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David Ropeik

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Egypt: The Universal Desire to Control Our Own Lives

Posted: 02/15/11 04:20 PM ET

As a resident of Concord, Mass., where American revolutionaries first shot back at their British oppressors, its impossible to watch what's going on in Egypt and not feel a connection with the people who have taken considerable risk to stand up for a better life. We are told that their reasons are poverty, fear, and repression. But an observer from afar might dare suggest a more profound psychological motivation, to which we all can relate: Deep down inside, what the Egyptians are really after is a universal desire of people everywhere -- a feeling of control over their own lives.

I first learned about the importance of control in the context of the psychology of the way we perceive risks. The more control we have over a risk, the less afraid we are. The less control we have, the more afraid we are. An example: After the 9/11 attacks, when airplanes full of people were used as bombs, many more Americans chose to travel long distances by driving rather than flying. Many knew it was statistically more dangerous to drive than fly, but driving offered the reassuring feeling of control.

But the need for control is everywhere, not just in dealing with risk. Why do we want our political party to win? So it, and by extension we, will be in control. Why do want our ideology and views on the issues of the day to prevail? So things will be going the way we want them to -- so we and our views will be in control. Why do we predict the future in everything, from our books and movies to our religions? To give ourselves a reassuring sense of control over the scary uncertainty of what lies ahead. And why do we want a government that is of and by and for the people, here or in Egypt? Because if the government controls some aspects of our lives, it feels better if we control that government.

Anybody who promotes democracy as an ideal form of government (or, as Churchill said, "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried") is really extolling the psychological motivation for control. The protesters in Egypt want a say in how their country is run, as did the founders of America, and the protesters in Poland, Hungary and other now ex-Soviet countries, and the guy in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, and all those purple-fingered first-time voters in Iraq and the people of Southern Sudan. They want freedom. They want hope. Think about what that means, underneath. A say in how the country is run, a share of the power -- that means control. Freedom is what you feel when you have control. Hope is the product of power and freedom, which derive directly from a sense of control.

Why is this desire for control so universal? It probably gets back to the psychology of the way we judge and respond to risk. That's about survival. So is control -- over your career, or how your government works, or whose tribe/party/religion/ideology holds sway in the greater society or what the future holds. The more you feel you have some influence over how things are going, and how they're going to turn out, the safer you feel. In terms of evolutionary psychology, it makes complete sense that the human animal would have an innate desire for control. Control helps you survive.

So when people are repressed (Egypt) or feel like their government has too much control over their lives (the Tea Party), when people are worried about crime (gun buyers) or terrorism (the 90 million Americans bought the plastic and duct tape recommended by the Department of Homeland Security as a precaution in case of biological attack), when people are worried about death and where you go when you die (anybody who belongs to a faith that offers an answer), or even when people are just frustrated at their powerlessness against big companies (when you can't talk to an actual person when you call with a complaint or a problem), there is something common going on. Deep down inside, we don't like it when we have control. It feels threatening. And the less control we feel we have, the more upset and angrier and louder we get and the harder we're willing to push to get some control back. Tahrir Square, meet the Tea Party.

The revolution in Egypt could go lots of ways. Egyptians could end up with a new government, but still not much control (as The Who sang, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"). Change won't instantly alleviate the poverty and unemployment that deny people control over their lives. But to witness the jubilation of Egyptians at the remarkable success of a revolution that in a couple weeks forced out the leader of one of the more repressive governments on Earth, it's impossible not to be caught up in that jubilation and share the Egyptian's joy at achieving what they really wanted, and what we all want: a sense of control over our lives.

 
 
 

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