Autonomy, free will, and self-control combine to create a useful myth. The myth is that we control our own destinies, that we are autonomous actors with rights, freedoms, and the opportunity to improve our lives through our own effort. The reality is that the world is incredibly complex, that we don’t get to chose our genes, our parents, or the situations in life that we are born and raised within. A huge number of factors based on random chance and luck contribute to whether we are successful or not, but nevertheless, the belief that we are autonomous actors with control over our own free will is still a useful myth.
In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “people who report more internal control tend to fare better in life than those who don’t. They play a more active role in their communities, take better care of their health, and get better jobs. We may have no control about whether people find our clothes or skills or appearance attractive. But we do have control over internal goals such as acquiring languages, mastering a musical instrument, or taking responsibility for small children or our grandparents.”
This quote shows why the idea of internal control and agency is such a useful myth. If we believe we have the power to shape our lives for the better, then we seem to be more likely to work hard, persevere, and stretch for challenging goals. A feeling of helplessness, as though we don’t have control, likely leads to cynicism and defeatism. Why bother trying if you and your actions won’t determine the success or failure you experience in life?
This myth is at the heart of American meritocracy, but it is important to note that it does appear to be just a myth. EKGs can detect electrical activity in the brain and predict an action before a person becomes aware of a conscious desire to perform an action. Split brain experiments and the research of Kahneman and Tversky show that our brains are composed of multiple competing systems that almost amount to separate people and personalities all within our singular consciousness. And as I wrote earlier, luck is a huge determining factor in whether we have the skills and competencies for success, and whether we have a supportive environment and sufficient opportunities to master those skills.
Recently, on an episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef interviewed Michael Sandel about our meritocracy. One fear that Sandel has about our system of meritocracy is that people who succeed by luck and chance believe that they succeeded because of special qualities or traits that they possess. Meanwhile, those who fail are viewed as having some sort of defect, a mindset that people who fail or live in poverty may come to believe is true and embrace, thus creating another avenue for defeatism to thrive.
If internal control is a useful myth, it is because it encourages action and flourishing for individuals. My solution therefore is to blend the two views, the view of internal agency and the view of external forces shaping the future we have. These are contradictory views on the surface, but I believe they can be combined and live in harmony (especially given the human ability to peacefully and ignorantly live with contradictory beliefs). We need to believe we have agency, but also believe that success is essentially a matter of luck and that we are dependent on society and others to reach great heights. This should encourage us to apply ourselves fully, but to be humble, and take steps to help ensure others can also apply themselves fully to reach greater levels of success. When people fail, we shouldn’t look at them as morally inept, as lacking skills and abilities, but as people who happened to end up in a difficult place. We should then take steps to help improve their situations and to give them more opportunities to find the space that fits their skills and abilities for growth and success. Internal control can still be a useful myth if we tie it to the right structures and systems to ensure everyone can use their agency appropriately and avoid the overwhelming crush of defeatism when things don’t go well.