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:
- 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.)
- 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.