Is Your Mind Under Your Control?

Control matters. We are more likely to try to modify what we deem under our control, and we are more likely to hold people responsible for what we think is under their control. But it is often assumed that people judge others to have significantly more control over their behavior than over their mental state. Indeed, it is often assumed that beliefs, desires, and feelings simply happen to us. New research upends this assumption.

Researchers set out to discover to what degree ordinary people judge mental states to be controllable or intentional by polling undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. This study goes beyond previous empirical work, which has yielded mixed results, by employing methods with greater ecological validity and testing a wider range of mental states—emotions, beliefs, desires, and evaluative attitudes. The aims of the present study were: (1) to discover whether and to what degree people typically judged mental states in these four categories to be controllable and intentional and (2) to discover whether judgments varied depending on the kind of mental state. They also looked at (3) whether variation in judgments of control correlates with variation in judgments of responsibility, blame, or character.

Subjects tended to judge that people have a moderately high degree of control over their beliefs, desires, and evaluations, and somewhat less control over their emotions. Attributions of control for the first three kinds of mental state were at or above the mid-point on a 7-point scale, and attributions of control for emotions were higher than attributions of control over involuntary, and even some accidental, behaviors. Thus, it seems that mental states are not ordinarily viewed as just happening to us. This doesn’t mean that people tend to think that mental states are completely under our control. None of the mental states were judged completely controllable, and subjects tended to judge that people have less control over their mental states than over their intentional behavior. Moreover, there were some differences in attributions of control for different kinds of mental state. Beliefs and evaluations were judged more controllable than desires, which were judged more controllable than emotions. But this result was not wholly replicated in further studies that held constant both content and context for each mental state. In those studies, the only robust difference in attributions of control had to do with emotions, which subjects tended to judge less controllable than the other kinds of mental state. The authors caution, however, that the experimental controls used in these further studies made for highly artificial contexts. The results of the earlier studies may better represent people’s judgments about control over mental states in real life contexts.

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The researchers also found that judgments of control over mental states correlated with judgments of responsibility, blame, and character. Interestingly, attributions of control more strongly predicted judgments of blame and responsibility than they did judgments of character. The researchers speculate that judgments of control over mental states would also correlate with reactions, such as getting angry at or punishing someone for their belief. And they note that their findings with respect to character contrast with some previous studies that suggest people tend to explain character in terms of biogenetics, which implies a lack of control. These would be fruitful avenues for further research.