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Book Review: Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human

Everyone loves to be in control, yet no one likes to be controlled.  However, according to Richard S. Marken and Timothy A. Carey, writers of Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human, we are all control freaks.  Every thought, every decision, every physical movement is solely dedicated to staying and being in control.

The authors posit, “We are all controlling people. In fact our feelings of well-being depend on staying in control. Just as when we drive a car, we must stay in control in everyday life in order to keep things we care about going in the right direction.”

The right direction, according to Marken and Carey, is subjective. It is based solely on your perception of what is correct. Therefore, your efforts to control a situation will often easily collide with the way another person may try to control a situation.  Anyone who has ever found themselves butting heads with a co-worker, friend, or family member will understand this truth.

Much of the content in Marken and Carey’s book is not revolutionary, but Controlling People will be a treat for those who love an academic approach to the concept of control. Specifically, Marken and Carey discuss control from a scientific, psychological, and engineering perspective. The content of their book is not intended for those casually browsing this topic in their local bookstore. I found myself trudging through several chapters where the writing reminded me of days spent with my nose stuffed in a college textbook.

The upside is that as a result, I absorbed quite a bit of educational lingo and found myself explaining this book to my significant other using key words and phrases (some, but not all, of which will be discussed in this review) like Perceptual Control Theory, relativity of autonomy, reorganization systems, negative feedback loops, disturbances, error signals, and interpersonal conflict (conflict between the systems within different people) and intrapersonal conflict (conflict between control systems within yourself). Controlling People is not an easy read, but it certainly is an educational one!

Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) is the focus of the book, but control theory actually takes up the majority of it. The authors explain, “Things that control, be they gadgets or people, are called control systems. Control theory describes a mechanism that makes the controlling done by these control systems possible.” Control theory is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and mathematics that deals with the behavior of dynamical systems with inputs, and how their behavior is modified by feedback. Plainly speaking, think of your home thermostat or the cruise control system in your car.

Both of these examples are frequently used in the book, and for good reason — they are the easiest illustrations to understand! PCT is when control theory is applied to human behavior. A few examples of PCT would be the observation of someone drinking coffee, walking around the block, or creating an observational hypothesis about why the person you see in the distance is making wild gestures (Are they hailing a taxi? Are they doing sign language?). All of these instances involve control, either from the person taking action or the person observing.

Now let’s return back to the example of cruise control. Control theory mechanisms (such as your cruise control) are made up of three components: a sensor, a comparator, and an effector. Each of these pieces are linked together. The sensor in your car’s cruise control system is the speedometer, which sends an electrical signal (perception) of the car’s speed to the comparator. The comparator then measures the difference between the perception and the reference signal (desired cruise speed). Any difference between the perception and the reference signal is an error signal, but error does not mean ‘bad’; it just means ‘different.’

This brings us back to the closed loop they mentioned.  When working properly, your cruise control cycle actually creates a negative feedback loop. “Negative feedback control in theory is not the same as a negative feedback your boss may give you about your presentation to the company directors,” Marken and Carey explain.  In this case, the error is the difference between your actual cruising speed and the goal cruising speed, and it is what increases or decreases the wheel turning speed in order to bring your m.p.h. back to your set cruise control.  Without this negative feedback, the control mechanism would not work. This cruise control example is just a fractional part of control theory. So how does something like this fit into PCT?

It’s all about variables and perceptions! Markens and Carey point out, “It is particularly important to know that control systems control their perceptions when these systems happen to be people rather than gadgets such as thermostats. It is important because it means that in order to understand people’s behavior — what they are doing — we have to learn what perceptions they are trying to control.” Getting to the point, Markens and Carey later conclude the obvious: “If you can determine what goal a person is trying to achieve, then you can control the person’s behavior by arranging things so that they can achieve their goal only by doing what you want them to do.

It’s that simple. Figure out what speed a person wants their cruise control at and try to control the variables (wind, incline/decline of the road) so that they arrive at whatever destination you want. Of course this is much more complicated than it sounds, and the academic verbiage makes it seem even more complicated and dry (which is why I would steer leisure readers in another direction). Still, Marken and Carey’s mechanical description of an emotional/psychological concept makes for an interesting read, albeit a hard one to break down in a review.

Skipping ahead to the end of the book, I found a conclusion I had anticipated from the beginning. Marken and Carey write in their final chapter, “Take The Golden Rule for example. We allude to this rule in chapter 3 but, at this stage of the book, it’s appropriate to take a closer look. The Golden Rule is an ancient notion that embodies the ethic of reciprocity. The basic message is to do onto others as one would have done unto to oneself, or, treat others the way you would like to be treated.”

If, like me, you have ever stopped to reflect on relationship building or strategies for success, you will immediately know that The Golden Rule is all wrong. I learned this when I was quite young by observing my mother.  She was a gift giver, and this was her way of “doing unto me what she would have done unto herself.”  The only trouble was I wasn’t in need of gifts; I sought verbal support and affirmations.  So, realizing this idea was rubbish, I began saying, “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” By the end of this book that is precisely what Marken and Carey write.  They say, “So, despite the longevity of The Golden Rule, it is not how people conduct their day-to-day affairs. Nor is it the ideal way to build lasting social harmony. The way people operate is very much in line with how The Golden Rule would be refashioned according to control principles. The golden rule from a control perspective would be: do onto others as they would have unto themselves, or, treat other people the way they want to be treated. We would argue this version of the Golden rule is the 24 karat variety…”

Marken and Carey believe this is the way to improve control and controlling conditions (since it is, after all in our inherent nature) rather than further develop a society of individuals who feel trapped and without freedom (i.e. control).They believe in the positive possibilities of The New Golden Rule. They conclude in earnest, “Control is the way it is. Life is control. We need to understand it, and we need to learn to live with it. We need to strive for a world where people prioritize finding ways to control what is important to themselves in a way that minimizes the extent to which they interfere with the controlling of others.”

There is truth to this last statement, and while it does not need to be wrapped in the scientific and mechanical explanations that encompass this book, Controlling People certainly would not be complete without acknowledging that control is linked to feelings of freedom. And everyone deserves to feel (and to be) free.  Maybe then, Marken, Carey, and I were mistaken in our rewording of The Golden Rule. According to this book, perhaps it should be “Control others how they would like to be controlled.” This way none of us are denying that being in control is truly our objective.

Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human

Australian Academic Press Group Pty. Ltd, December 2015

Paperback, 154 pages


Book Review: Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human

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Stephanie Kotelnicki

APA Reference
Kotelnicki, S. (2016). Book Review: Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from
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Last updated: 31 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 31 May 2016
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