Taking back control is the key to future proof yourself

A fundamental concept of psychology is one of personality 'dimensions', along which people fall between two 'opposites'. There are many possible dimensions, of a varying degree of explanatory power of personality. In my reading around the subject of behaviour change and anxiety in relation to the future, I've identified two useful dimensions:

  1. Control/Uncertainty

  2. Settled/Creative

My thesis is that these dimensions can help us to identify attitudes to the future, with a view to tailoring our approach to behaviour change accordingly.

I'll talk more about these dimensions later, but the concept is closely related to the mainstream theory of basic human values, developed by Schwartz (see here (1992) and here (2012), the latter is a free-to-access overview). In this case, control and settled relate to Conservation (associated with anxiety) whilst uncertainty and creative relate to Openness to Change (associated with being anxiety-free). The theory has been tested against representative national samples from 37 countries plus data from many more - it is probably generic to most human situations.

Figure 1 "Theoretical model of relations among ten motivational types of value" from Schwartz 2012

Here is a very interesting starting point for examples and scenarios exploring the question of control (quoting from the book "Mindsight" by Daniel Siegel):

…this is not so much about how to control people as about their needs around control. The real secret is the deep, deep need that people have for a sense of control. In persuasion, by managing how they feel about control, you can achieve far greater actual control. If you ignore this need, you might easily fall into a power battle for control of the conversation and the agenda.

A similar perspective on the evolutionary basis for the relationship between anxiety (lack of control) and a desire to avoid this feeling comes from Schonbrun and Schwartz:

Psychological distress in the face of uncertainty is no accident—it’s human nature. Jill Stoddard, a clinical psychologist and author of a book about managing anxiety, told us, “Our anxiety and discomfort are products of evolution. Anxious early humans who avoided uncertainty had a survival advantage.”

During a long but wonderful article on the emotions of Australians during and after the summer fires of 2019/20, is a brief discussion about polling done in France by Tim Dixon (previously a political speechwriter) - emphasis mine:

Dixon says the poll showed that climate denial is a much smaller issue than the media often makes out. A much bigger problem is a loss of faith in government and corporations, and in elites of both right and left. “Very few people deny the reality of climate change,” he says, “but they don’t trust institutions to be able to fix it. People in this group feel strongly that the world is not fair right now. They don’t feel listened to or respected.”

In Dixon’s view, that is why any narrative of emergency, or of the massive scale of the crisis, only reinforces this group’s feelings of lack of agency, and does not motivate people to act. What does resonate are ideas about taking back control.

Being a French poll with such a result reminded me of Michel Houellebecq's novel Atomised (first published in 1998, he saw it coming!). The book portrays a dystopian present of emotional and social detachment.

Jim Kozubek in Scientific American considered the loss of control (fear of), which includes this interesting quote:

The point is not to venerate disorders through their connection to the arts—I would never do that—but to suggest the primal experience of human existence is a loss of control, rather than a default of stability.

In terms of our response to health-related "fake-news", key factors seem to be that people want control and because we don't have it, due to uncertain future health risks, will select any available answer that provides certainty and control (details from Carey et al 2020). Such answers may or may not be remotely true:

Conspiracy beliefs often proliferate after unexpected or tragic events like these because they help people explain away or diminish feelings of lack of control, chaos, or uncontrolled risks.

Further, Carey discusses that if you attempt to debunk wrong information, folk instead will tend to disbelieve everything, true or false, as a rational response to not knowing what is true or false and the general atmosphere of "debunking":

Such effects could be detrimental—exposure to conspiracy theories has been found to reduce people’s intentions to take action to protect themselves from communicable disease.

Unfortunately the authors don't have an answer to more effective communication:

Public health officials and other communicators should therefore conduct experimental trials to ensure that information campaigns are not counterproductive.

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura in the New York Times discusses a talk by Yuval Noah Harari which has a strong focus on our future-fear based on perceived lack of control.

In a nod to the film industry, some consider our fear and fascination of zombies to be routed in the visceral loss of control implied by their status.

Control Issues

What sort of every-day issues create control issues?

  • Guilt

    • Lack of ability to change the past or atone for poor decisions/behaviour (e.g. you can't control the past or consequences of our actions for the future)

  • Fear and anxiety

    • Lack of ability to influence or control the future (e.g. a response to rapid social change or imposition of artificial intelligence and social media)

  • Self interest

    • Potential loss of influence and control when changes are made (e.g. those invested in the oil industry responding to renewable energy)

These control issues can arise from all sorts of places.

Change, chance, complexity, uncertainty, cognitive bias, magical thinking are all sources and symptoms of anxiety linked to control.


Fear of change and the future in the boardroom... A senior business leader once made interesting point (under Chatham House Rules) that CEOs are experts in their business' current business model but get scared by change and invalidation of that model. But it is possible to show how pride in leadership can drive new ideas, develop employee power and boost ideas generation.

Fear of change links


Our attitude to chance also reveals a desire for control. For example, in the article “The Best Books to Understand Complex Systems” Taylor Pearson writes (my emphasis):

Almost all of Nassim Taleb’s work is about how humans misunderstand the behavior of complex systems. His first book, Fooled by Randomness, is a great introduction that shows how humans tend to explain outcomes that are truly random as being predictable and explainable. As a result of our species evolving in a much simpler environment where it was easier to understand cause and effect, we tend to overestimate causality in the modern world. This leads us to think that the world is more explainable than it really is and makes us think we have more control over the universe than we really do.

An interesting quote from Taleb's book deals with the negative outcomes of dealing with too much uncertainty and chance

Finally, this explains why people who look too closely at randomness burn out, their emotions drained by the series of pangs they experience. Regardless of what people claim, a negative pang is not offset by a positive one (some psychologists estimate the negative effect for an average loss to be up to 2.5 the magnitude of a positive one); it will lead to an emotional deficit. ... Note also that the implication that wealth does not count so much into one’s well-being as the route one uses to get to it.

Indeed, (too much) anxiety due to the unknown is a root of many psychological problems, apparently (key ref of the previous link) note that properly (neurologically) fear is more immediate whilst anxiety is broader in time and also neurological effects.


Life is getting more complex, with increasing amounts of infrastructure underpinning our daily lives. What does this look like? Is the drive to simplify and hide this complexity a good thing? When do we need to know what's going on and so act on risks, issues ourselves?*BpSQaGXHaLB8V984Dh6AbQ.gif (for the animated version of the following)

We can show how religion helped/helps to foster stability provides simplicity and prevents fear of losing control. Then show how responses to climate change can also help us manage change, complexity and increase control.


Interesting quote from the Scientific American QnA session which addresses fundamental brain states that relate to our ability to deal with uncertainty and therefore control:

Scientific American: What happens in our brains when we operate in a creative mode vs. an uncreative mode?

Anna Abraham: So far we have only scratched the surface of this big question. What is obvious is that a lot about what triggers a creative mode as opposed to an uncreative mode is situational.

The creative mode is called for in contexts that are unclear, vague and open-ended. The opposite is true of the uncreative mode. And so the uncreative mode involves walking firmly along the ‘path of least resistance’ through the black-and-white zone of the expected, the obvious, the accurate, or the efficient. Whereas the creative mode involves turning away from the path of least resistance and venturing into the briars so to speak in an effort to forge a new path through the grey zone of the unexpected, the vague, the misleading, or the unknown.

We know a great deal about the receptive-predictive cycle of the brain in place during the uncreative mode. We know a lot less about the explorative-generative cycle that is in place during the creative mode. But what we do know is fascinating. For instance, several large-scale brain networks that are known to operate in circumscribed ways in the uncreative mode are engaged in an integrative and dynamic manner during the creative mode.

Examining creative thinking as a multifaceted construct has greatly improved our understanding of the roles of specific brain regions in specific aspects of creativity such as insight, imagery, analogical reasoning, overcoming knowledge constraints, conceptual expansion, and so on. Among the most thought-provoking findings is our ability to engage in creative pursuits despite disorder and degeneration at the neural level. This attests to the disorder resistant power of the brain in enabling self-expression and communication.

A related perspective comes from research on 'actively open-minding thinking' (AOT). A common hypothesis is that denial or (small 'c') conservative thinking is related to being closed-minding. However this is not the case - being a AOT actually tends to lead to binary conclusions that reinforce group culture.

Under these conditions, it is expressively rational for individuals to attend to evidence in a manner that conduces to formation of and persistence in beliefs characteristic of their cultural groups (Stanovich, 2013; Kahan, in press, a).

Studies suggest that individuals use their critical reasoning dispositions for that purpose. These individuals display greater directional bias in their information processing not because they are more partisan or are more vulnerable to heuristic substitutes for conscious, effortful information processing (Lodge and Taber, 2013; Taber and Young, 2013) but because they are simply better at screening information for identity-congruent inferences (Kahan, in press, b).

Additionally, personality types (e.g. openness), where you might consider that openness is related to creativity. Also note that it is not a very common trait if the clustering in the article is anything to go by and also seems to fall with age.

Scientists and lawyers have different 'world models' when debating uncertainty:

  • Lawyers can base their arguments on personal opinion, where facts can have equal weight until proven otherwise. Facts don't really change.

  • Scientists tend to have models or theories which provide structure for facts, linked to observations. The arguments therefore are based upon features of the model and observations rather (more-or-less) than opinion. Facts don't have equal weight because some fit better than others, but this weighting can change as more information arrives.

Changing minds

Protestant faith and capitalist system have a key factor in common which make the coming change hard. Don't mess with my right to my own opinion, morals and way of communing with God. It is my right to spend and I don't like being told otherwise (or what to buy). With that starting point, random requests for change are a tough sell.

The Climate Minds dialogues #2 by Steve Thorp This and the previous part 1 of his series are powerful emotional stuff about climate change - enough of the dry technical reasoning, we want to know more about how it makes us feel and why that is important.

Psychiatry and getting people to acknowledge there is a problem Phases of Depression Management: 1. Unaware 2. Denial 3. Resistance 4. Flakiness 5. Acceptance Sounds very familiar as a general behaviour change sequence…

As with most arguments, both left and right are correct. The past is 'correct' in that it happened, we understand it and it 'worked' - evidence being that we survived it. But as any good financier or evolutionary biologist knows, the past is not a guide to the future. So we need both perspectives in order to move forward.

We need people who consider and care about the past and people who consider and care about the future. Happily we have both - but for many reasons they are rarely the same person. So in order to bring together both perspectives and generate a sensible route forward we need to bring different people and their perspectives together.

Why are there two types of people? Conservative/liberal Right/left Settled/creative Control/Uncertainty Known/novel

Examples that are guides not rules! • Politician/artist • Lawyer/scientist

Voices from the front line (e.g. the Maldives) just want it fixed and whiffling about left/right liberal/conservative sensitivities isn't really front of mind.

Magical thinking

Lack of control tends to make people use magical thinking more - that is, ascribe properties to objects that are related to good/bad events or people. A stress response.

The role of magical thinking in forecasting the future Stavrova, Olga; Meckel, Andrea British Journal of Psychology, Volume 108 (1) – Feb 1, 2017

In an interesting psychological theory (or "Scientists Discover Simple Psychological Tools to Battle Fake News"), basically focuses on discouraging people from using fantasy to avoid things you fear or don't control. The 'fantasy' being the fake news. In this context, different people will fall on different places of a control/uncertainty dimension and propensity to use fantasy as an avoidance technique. A conservative Vs liberal axis for example. Is there evidence that conservatives are more likely to propagate fake news? Not really (and again not really), although levels of exposure to and reasons for believing fake news may vary.

Recognise and tackle cognitive bias. There are links to control, as cognitive bias relates to how we perceive or rationalise the things we aren't comfortable with - e.g. future uncertainty or unpalatable realities. A really good article on the subject but from a different context - biblical studies! However, it provides the same arguments about cognitive bias you see in climate denialism and the same ways to counteract it.

“A conservative’s plea for climate awareness” by Morten Overgaard is an honest view of the value of humbleness and how the author converted from a conservative denier to a climate advocate.

  • I would put Morten in the classic group of 'denier' in my matrix. His perspective on listening and humbleness regarding reaching out to engage his preconceptions is very interesting, as his point is that ego - sunk personal baggage related to a 'wrong' world view - is the main barrier to progress and altering perspectives

  • I wonder if he would agree with my classification?

  • Or even with the very concept of classification?

  • He also highlights some possible areas where 'liberal' flexibility and rethinking might be valuable too (e.g. security of home and country)

Populist politics is the problem Science deals in reality - good or bad. Populist politics doesn't like to talk about the bad. Science 'facts' can change with new info populist 'facts' can't change (loss of face) - so great fear in using mutable science 'facts' Science 'facts' are based on frameworks independent of individuals populist 'facts' are based on frameworks linked to parties and personalities

Science is the problem Inspired by the rather more technically worded article by @Sean Norton Science is a process which uses observations. The process aims to explain the observations but is usually at least partly wrong at any one moment in time. The hard part is we don’t know which part. So scientific process to me really plays to the fear and sense of lack of control people feel to the future.

Scientific process is not a common way of thinking. And most none scientists don’t really know how it works - you need training to learn the way of thinking.

So a big issue like climate change pushes a lot of fear buttons but science itself doesn’t resolve those fears.