|Many seek freedom in solitude, but new
research suggests feelings of control
come from social belonging.
The true story of Christopher McCandless, dramatised in the 2007 film Into the Wild, is a search for radical independence that culminates in McCandless’ solitary existence in the wilds of Alaska. It speaks to a powerful belief: to feel you control your life, stand alone. But new research suggests otherwise: to feel control, stand together.
If committing to a group feels like surrendering control, reasoned Katharine Greenaway and her collaborators, we might expect some impact on wellbeing, as humans and animals alike thrive from autonomy and are distressed when they lose it. But group membership is robustly associated with life satisfaction, and while other researchers have sought to explain this as owing to social support or boosts to self-esteem, Greenaway’s team suspected that identifying with a group actually makes people feel more in control. After all, personal control means more than not being interfered with, it includes the capacity to do what matters. Greenaway’s team predicted that merely identifying as part of a group may make people feel more capable.
To test this, they collected data shortly after the 2012 US election, asking 129 American adults who they voted for, how strongly they identified with that candidate’s party and how much control they felt they had over their own lives. After Obama’s victory, Obama voters who had a stronger bond with his Democratic party felt more in control of their lives. Little surprise perhaps: their man had won. But voters with a strong Republican identity also experienced a post-election increase in their sense of personal control. Although the Republicans had a case to feel disempowered, simply being in bed with something bigger made them feel more capable than voters with a weaker collective identity.
Another much larger study looked at how 62,000 people across 47 countries identified with their local community, national group, or as part of the human race. Whichever level the researchers looked at, feeling part of a group was associated with feeling more personal control, and this effect was associated with higher levels of wellbeing.
Finally, an experiment involving 300 American adults showed that momentary manipulations of how we feel towards a larger group influences feelings of personal control and wellbeing. Half the participants were led to connect with their national identity by asking them to assess statements about America that were either positive and reasonable (therefore easy to endorse) or negative and unreasonable. These participants went on to report significantly greater feelings of personal control and greater life satisfaction in that moment. They also reported lower depression in the past week suggesting either that the effect can time-travel, or that their view of the past was coloured by a rush of national pride.
The notion of individualism is actually a fairly recent development for humanity, an exquisitely social species that owes its success to our capacity to collaborate and coordinate actions (this may even be the reason we developed conscious awareness). This new research suggests our group identities are a continued source of our sense of agency and control. A life alone on the Alaskan tundra may offer many things, but we can find our own forms of freedom right here among the people we know.
Greenaway, K., Haslam, S., Cruwys, T., Branscombe, N., Ysseldyk, R., & Heldreth, C. (2015). From “We” to “Me”: Group Identification Enhances Perceived Personal Control With Consequences for Health and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000019