the same as the people in the control group. In other words, a palpable memory of control helps our emotional brain see our current circumstances more clearly and enables our cognitive brain to assess and calculate more clearly.

What this tells me is that someone who feels they have little control in a situation is not only prone to seeing things that either aren’t there or not the normal or generally accepted understanding of the experience but also prone to taking actions that might not otherwise make sense to them. I think immediately of common interactions with the medical system, designed as they are to remove control from the patient.

A little explored area of medical research is the effect of rituals in medical practice. For example, why do you call them Dr. Smith while they call you Dave?

Much in our social life is designed to limit our control, and not surprisingly increase our sense of helplessness and powerlessness. This research suggests that the sense we have of medical, political, and other situations that makes us feel powerless—such as the outcome of the recently completed elections—will cause us to see patterns that aren’t there and divert us away from fighting against the people and systems that work to make us powerless in fact as well as in feeling.

The Koch brothers want you to feel powerless. Don’t do it. But don’t do it by thinking only happy thoughts.

Although recalling an empowering experience might help get you on the path to solving problems created by the Kochs or your doctor, what you really need is what will get you in motion. Do things differently, such as addressing you doctor by his or her first name. Better still, do something that will really annoy the Kochs.