Take Control of Your Life and Live Longer!

Via the Art of Manliness:

The need to feel in control in our lives cannot be overstated. In Stumbling on Happiness, Dr. Daniel Gilbert argues:

“Being effective-changing things, influencing things, making things happen-is one of the fundamental needs with which the human brain seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control…The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”

The dead part refers to a pair of studies done to test the link between feelings of control and health.

In the first study, the elderly residents of a nursing home were each given a houseplant and divided into two groups-the high control group and the low control group. The high control group was told that the plant’s care was in their hands while the plants in the low control group were taken care of by a staff member. The results at the end of the study were startling-30% of the members of the low control group had died, compared to only 15% of the members of the high control group.

A follow-up study garnered similar results. College students were paired with residents at another nursing home. One group of the elderly residents (the low control group) could not control when the students would come; the student would set the appointment date. The high control group was able to dictate when the students would visit. “After two months, the residents in the high control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low control group.”

Two observations that should probably have been made via the comments page on their site:

  1. Whoa. You can KILL people by not letting them have control over their lives, even if the decisions you make are probably better for them? (Of course, they’re not really dealing with that aspect, but it’s easy to imagine how it could work that way, for a small enough increase in well-being.) This deals a rather big blow to my endorsement of futarchy over democracy. (I realize that people living in democracies hardly feel as if they have full control over their lives; but they probably would feel more in control than under futarchy, although their lives would probably be better on most other parameters.)
  2. If they could have predicted the effect of these experiments at the nursing home- if they at least had some intuition as to the results, which they surely must have had- then isn’t it grossly unethical to perform this sort of experiment at all? And on a related note, shouldn’t this have major implications for the care of the sick and the elderly (and children), who all have control over their lives routinely taken away from them by their caretakers in some way or the other? 

PS: They do, right? This is just what I have observed from my limited exposure to these institutions in my very small part of India, I have no idea how they are in the rest of the country/world.


3 thoughts on “Take Control of Your Life and Live Longer!

  1. @1: I think the way to go is definitely to grant humans as much autonomy and freedom as is possible while still keeping up a functioning society. We have to let people make their own decisions, even if we believe them to be wrong/stupid. As long as their decisions don’t infringe on other people’s possibility to make decisions why should we care?

    @2: Ethically, it depends. If they anticipated this result (which I can hardly imagine, at least not in this magnitude), their duty would have been to inform their participants of the risks involved. If they still give their consent, I think it’s ethical to go ahead with the study.
    As far as I can tell, the “incapabilitisation” when it comes to the care of the elderly is a phenomenon that’s pretty wide-spread. And it is a worrying thing. Not only because of this study but also ethically. It feels to me like you take away the dignity of these people.
    Yes, it is easier to organise when you make all the decisions but if the system can’t handle at least some individual decisions, the system needs to be changed and not the freedom of the people taken away.

    • 1) Well, that’s basically libertarianism 101 🙂 .

      2) You don’t think they anticipated the result? The magnitude was probably surprising, but I thought they would have had some idea of what would happen.

      Dignity is a big deal, of course, and is respected wherever one has the luxury of respecting it, but it’s often considered just that- a luxury. Knowing that it is literally a matter of life and death might be a more persuasive argument.

      • 1) I’d also say that I agree with the basic premise of libertarianism. As much as I agree with the basic premise of communism etc. It’s in the details, the interpretation of the basic premise that I usually don’t agree with that stuff. 🙂

        2) I don’t think that anybody could have actually predicted these results. Maybe they thought that the people would get sicker or would decline a little bit. But again my point is the consent or the informed consent not necessarily the anticipation.

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