Calling All Psychology Majors: From Whence the Need for Control?

There sure are a lot of undergraduate psychology majors around this valley.  I’m struck by how many people tell me they are, once were, or seriously thought about becoming Psychology majors in college.

Maybe I just don’t pay attention to all the Business majors out there, or pay fair homage to the Elementary Ed majors in our midst (an astronomical number which, by one account, is reported to outnumber even President Clinton’s paramours), but lots and lots of us seem to share a common quest:  Why?

What makes us tick?  Why do people do the things they do?  Just what is it that motivates us to make the choices we make?  To all you psychologist types, I invite you to don your Freudian hats and B before you read on B figure life out.

Call me a nerd, but these types of existential ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ questions have long maintained an elite status on my mental bookshelf.  I still remember being 15 and standing in the middle of the court during a Church basketball game, red with embarrassment as my father shared some non-traditional Christian thoughts with the referees.  Just why would he do that?  And why would he at other times compliment my mother, making her turn a similar scarlet hue?

For the time being, I have concluded that there are two basic human needs that underlie our every action or thought, needs which in turn relate to the fundamental motive for living.  In this article, I’ll address the first of the two basic needs.  I’ll tackle the second need and the motive for living in my April and May articles.

I believe one of our most basic needs is the need for control.  Developmental psychologists often refer to this Aintrinsic motivation@ as the internal drive to master one’s environment.  Babies’ earliest attempts to suck, grasp, fix their gaze, etc., all reflect efforts to have an effect upon their environment.

The need for mastery similarly underlies children’s play and social interaction as they strive to achieve a sense of competence.  Their actions belie attempts to validate their existence by repeatedly displaying that they can ‘make things happen.’  As they grow, children become progressively independent and, with the dawning of adolescence, they seek to leave little doubt that they, in fact, do know it all (so what’s it to you?).

In short, agency – the claim to self-determination –  is central to not only most cultures (and hence the application of punishment for misdeeds) but to the very existence of mankind.  The need control motivates the choice to work where we work (and to even work, or to even set our alarm to get up for work, or to even buy the alarm clock in the first place, etc.), to marry whom we marry, to cope with stress (including traumatic events), and yes, even to read this article.  We are continually motivated to maintain self-control, even when to others we may seem out of control.

From our natural propensity to be curious and explore to our conscious attempts to understand, modify, and make a difference in our environment, there is little we value more than control.  Therefore, if we say someone has ‘control issue,’ we are only speaking in terms of degree, for we all have such issues.

Our need for control certainly speaks to our preference for the familiar and predictable, since these maximize control and safety.  This, in part, may explain why some individuals choose to remain in unhealthy situations or relationships: safe misery is often preferable to risky tranquility.

I’m sure this article is far too theoretical and philosophical for some, i.e., it’s boring.  Those who have stopped reading have merely asserted control by moving on with life, while the rest of us psychology types are left to figure life out.  Clearly, our challenge would be greatly reduced if someone could provide a cogent answer to the One Great Question still dogging mankind: Since the Great Depression is over, why fruitcake?


Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah