Personal control: an important psychological resource in difficult times

A new study by Nguyen  et al. (2020) looks at the extent to which a sense of personal control can protect people's well-being in difficult times.

Personal control can come under pressure in difficult times

In times when many people are struggling, such as when economic inequality is on the rise, people's sense of personal control can come under pressure. Personal control is the feeling that there is a clear relationship between your behavior and what is happening in your daily life. When this sense of personal control is under pressure, people can experience arbitrariness and chaos that can greatly diminish their well-being. When personal control is threatened, people can resort to external or internal resources.

How do we avoid a sense of randomness and chaos?

Two theories (the compensatory control model and the system justification theory, respectively) postulate that there are two known external resources that people can resort to as compensation for a lack of personal control, namely God and government. By relying on these systems, people would hope to escape a sense of arbitrariness and chaos. Various psychological theories, such as the self-determination theory (SDT), state that people can derive a sense of personal control from internal resources and that this is related to well-being. In particular, SDT is about the fulfillment of the basic needs for autonomy and competence.

Personal control vs. faith in God and trust in government

Nguygen et al. conducted a study in which they tried to answer two questions. The first question was, is there a unique role for personal control over and beyond faith in God and trust in government? The researchers expected this to be the case. The second question was, is personal control only related to well-being in rich, developed countries (which generally have a more individualistic culture)? The researchers expected that personal control would be more closely related in countries with lower GDP and higher economic inequality.

They examined data from nearly half a million people from 104 countries over the period from 1981 to 2014. The variables they included in their research were religious belief, trust in government, personal control, happiness, health and satisfaction with one's own life, some control variables, GDP and the Gini coefficient. The table below lists some of the important results they found.

Personal control strongest predictor of well-being

This table shows that religious belief, trust in government, and personal control all predicted happiness and satisfaction with life. The general health of the citizens was also predicted by trust in government and personal control, but not by religious belief. Religious belief only predicted greater health and buffered the negative effect of income inequality on health in the prosperous economies, but showed negative correlations with health in poor economies. Furthermore, it is noticeable that personal control provided significant and independent predictive value above and beyond belief and trust in government and was consistently the strongest predictor of all three aspects of well-being.

The relationships between personal control and trust in government with well-being outcomes were consistently positive at different levels of countries' GDP and Gini. Personal control also fulfilled a compensatory function by buffering the negative effect of income inequality in prosperous economies.

Psychological resource available to everyone in difficult times

This research shows that the freedom to make decisions and control your life is an important psychological resource, and something that people of any walk of life can rely on, even in difficult times.