Ellen Langer is one of the pioneers in the study of perceived control. Some of her most important findings come from field experiments with collaborator Judith Rodin which were conducted in nursing homes for the elderly. These studies pointed out the significant physical and mental gains that can be achieved in elderly people in institutional settings if they are given a sense that they are at least partially in control of their own lives by being able to choose some of their daily activities. Research has shown that perceived control is crucial not only for one’s psychological well-being but also for one’s physical health. Furthermore there is evidence that believing that one has control may be even more important than actually being able to make the overt responses to cause the desired outcome.
Langer’s theory suggests that conditions that allow people in situations governed by chance to behave as if skills count, benefit from an illusion of control. Skill-related behaviors such as: making choices, thinking about the task and possible strategies to be use, exerting effort while working on the task, learning about the materials and responses to be made, and competing with other people to evaluate ability, reduce a sense of helplessness. This perception gives individuals in a chance situation, in which they have no objective influence on outcome, an illusion of control. In this situation people became motivated to master their environment and to avoid the negative consequences of feeling like they are not in control. They perceive the simultaneous occurrence of chance and skill elements as clouding the difference between the two; and that their behavior is not “irrational” rather it is viewed as a possible opportunity for gain. People tend to make judgments about the causes of events and see themselves as having the ability to determine what will happen if an outcome is positive, even as they ignore the objective reality that they are overestimating the probability of success.
In short, people need to believe that they have some control over what happens to them. While there may be millions of losers in every big lottery, there are also winners. And there really are exceptional people, like the young mountain climber who amputated his own arm to free himself when a boulder imprisoned his arm in an accident. He climbed down a steep incline and walked six miles to safety when he surely would have died otherwise. There are also people like Lance Armstrong who overcame cancer and became the first person to ever win the grueling Tour de France bicycle race six times. There really are heroes. We need to believe that we too can beat the odds and overcome enormous obstacles that would crush lesser mortals. That mountain climber and Lance Armstrong believed they could control events when others might not do so.
According to Langer and her colleagues there are two kinds of control:
Primary control involves changing a situation. Owning our behavior and becoming more resilient requires that we realize that we are the authors of our lives. Instead of always trying to change everyone else we should ask what is it that I can do to change the situation? It is not just the elderly in nursing homes who benefit from feeling like they have some control of their daily activities, it is us all. Research supports the importance of personal control as a major factor in our physical and emotional well-being. A sense of control fosters optimism and optimism can be protective. Primary control means changing the situation.
Secondary control involves how we view a situation. Even in situations that we cannot directly change we can determine how we think about it. Even when faced with major life challenges like serious illness, death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment and natural disasters a lot of what happens to us emotionally and physically is determined by how we look at the situation. Secondary control means changing the way we view the situation and how we feel about it.