Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human

Richard S. Marken and Timothy A. Carey

"We need to strive for a world where people control what is important to themselves while minimizing the controlling of others."

We are all controlling people. In fact our feelings of wellbeing depend on staying in control. Just as when we drive a car, we must stay in control in everyday life in order to keep the things we care about going in the right direction. 

Yet this natural controlling behavior is sometimes the very reason we end up losing control. This happens when we try to control other people as well as when we try to control ourselves. 

So how do we do better? 

Based on Perceptual Control Theory (PCT), this entertaining and enlightening book by psychologists Richard S. Marken and Timothy A. Carey explores the paradox of why we often lose control by trying to be in control and why our controlling nature makes it difficult to stop this self-defeating behavior. They show that understanding PCT opens the window to understanding and learning about ourselves as controlling people and equips us to lead more effective and satisfying lives.

From the Preface

When you hear that a person is ‘controlling’ what might first come to mind is someone who is very manipulative, such as an authoritarian parent or an overbearing boss. But what might also come to mind is someone who is very skillful, such as a baseball pitcher with ‘good control’, or a race car driver expertly steering their high performance vehicle through a tight turn at the limits of adhesion.

What these people have in common is that they are doing the same thing — they are all controlling. The authoritarian parent and the overbearing boss are doing what the skillful pitcher and the race car driver are doing. They are trying to get things to be the way they want them to be by controlling things such as the behavior of a child, the work habits of an employee, the location of a pitch, or the tightness of a turn. Indeed, they are trying to get these things to be the way they should be, from their perspective, of course. And this is what we all do, all the time, is it not? We are all trying to have the things we care about be the way they should be. This book, then, is about the fact that we are all controlling people and that it is completely normal to be one. Indeed, it is just human nature.

But we didn’t write this book just to say ‘you are a controlling person but that’s okay’ (although we are going to eventually say that!). We wrote it mainly because we want you to know that your controlling nature can actually work against itself, causing you to lose control. This is a paradox, and a challenge for our lives, because our feeling of wellbeing depends on staying in control. We want things to be the way they should be and when they are not — when we lose control — we feel stressed, depressed, or anxious. Yet our efforts to be in control are often the reason we lose it.

 Losing control happens when we try to control what we shouldn’t control, which is usually people’s behavior (including our own, since we are people too). This paradox is reflected in the title of this book, which refers to people who are controlling and to people who control people. The paradox of being a controlling person is that when we try to control people (both ourselves and others) we risk losing control because other people are also seeking control over what they care about (including themselves and us).

The obvious solution to this paradox would seem to be to stop trying to control people. But we will see that this is not in fact a solution. It won’t work because controlling is as essential to our existence as breathing. That’s why there is a paradox. We can no more stop trying to control people — especially people who are doing everything wrong from our perspective — than we can hold our breath indefinitely.

So how do we cope with the paradox we are placed in by our controlling nature? The aim of this book is to show you how. The short answer is that you do it by coming to understand and accept yours and other people’s controlling nature. Doing this involves knowing what controlling is, how it works, and why you can lose control when you try to control other people who are trying to be in control just like you are.

The first chapters of this book explain what controlling is. We will show you that controlling is just a more technical way of describing what you are already familiar with as purposeful or goal-oriented behavior. People who are controlling are simply acting to achieve their purposes or goals. But viewing purposeful behavior as controlling makes us aware of the fact that we are consistently achieving our goals in a constantly and unpredictably changing world that should make such consistency impossible. So we will see that purposeful behavior, controlling, involves varying our actions in just the right way so that we are able to achieve our goals in a world that sometimes seems to be working against us.

The next chapters are about how this controlling works. They describe how the brain and nervous system allow you to act appropriately to consistently achieve your goals in an unpredictably changing world. We will show that your brain does this by specifying the goals to be achieved rather than the actions that should be used to achieve them.

Chapters 6 and 7 explain why people lose control when they try to control other people. The basic problem is conflict, where people literally end up at ‘cross purposes’ with each other (or themselves) so that no one is able to achieve their goals. We then describe a way to get out of conflicts when you find yourself in them. We will show that while it is virtually impossible to avoid all conflicts, it is possible — and rather easy — to ‘rise above them’ and get them to literally disappear. When conflicts disappear your ability to be ‘in control’ and your sense of wellbeing suddenly reappears.

 In the final chapters of the book we speculate about how groups of controlling people — societies — can organize themselves in ways that maximize everyone’s ability to be in control and minimize the conflicts that prevent this.

 The ideas presented in this book are based on the work of William T. Powers, who was the first to recognize that we are all controlling people. Powers developed a theory to explain the controlling that people do. The theory, which is now called Perceptual Control Theory (PCT), is described in his classic text Behavior: The Control of Perception1. PCT is an explanation of how controlling people ‘work’ but it can also be considered a theory of human behavior in general because, as we shall see, behaving is controlling. PCT explains how we do everything we do, from balancing on two sticks attached to rubber bands (our legs) to solving differential equations; from taking a sip of tea to writing a book about controlling. But most importantly, given the aim of this book, PCT explains why it is human nature for people to want to be in control and why controlling itself, can result in the loss of control.

 PCT is an important and revolutionary approach to understanding human nature. Therefore, it should be of interest to anyone who wants to achieve a more effective and fulfilling life through self-knowledge. But PCT is a scientific theory, so most of what is written about it is fairly technical and, thus, accessible only to those with the technical skills that are required to understand it. This book is an attempt to bring PCT to a more general audience. And to do so in a way that shows its very practical implications. We believe that the level of understanding of PCT that you can get from this book will provide you with the basic tools needed to be a more effective controlling person who better understands, and is more tolerant of, your own controlling and that of the controlling people around you.

About the Author

Dr Richard S. Marken is a research psychologist, human factors engineer and statistical consultant and has worked in both academia and the commercial world including at Honeywell, Inc., RAND Corporation and a 15-year stint as an Engineering Specialist at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, CA where he developed methods for rapidly prototyping and evaluating designs for the human-computer interface component of satellite ground control systems. He is the author of four books and over 50 papers on control system theory and psychology.

Professor Timothy A. Carey is a psychologist specialising in clinical psychology with a background in teaching including preschools, special education, and behaviour management. He developed the Method of Levels (MOL) and worked closely with William T. Powers, the developer of Perceptual Control Theory. Tim has over 100 publications including journal articles, books and book chapters and also has blogs with Psychology Today and Mad in America.

Table of Contents


About the Authors

Chapter 1.    We Are All Controlling People           

Chapter 2.    The Nature of Controlling  

Chapter 3.    Perceptual Control Theory: How Purposeful Behavior Works

Chapter 4.    We Contain Multitudes 

Chapter 5.    Zen and the Art of Controlling

Chapter 6.    People Who Control People (Including Themselves)

Chapter 7.    Conflict and Control: People at Cross Purposes

Chapter 8.    Resolving Conflict: Going Up a Level

Chapter 9.    Freedom and Control

Chapter 10.  Living with Our Own Controlling Nature