The fantasy of control

I want a remote control for my life
Image courtesy Bruno Souza Leão

If only you could get control over your life. If only things went according to plan. If only people did what they’re supposed to.

None of that is going to happen. Reality is often chaotic. Things fall apart, break down, slip away, blow up in your face—metaphorically, or for real.

The physical world, the social world, our selves, and meanings: all are nebulous—intangible, amorphous, non-separable, transient, ambiguous. This makes complete control impossible.

Eternalism denies nebulosity. It hints that you can get control over your life—if you just make it conform to the proper patterns. This fantasy is one of eternalism’s strongest selling points—and most harmful lies.

Pursuing that fantasy has predictable bad results. Attempts to exert partial influence are often sensible and successful; attempts to gain complete control are dopey and disastrous.

Control is a major topic that shows up in many parts of this book. Besides eternalism, it is central for two dimensions of meaning, capability and contingency. It’s also significant in dualism, and plays a major role in confusions about the self, ethics, authority, and sacredness. This page is an introductory overview.

Control is closely connected with certainty and understanding, covered in the previous two pages. You may find it helpful to read those, if you haven’t already.

Nebulosity makes complete control impossible

Plane with cloud-seeding gun
Plane with cloud-zapping gun. (CC) Christian Jansky

“Nebulosity”—cloud-like-ness—is the impossibility of completely grasping anything. If we could just get a handle on things, we could force them to behave. But, to varying degrees, we never can.

This applies to the physical world, just as it does to the psychological, social, and meaning worlds. It is never possible to get perfect control even over a simple mechanical device. I’ll give technical explanations for this later, in discussions of dynamical chaos and the objective inseparability of objects. A simple way to see it, though: your device could always get hit by meteor, at any time, and then it will stop doing what you want. This is very unlikely, but shows that the world is never perfectly predictable.

Most activities involve other people, who are notoriously difficult to control. Even the most powerful tyrant cannot entirely manage it. Worse, perhaps, you cannot always control even yourself. Sometimes you find yourself doing things you hadn’t intended, and will probably regret later, because it’s what you want at the time. And, even when events go according to plan, their meanings may squirm out from under you. The outcome you so desired may be, objectively, just as you wanted it—and yet it no longer seems significant, as it did when you began. (I’ll say more about each of these types of failure of control later on this page.)

Overall, nebulosity often seems the main obstacle to control,1 and pattern the main resource. Nebulosity, therefore, often becomes the hated enemy. Eternalism promises to make nebulosity go away by fixating patterns, making complete control possible. Of course, it cannot.

Fortunately, nebulosity is not actually a hostile force. It delivers unexpected opportunities, and surprising good outcomes as well as bad ones. Learning to appreciate nebulosity is an important way out of eternalism and into the complete stance.

Pattern makes interaction possible

In the ideal situation of perfect control, you could make anything you want happen simply by choosing it. You would be unconstrained—causally unaffected—by the outside world. Control would flow only outward from you toward the world. The locus of control would be purely internal to you.

In the opposite extreme, you would be entirely controlled by the world, and any choices you might make would be meaningless. The locus of control would be entirely external, and causality would flow only inward, from the world acting on you.

Neither of these extremes occurs in reality. Ultimately, this is a fact of physics; causality is always distributed, and one thing cannot affect another without also being affected by it to some extent.2 However, it’s also obvious in everyday life, so long as you look without forcing an extreme internalist or externalist view.

Locus of control, in other words, is always nebulous: partial, shifting, uncertain, ambiguous. This is partly because the self/other boundary is itself nebulous; it’s often unclear what is “me” and what is “that.” Partly self and other are nebulous because locus of control is nebulous; these are, in part, two ways of saying the same thing. (This is a key aspect of my analysis of what “self” means.)

Because “control” is often understood as “complete control,” an alternate vocabulary may be useful. One might speak of “influence,” meaning partial control, for example. This is somewhat misleading, though, by suggesting that you are active and the world is passive (although passive-aggressive: it doesn’t always do what you tell it).

