The Biology of Your Need for Control in Life

The Biology of Your Need for Control

This is part two of my series on locus of control. In my introductory post, I introduced the idea of locus of control and the behavioral patterns of people who exhibit both an external and internal locus of control. In this post, I’m going to discuss the biological basis of your need for control and it’s impact on your motivation.


So where does your need for control come from anyway? A group of researchers wanted to determine whether our inherent desire for choice is something that is a character trait, inherited from your parents and shaped by environmental conditioning, or whether it’s a basic human need. Lauren A. Leotti, Ph.D. of Rutgers University, Sheena S. Iyengar, Ph.D. and Kevin N. Ochsner, Ph.D. of Columbia University reviewed more than 80 psychological and neurological studies on a variety of topics related to choice and control to determine our current state of knowledge on the topic. What they found was

“[c]onverging evidence from animal research, clinical studies and neuroimaging suggests that the need for control is a biological imperative for survival”.

Babies have a need for control too

In one study, infants were trained on a simple task that involved moving their arm in a certain way, which resulted in an image of a happy baby being displayed on a screen for three seconds, with accompanying music. The researchers describe this pattern as “contingency” training, in that the desired outcome (i.e. displaying the pleasant image) is contingent upon a specific action performed by the child.

Once the infants learned this action-outcome pattern, they were able to generate the pleasant images and music at will. After this initial training, the study then transitioned to what they called a “frustration period”. During this phase, the screen responded in one of three ways to the movement of the child’s arm.

  • They did not receive the pleasant image or music at all.
  • The image and music would only appear every third time they moved their arm.
  • They still received the image and music at the frequency they were accustomed to, but its appearance was no longer controlled by the action of the child.

Surprisingly, the infants exhibited the most strongly negative response when they still received the pleasant image regularly but no longer had control over when it would appear. According to the researchers 

“[t]he results of these experiments also show the importance of contingency” [i.e. the ability to directly induce an outcome] “as a source of motivation and as a source of expectancies about the world.”

In another study, children between 7 and 15 months of age displayed active resistance to attempts at removing choice or taking control away from them once they had developed a skill, e.g. feeding themselves. This result is not surprising to anyone who has spent time with babies and toddlers, whether you’re a parent or not.

The emergence of self image

Young children are constantly exploring their environments and trying new things. That’s how they master new skills and develop their mental model of the world. Any attempt to do something for them that they are capable of doing themselves is viewed as an infringement on their nascent self image; that of a separate being who is capable of mastering increasingly complex tasks and exerting increasing control over their environment.

This behavior of young children is really an illustration of both autonomy and locus of control, as they not only get to choose their actions but they learn that those actions can influence the outcomes they experience in the world around them. This need for control, coupled with active resistance to anything that tries to take it away from them, further reinforces the idea that our need for control is an inherent psychological need that humans are born with.

Your psychological and biological need for control is, like many other instinctive behaviors, a self-preservation mechanism. If you feel like the world is unpredictable and that nothing you do has any effect on the outcomes you experience, it can be very stressful. Think back to a time where you were in a location or environment that was extremely unfamiliar to you. It was at least a little uncomfortable, wasn’t it?

In those situations, your brain has to be on high alert all the time. Since everything is new, it has to constantly work to piece together clues in an attempt to extract meaning from the information it’s receiving. And since nothing is predictable, it never knows when it may need to respond to some kind of threat. Your brain is hardwired with many instinctive behaviors whose only purpose is to ensure your survival. Considering the challenge of that task in a complex and dangerous world, it’s understandable why your brain craves situations that are within your control.

I hope you found this post informative and helpful. Let me know by leaving a comment below. If you liked this post or know someone who could benefit from it, please share it with them.

In the next post in this series, I’ll be discussing the effect that your perception of control over your life has on your psychology and even your physiology. Be sure to check it out.