The present research shows that belief in progress helps to alleviate the aversive experience of low levels of control. When control is low, believing in progress provides people with the promise of future control in a broader sense. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants lacking control disagreed more with an essay on the illusory nature of human progress. Experiment 3 corroborated these findings in a field study comparing airplane passengers with a nonairborne control group. Experiment 4 assessed belief in progress more directly and showed an increased willingness to invest in specific fields of progress-oriented research when personal control was low. Moreover, participants lacking control showed an increased preference for high-tech solutions to combat environmental problems and believed more firmly in scientific and moral progress.
Source: “Yes We Can, Belief in Progress as Compensatory Control” from Social Psychological and Personality Science
A feeling of control in our lives is extremely important. I’ve seen it referenced time and time again in the thousands of studies I’ve looked at that don’t make it to the blog.
When we don’t feel we have some level of control over our lives we get depressed. In his classic book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman discusses “learned helplessness.” Basically, it’s when we feel we have no control for so long that we stop trying to improve a terrible situation because we don’t think it’s possible anymore.
There’s an old story about how elephants are tamed. First they are leashed by a chain. Elephants pull at it but can’t break free. Eventually they give up. The chain is later replaced by a flimsy rope that could easily be broken. It doesn’t matter though because the elephant has stopped trying. The story may be apocryphal but the point remains.
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that control and hope are intermingled.