I prefer the word interaction: it suggests that both you and the world are actively participating in determining what happens.3 “Interaction” covers causality shared with both the non-human world and with other people.

Improvisation is characteristic of interaction. Because the world is nebulous, you can’t plan in advance everything you are going to do. You always have to figure some actions out as you go along. Usually, when the time comes, it’s obvious what you need to do, although you could not have foreseen it.

Collaboration is the most important form of interaction.4 Most human activities involve other people. Human interactions may be hostile; not all are collaborations. But collaborations are the most valuable, and most interesting (to me at least).

Practical activity is a spontaneous partner dance. You are continually responsive to the details of your unfolding situation, as revealed by perception. It is futile to try to force interactions to conform to a preconceived idea of how things should go.

Fukushima nuclear reactor on fire
Fukushima nuclear reactor on fire. (CC) Digital Globe

“Control” sometimes has negative connotations, and “collaboration” positive ones. However, my point is not moral or political. The issue here is not that control is not nice, it’s that complete control is physically impossible.

So long as you recognize that nebulosity is inevitable, there is nothing necessarily wrong with seeking partial control. Sometimes it’s even ethically imperative to get as much control as possible; for example in designing and operating a nuclear power plant.5

The psychology of control confusions

The rest of this page covers specific confused attitudes to control:

Illusions of control

In many situations, it is difficult or impossible to know how much control you have. You have to guess, based on understanding and experience. Extensive psychological research6 has shown that most people overestimate how much control they have—or could get—most of the time. This has several objectively harmful effects.

If you believe you have more control than you do, you are likely to take larger risks than you should. Experiments (and everyday experience) show that overconfidence leads to gambling-like behavior. It accounts for a lot of stupid accidents and bad life-decisions.

Overconfidence that you can eventually get control (through practice, or by applying bigger hammers) can make you waste time and resources trying to control the uncontrollable. Combined with the sunk cost fallacy, this can lead to applying ever increasing resources to an unworkable strategy. Believing that control must always be possible makes it difficult to learn from failure. Each disaster looks like a mere temporary setback, and you may take it as evidence that even more violent effort is called for.

Eternalism can make anything less than complete control emotionally unacceptable. Letting go, and accepting partial control, may seem too threatening. Then you may pursue control for its own sake, even when it has no objective benefit, or when the costs of maintaining control are obviously too high.

Control is only ever partial; but eternalistic hope for complete control can lead to over-controlling. That is the counter-productive application of extra force, complexity, or rigidity, when those actually result in less control, not more; or when the cost of increasing control outweighs its benefits.

Since it is pattern that makes partial control possible, over-control often attempts to impose a pattern by brute force. The pattern may be a real one that just doesn’t fit the situation (you are not actually that person’s best friend, so they aren’t going to do that task for you); or it may be an entirely imaginary one (you can’t actually find a cure for your retinopathy using tarot cards). Eternalism often leads to inventing spurious patterns that would grant control, and clinging to them even when there’s strong evidence against them, if that would mean loss of the illusion of control.7

A strong emotional need for control may lead you to refuse to deal with parts of reality that you can’t control to your satisfaction. Some people organize their lives to avoid most social interactions, or responsibility for anything mechanical, or dealing with money—as much as possible. Abandoning the possibility of incomplete control can have a high cost, drastically narrowing the scope of your life.8

One common response to nebulosity is excessive, obsessive planning: trying to figure out everything that could go wrong, and what you’d do if it did. Sometimes this is wise, but when you don’t fully understand the pattern, planning may be impossible. Over-control and planning also blind you to serendipity and unexpected opportunities.

Often it is better to observe the actual pattern, and to intervene minimally in its flow as events unfold. This skillful improvisation—often coupled with collaboration—can redirect existing forces in the direction you want.9 Such interaction doesn’t provide complete control, but may give better results. It also allows you to change course when new positive possibilities open.


Eternalism promises complete control, but cannot deliver. How to sustain the illusion, when non-control becomes obvious?

The first response is to invent an excuse. Eternalism explains away each failure as a one-off special situation that does not predict future lack of control.

The excuses given by American government agencies and multinational CEOs are essentially the same as those of African witchdoctors and of drug addicts everywhere. This is highly amusing once you notice the pattern.

No one ever says “We mostly don’t understand what is going on; the effects of our actions are inherently unpredictable; and our motivations are mixed, so we often undermine our own effectiveness.” (Even though that’s always the truth for everyone and every organization.) Instead:

Everybody knows: I’m not that kind of guy; I wouldn’a did what I did, if I had’n of been high

Such excuses explain that the failure occurred only because you didn’t have control at the time. Therefore past failure doesn’t predict future failure, because of course in the future you will have control. Having control is “normal,” and should always be expected.

At some point, excuses run out, and the illusion of control collapses. Fear is the natural reaction to being out of control; and it can help deal with some bad situations. However, an eternalistic need to always maintain control can cause constant anxiety or even paranoia.

The eternalistic all-or-nothing tendency makes the sense of control brittle. Any temporary setback may flip you from an illusion of control into the illusion of no-control.

Illusion of helplessness: nihilistic anxiety and depression

Nihilism is the stance that denies all meaningful patterns. That makes meaningful control—or even influence—impossible.

Anxiety and depression are strongly associated with nihilism. Feeling of loss of control in a specific situation is frightening; feeling that you may lose all control produces pervasive anxiety. Concluding that you have lost all possibility of control—that you are entirely helpless—causes depression: the sense that all action is pointless.

Psychological research has demonstrated that depression collapses the illusion of control.10 Normally,11 people overestimate their control; when depressed, people may underestimate.12

Perceived lack of control results in learned helplessness—inhibition of practical action—which is believed to be closely related to depression.13 Similarly, people who experience an external locus of control have been shown to be prone to clinical depression.

Total responsibility is the confused stance, promoted by popular “spiritual” systems, that “you create your own reality.” Implicitly, it requires complete control of every aspect of the universe. The opposite stance, victim-think, promoted by popular “political,” “ethical,” and “psychological” systems, requires denying that you have any influence or power. Both stances try to save you from confronting the fearful question “how much control do I actually have?”. However, both absolutist answers lead to dysfunction and misery.

Research finds that people who perceive control as partly internal and partly external, and that it shifts back and forth, handle difficulties more effectively than those with either external or internal locus. This resonates with my claims for the psychological value of the complete stance. For this dimension of meaningness—capability—I call the complete stance light-heartedness. I’ve summarized it thus:

Playfully co-create reality in collaboration with each other and the world. No need for self-criticism or for anxiety. Effortless creativity. Obstacle: Hard to let go of need to be reassured about outcomes.

Self-control is impossible

Ice cream

This is obvious to anyone who has struggled to lose weight.

Eternalism wants to see the self as unitary, separate, durable, consistent, and well-defined—because then it could be in control. We are none of those things. Our selves are inherently, inescapably nebulous; and therefore uncontrollable.

It is often more accurate to see one’s self as a community of divergent, competing desires, with constantly-shifting political coalitions among them. Depending on which have the upper hand at any moment, the actions one chooses change. This frequently undermines plans and intentions. When desire for romance gains power, it forms a firm intention to avoid ice cream to lose weight and become more attractive; but when dessert time comes, desire for noms foments rebellion.14

Many excuses—particularly the excuses you make to yourself—boil down to “it wasn’t really me who did that.” (“Everybody knows I’m not that kind of guy!”) At some level, this is outrageously hypocritical; but it is also honest and accurate. The political coalition of desires that drove drunk was not the same coalition that regrets it the next morning—and those coalitions are more-or-less what we call a “self.”15

Consistent choices would also depend on a clear boundary between “me in here” and “the world out there.” The self/other boundary is always somewhat nebulous, however; so you cannot make perfectly independent choices. The more open you are to others, the less control you have. You probably wouldn’t have driven home drunk if your friends at the bar hadn’t done the same.

Disgust with your own inconsistency motivates the stance of True Self. That would be “who I really am”16—a unitary, separate, durable, consistent, and well-defined ideal. The “false self” is the divided, easily-influenced, impetuous, devious, incoherent one. If only you could become your True Self, you would be perfectly virtuous and always in control.

The True Self stance motivates over-control of your desires, and totalitarianism in your internal politics. The supposed True Self—itself actually just a coalition of impulses, fantasies, and fears—becomes a tyrant. It enforces a rigid personal morality and exiles the rest of the self to a dank prison cell. Fearing internal anarchy, it suppresses most enjoyment, creativity, and spontaneity, lest they undermine its control. Festering in the dark, these suppressed self-fragments grow monstrous, twisted, powerful. When eventually they break out in revolt, the carnage can be gruesome.17

A healthy self is a series of negotiated compromises among hopes, fears, projects, desires, and relationships, based on recognition that complete control is impossible, so all aspects of the self get enough of what they need that conflict is minimized.

The upcoming chapter on selfness discusses these issues in detail.

Control of others is impossible (and attempts are harmful)

To gain complete control over your own life, you would need to control other people. Not only their actions, but also their thoughts and feelings—because those interact with your own.

Complete control of people is even more impossible than complete control of the inanimate world. Partial control or influence, by various means, is possible, and may often be benign. Sanity requires accepting that everything you do is a collaboration. It also requires accepting partial control (or influence) of others over you.

The eternalistic compulsion toward over-control leads to coercion and abuse of power. Ethical eternalism—moral certainty—provides spurious justifications for forcing other people to do what you want. This ranges in scale from family relationships to world wars.

Totalitarianism, a manifestation of political eternalism, is an extreme example. Ideologues rationalize oppression as necessary for preventing the nihilist apocalypse, a dystopian fantasy of ethical anarchy caused by loss of institutional control.

The stance of reasonable respectability, which fixates the social order, makes despotic control easier. Its opposite, romantic rebellion, denies the value of institutions, and views all power as illegitimate, coercive control.

Control by proxy

Identifying your self with a more powerful proxy can give a vicarious sense of control. This is a back-up strategy when personal control is too obviously impossible.

Proxies include individuals, such as political and religious leaders; social groups, such as tribes, nations, and sects; imaginary people, such as God, gods, or culture-heroes; and abstractions, such as political and religious ideologies.

This illusion of control depends on psychological identification, allegiance, and surrender. You have to give up your own control—in a particular area of life, at least—to transfer the locus to the proxy. Psychological surrender gives a feeling of connection or union with something much greater and more meaningful than your personal concerns.

Feeling that you are part of a group allows you to participate emotionally in its strength and success. This is true even when the tribe—or its leaders—do not provide you with any actual control over your life. Sports fandoms are a benign example. Oppressive political regimes that maintain popular support are perhaps the worst. Vicarious power through identification with the state seems an acceptable trade-off to many subjects.

In fact, this dynamic seems to underly most malign power relationships, ranging from domestic abuse through Stockholm syndrome and anti-life religions to totalitarian dystopias. Despotic “leaders” can never rule by force and fear alone; they depend on worshipful surrender and identification.18

Monism and dualism: control by connection and by separation

Eternalism comes in two main flavors, monist and dualist. Monism denies boundaries and fixates connections. Dualism denies connections and fixates boundaries.

Control usually depends on boundaries, connections, or both. Since both are ubiquitous, it’s usually best to consider and manipulate both. However, the monism and dualism’s denials lead them to ignore one, and to try to exert control only through the other.

