Johans paper

The Illusion of Control

The idea of self-control can be found in every aspect of life. It is found in economics, religion, science, and even nutrition. Books have been written about how to improve self-control, the benefits of self-control, and even how to teach self-control. It is assumed that as human beings we are in control of our own destinies, but are we really? Self-control or the idea of self-control gives the illusion that there is a power struggle going on inside us, between the mind and the body. Is there any empirical evidence for this struggle? Through scientific example the point will be made that self-control and, in turn, the struggle within can all be boiled down to logical reasoning and expression of the genome, giving the illusion of self-control.
How can a gene possibly control what I actually do, is a good question to ask. Genes can control much in a person. From body size, ear shape, to eye color, even silly things like how many toes or fingers you have (which might not be such a silly thing). These facts might not be ground breaking but a new study of a disease called Rett syndrome is in fact questioning how much control people have over their body. Rett syndrome is a developmental disease which effects the brain and many of its functions, including hearing, speech, sensory sensations, mood, movement, breathing, cardiac function, and even chewing, swallowing, and digestion. This syndrome was first noticed because of the telltale repetitive hand-washing motions the girls in the clinic exhibited (IRSF,2009). Dr. Ruthie Amir, a doctor at Baylor College of Medicine, later discovered the cause of the disease. The MECP2 gene located on the X chromosome is responsible for brain maturation; mutation to this gene is fatal to males, since they only have one copy of the gene. In females the mutated gene is only present on one of their two X chromosomes. In each cell one of the X chromosomes is randomly de-activated. There is a random chance that the mutated gene will be on the de-activated chromosome, and it will not be expressed. The severity of the disease is dependent on how many of the cells express the mutated MECP2 gene (Amir,1999). To further study the disease, male mice received a mutation to their MECP2 gene. Mice are chosen because they are a good model for Rett syndrome; they exhibit many of the same characteristics as girls with Rett syndrome. One of the interesting characteristics mice exhibit is the very hand washing motions as the girls who where first diagnosed with Rett syndrome. Therefore a mutation to the MECP2 gene not only causes a developmental disease but also causes the patient to exhibit the hand washing motions (NIH, 2002). This begs the question, if one gene can control an action, how much self-control do we actually have? Surely the decisions we make, to deny temptation, are not controlled by gene? To answer this question self-control needs a closer examination.
A person who is described as self-controlled can resist temptations. No matter what the temptation is, one thing that can be said of most temptations is the need to satisfy them immediately. The degree of self-control a person exhibits is usually proportional to the amount of time they can deny that satisfaction. Self-control has been measured in this manner by a multitude of studies. These studies put the participant in situations where a decision needs to be made between an instant, but lesser, reward or a delayed, but much greater, reward. The primary impulse is to take the instant reward, but researchers assume that self-control is exhibited when that impulse is stymied. Dr. A.W. Logue is an internationally renowned behavioral scientist, which has done numerous such studies. She has identified three aspects that govern the choice to either withstand or act upon the impulse to take the instant reward: Outcome delay, outcome size, and outcome contingency. Outcome delay and size can be boiled down to “is it going to be worth it”, but outcome contingency is rather more interesting. If given the chance to change their answer, a participant is more likely to take the instant reward. If a person is exposed to the temptation multiple times they will most likely choose the immediate satisfaction. Another interesting aspect of outcome contingency is what is referred to as pre-commitment actions. These are actions the participant takes to ensure a self-controlled action at a later point. An example of this is setting an alarm clock; the person is more likely to get up rather than fall back to sleep. If Dr. Logue is correct then self-control is just a desire for a larger reward rather than a smaller one. A logical choice after all, but why then if exposed to the small reward multiple times is the candidate more likely to choose it? (Logue,1995)
Self-control is a limited resource, claims Dr. R. F. Baumeister from The Baumeister and Tice Social Phycology Lab. The phenomenon is called Ego depletion. Subjects were given tasks to do which involved some sort of exercise in self control, for example not laughing at a comedian. The subjects’ ability to perform these tasks grew weaker even if the tasks focused on different areas. How interesting it is to have a study suggest that self-control is actually limited! Does this mean that in the life long struggle between body and mind, the mind can get tired? What does this mean for a view that self-control is just gene expression and logical decisions?(Baumeister, 1998)
To help clarify the situation, and answer some questions, a summary of what is empirically known so far is appropriate. A gene has the capability to control a physical action as seen with Rett syndrome. It is possible to break down the decisions an individual makes regarding self-control in a logical way. Self-control is a limited resource. To put all this together, self-control is a logical process that requires energy, and in turn is a conscious act, but it is possible that the “body” can take over at anytime and perform on its own accord. An example of this in action is when a person tries to hold their breath. It is a conscious decision to stop breathing. This action is in opposition to the body’s function. After a while the person gets tired, and wants to give in, knowing relief is just a breath away, but they continue holding their breath. What happens next is pivitol. They black out. They have officially lost control; their body has usurped control and resumed breathing. What kind of control does a person have when it can be taken away from them at any moment? They have the illusion of control.

Work Sited

1. Amir, Ruthie E., Ignatia B. Van den Veyver, Mimi Wan, Charles Q. Tran, Uta Francke, and Huda Y. Zoghbi. "Rett syndrome is caused by mutations in X-linked." Nature Genetics 23 (1999): 185-88.

2. Baumeister, R. F., & Alquist, J. L. (in press). Is there a downside to good self-control? Self and Identity.

3. Baumeister, R. F., Sparks, E. A., Stillman, T. F., & Vohs, K. D. (in press). Free will in consumer behavior: Self-control, ego depletion, and choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

4. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M. & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.

5. Logue, A. W., Henry Tobin, John J. Chelonis, Rex Y. Wang, Nori Geary, and Stanley Schachter. "Cocaine decreases self-control in rats: a preliminary report." Psychopharmacology 109 (1992): 245-47.

6. Logue, A. W. Self-control Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1995.

7. Marsiglia, Susan, and Robert Bock. "Mouse With Rett Syndrome May Provide Model for Testing Treatments, Understanding Disorder." NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH (2002).

8. "International Rett Syndrome Foundation - Rett Syndrome Fact Sheet." International Rett Syndrome Foundation - Home. 04 Mar. 2009 <

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License