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Fear is the feeling of losing control—making choices is the antidote

Are you scared—of flying, the dark, anything? Or are you scared about not being in total control of the situation?

Tali Sharot: When we want to change people’s behavior, we often say, “Do this. Don’t to do that.” 

Basically we are, a lot of times, giving orders—whether it is to our kids, people in our family, people that we work with—we are exerting control over others or at least attempting to exert control over others. 

But what we find is that what the brain is trying to do... it’s trying to control its environment. That’s one of the major goals of what the brain is trying to do. And it’s trying to do that in order to get rewards and avoid losses. And because of that, in the brain control has been associated with something good, with a reward, and it’s something that people seek out. 

If people can make a choice, the same part of the brain that is activated when people get a piece of food like a piece of chocolate is activated when people have the opportunity to make a choice. When people don’t have an opportunity to make a choice, when they feel they don’t have control, what is triggered is anxiety.

And so what this means is that giving people a choice—giving people a sense that they are in the control, that they have agency—is more likely to motivate them, is more likely to put them in the frame of a reward rather than a loss. And because control in and of itself is rewarding, a lot of times people will be willing to give up other kinds of rewards like monetary rewards in order to have control. For example, in a study that I conducted with my colleagues we gave people the opportunity to either make choices themselves about random shapes that can give them rewards, or give another person, an expert, an opportunity to make a choice for them. 

And what we found is that people sub-optimally make the decision to keep the agency, to keep the choice themselves rather than have an expert make the choice for them even if the expert was more likely to choose the correct thing, to choose a thing that will get them more money. 

So a way to think about it: it’s a bit like the stock market. So a lot of people like to pick their own stocks instead of giving someone else the opportunity to choose for them—experts are even better, going according to an index. 

And the reason that people like to pick their own stocks is because it gives them a sense of control, it gives them a sense of agency, and that gives them reward. And many times people realize that there might be a monetary loss. Some people are overconfident, they think well I’ll pick the right thing, and that’s fine, but they still are willing to lose part, to have a monetary loss, to make the choice themselves. 

So in fact in general people prefer to make their own choices, but there are incidents where people would rather give away their choice. 

For example, when the choice is so complicated, the effort is so... so much effort has to be put into it... I would rather not do it and give someone else the opportunity to make the choice for me. 

Or for example, under high amounts of stress people sometimes realize that it’s better to have someone else make the choice for them. Or for example, when making a choice people are afraid that they will regret what they choose (such as in medical decisions) they sometimes actually prefer to have someone else make the choice for them. 

And in the book I talk about the things that people are scared of the most, and the fears that we have are not necessarily rational. So people, for example, a lot of people are scared of flying; so if you look at the numbers flying is not necessarily the most dangerous thing that you do. Driving your own car is more dangerous, but people are afraid of flying because one of the reasons is that once you’re in the plane you don’t have control anymore, you don’t have control over the plane, you don’t have control of anything really of your environment. So the sense of being in this space where you’re losing control completely, giving it to someone else, is something that people feel anxious about.

Now, they don’t want to take control. I don’t want to fly the plane. I know I will be dead if I fly the plane, but never the less I feel anxious, and I think that’s true in other domains like health. 

One of the reasons that being in a hospital is anxiety-provoking, not only because you’re sick—and that’s very anxiety provoking—but also because, again, you lose control. 

Everyone is making the decision for you, as they should: the doctors and the nurses. I mean people should have some say, but they realize that the experts are making the choices for them and that sense of losing control, again, can cause anxiety. 

And one thing that studies have shown is that as we age, as we go into older age we lose some of our control (especially if we go to nursing homes). Other people make the choices for us and that induces stress on an individual as well, because no longer can I choose what will I do and when will I do it, and giving people a sense of control back can help them. 

Again, with kids, people tend to tell kids exactly what to do, when to do it and so on, and kids are not happy with that. 

But we could change that: instead of telling the kids, “Well you have to eat your salad,” maybe say, “Well why don’t you create your own salad? Here are the different ingredients, and put them together—create them.”

And one study that we’ve done showed that when people—and is not only us, we did one example of this, there’s many, many studies showing that—when you create something you value it more. 

So we did a study where people created their own Converse shoes and they liked the Converse shoes that they created much more than the Converse shoes which looked exactly the same that someone else created—same color or same shape everything was exactly the same—but if I created it I liked it more. 

Moreover, even if I didn’t create it but I thought I created it, I believed I created it, I wrongly had a memory that I created the shoe, I liked it better. So if you feel like you have agency in something—whether it’s a product, whether is an idea—then you feel like it’s worth more. 

And it doesn’t actually have to be a true perception, you just have to have a perception of an agency, a perception of a control in order to value that thing more, and that’s what we’ve shown in our study looking at how people create shoes and how they value them.

Fear is a motivator—often, when we're scared, we feel that we want to leave a situation. That so-called "pull" that you feel often has more to do with wanting to be in a place of agency and control than it does, say, being scared of the dark, or flying. Actually, fear of flying is a great example for what Tali Sharot proposes. We all know that we couldn't actually fly the plane if we were giving the controls, but we're more-so afraid of giving up all of our perceived control. You're three times more likely to crash in a car than crash in a plane but we all feel as if we are in control... which is why you don't have many people scared of driving. Tali does a great job explaining the mentality behind fear, and her video here is worth a watch. Tali's latest book is The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals about Our Power to Change Others.

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