Monism attempts control exclusively through connections. When genuine connections do not permit control, it invents imaginary ones. This is typical of magical thinking. “Psychic powers,” New Age quack therapies, and the Law of Attraction are typical examples.

Dualism attempts control exclusively through boundaries: categorizing, discriminating, separating, sorting, ranking, and purifying. This becomes dysfunctional when nebulous reality fails to fit into tidy boxes. Bureaucracy, caste systems, and “enterprise software” are typical examples.

Control by renouncing action

The Secret

Popular “spiritual” books like The Secret recommend abandoning all attempts at control, or even action, in favor of spiritual virtue (“positive thinking”). This is an extreme version of control-by-proxy, in which the proxy is the Cosmic Plan, or The Entire Universe, and it does all the work.

This approach is typical in monist systems, which deny all boundaries. Since, monism says, you are The Entire Universe, its actions and yours are identical. Any attempt to act on your own simply limits you, by creating an artificial and illusory separation.

Renunciation often acts as a moralistic reward fantasy. For monism, control is not OK, because control depends on differences, which monism denies. Since everything is the same, everything is equal, and nothing can be allowed to control anything else. Giving up control is a supremely virtuous act, which The Entire Universe rewards by showering you with everything you could possibly want.

Obviously, adopting this strategy leads to severe emotional dysfunction, passive-aggressive relationships, and total inability or unwillingness to deal with everyday responsibilities.

Control is intolerably dull

Total control (which requires total predictability) is totally boring. Life needs some challenges, surprises, setbacks, and serendipity to make it interesting. Enjoyment and personal growth come only with partial control.19

Highly-successful people, whose lives are too much under control, often semi-deliberately mess them up, for example with an extramarital affair whose revelation destroys their career as well as their marriage. The thrill of risk, and the difficulty of avoiding detection, breaks the monotony of excessive control. It is better, of course, to leave what is going well on autopilot, and to take on greater challenges in new domains.

Meanings are out of control

Meaningness itself is nebulous, and therefore uncontrollable. This undermines practical activity that attempts to control meaningful conditions. Nebulosity of meaning implies constant uncertainty about the merits of purposes; about what counts as progress and setbacks; about what methods would be ethical or unethical; about how your choices shape and are shaped by your self; and about implications that may go beyond the personal, immediate, and obvious, into the greater, mysterious patterns of meaning claimed by religion and social philosophy.

The puzzle of meaningness” illustrates many aspects of these problems in the context of an adultery.

The attraction was overwhelming. The sex was scalding. You loved with a passion you had never felt before.

In time, it waned; and you ended the affair.

Now, you wonder: what did that mean? In the beginning, it seemed enormously significant. By the end, it had slid into a casual friendship plus sex.

Were you mistaken in thinking it was meaningful at the start? Or did it have a meaning that it lost?

And was the affair right, or wrong, or perhaps somehow somewhere in-between?

What does it mean about you that you cheated—which you were sure you never would do? Should you be less certain about yourself in other ways?

Marriage is a sacrament; but this affair also seemed at first to have a sacred dimension. Was that just a self-justifying illusion?

  1. 1.Not always, of course; sometimes you simply lack the prerequisites needed for a course of action which would be highly likely to succeed if you had then.
  2. 2.At the level of fundamental physics, all forces are symmetrical; they act mutually on pairs of particles. This is not much relevant to everyday life, however. I’ll explain a more relevant, macroscopic understanding of distributed causality on the discussion of dynamical chaos.
  3. 3.“Interaction” is still somewhat misleading, unfortunately. It suggests that there are two or more objectively separate parties involved, which is not true.
  4. 4.My prehistoric PhD thesis was also about improvisation and collaboration, and the impossibility of control. Some people just don’t know when to move on in life.
  5. 5.Even there, tsunamis (for instance) make complete control impossible. Recognizing this, the trend in nuclear reactor design has been from active to passive safety. Active control makes human activity the locus, along with complex electrical systems to which humans delegate. It’s external to the reactor. Passive safety shifts the locus into the reactor itself. For example, in some designs, when things go wrong, it shuts down by literally falling apart. Gravity does the work.
  6. 6.Control is a major topic in academic psychological research. I have not studied the results seriously. This page is based largely on my informal observation of control confusions in everyday life. The research I have read accords with my observations. I have linked some topics to relevant Wikipedia pages, which could be starting points if you would like to investigate further. (As of mid–2015, most of the Wikipedia articles are not very good, but their references may be useful.) I have not found good overall review articles. This may be because control has been studied by many different branches of psychology, using different frameworks and terminology that are difficult to align. “Born to Choose: The Origins and Value of the Need for Control” includes a not-terrible survey.
  7. 7.The gambler’s fallacy is a well-studied, if somewhat simplistic, example. “Interpretive control” is a broader psychology research term for inventing explanations in order to feel you have control when you don’t. See for instance Baumeister’s Meanings of Life, p. 42.
  8. 8.Experimental psychology and psychotherapeutic theory corroborate most of the harmful control dynamics I describe here. Psychology has not found convincing reasons for them. They seem clearly maladaptive; so why do brains do these things? I suspect the answer is: eternalism, as such. The desire to believe that everything has a fixed meaning appears to be enormously powerful. It is significant that (as we’ll see in the next section) depression, which is the negation of eternalism, reverses most of these control dynamics. Although eternalism is partly innate, it is strongly reinforced by modern Western culture. It would be interesting to see whether harmful control dynamics are less prevalent among hunter-gatherer peoples, for instance. Based on the little I know of the relevant cognitive anthropology, I suspect the answer is yes.
  9. 9.I wrote about this in more detail, but in a rather different conceptual framework, in “Unclogging.”
  10. 10.Actually, the studies I have read only show a correlation between depression and absence of the illusion. I do not know of experiments that show conclusively which causes which. (If you do, I would love to hear about it!) Based on personal experience, I believe that the causality is bidirectional. That is, depression brought on for other reasons results in loss of the feeling of control, and feeling that important factors are out of control can provoke depression.
  11. 11.“Normally” here meaning what is most common: “under the influence of eternalism.” However, I don’t think eternalism is altogether natural. I would like to believe that the complete stance is “normal” (although uncommon) in being “natural”; and that adopting it would eliminate control illusions.
  12. 12.Originally this was called “depressive realism” because in the first experiments that demonstrated it, depressed people estimated their degree of control roughly correctly. However, subsequent experiments have shown that depression correlates just with decreased sense of control, and in some situations depressed people underestimate it.
  13. 13.The resulting psychological stress can be literally lethal in experimental animals.
  14. 14.George Ainsle’s Breakdown of Will is an outstanding analysis of this pattern, technically termed akrasia.
  15. 15.Breakdown of Will and The Guru Papers both provide much insight here.
  16. 16.This is an interesting example of the weaselly function of the word “really.”
  17. 17.I wrote about aspects of this in “We are all monsters,” “Eating the shadow,” and “Black magic, transformation, and power.” See also Breakdown of Will, The Guru Papers, and A Little Book on the Human Shadow, which discuss the pattern extensively.
  18. 18.The Guru Papers is an extensive, insightful analysis for the religious domain. For politics, “The Good Tsar Bias” analyzes several cases, including Hitler and Stalin. Both men created personality cults according to which they were powerful, benevolent leaders whose naive goodness enabled underlings to get away with incompetence, corruption, and mass murder. “If only Stalin knew what evils are done in his name!” was a common Russian attitude. “The closer a leader is tied to the symbols of the nation or group with whom they identify, and the closer people’s identification with the nation or group is, the more difficult it should be for them to accept that the leader is responsible for bad outcomes, since such acceptance threatens one’s identity, and the more likely it will be for them to displace that responsibility onto subordinates as a protective measure.”
  19. 19.This point was made famous by Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. See also my post “Tantra and flow.”