Knowledge is Power to Control

In order to control you have to know something about what you are controlling. You have to know the levers you can pull and have some understanding of the effects. You need some more or less accurate ‘mental map’ or mental model of what you are controlling. You have to know that the switch on the wall controls the light.

Conversely, if your mental model is inaccurate you will not have control, and when you have un-met needs, but cannot affect what you need to control, this creates dissonance and the potential for anxiety and stress.

The first prerequisite of control is knowledge and orientation. Without it you are lost. But even when you know where you are, you need to know where you are trying to get to. For this you need purpose. But knowledge and purpose are still not enough. To get where you are going you need to turn knowledge into skill and that takes mastery.


As indicated in the first blog in this series ‘It’s Like This’ we don’t really know what we know and we especially don’t know what we don’t know. Not only that, but we are not that good at discovering the truth about the world and our interpretations are full of biases. We tend to accept easy rather than correct explanations for why things happen and how the world works.

While we cannot give a good account of our own knowledge we can, at the level of society, point to systems for the classification and codification of knowledge. How we classify knowledge has long been a topic of speculation. Many disciplines have used some kind of tree structure – the ‘tree of knowledge’ even appears in the bible. More recently, as we have appreciated the extent to which everything is inter-related, the limitations of tree structures to classify knowledge has become apparent. Knowledge is now seen as a web or network and items classified by tags/keyword or indexed electronically without any explicit classification scheme.

YouTube Video, RSA Animate – The Power of Networks, The RSA, May 2012, 10:57 seconds

However, this is only a part of the picture of how knowledge is represented in a mentalistic sense. Representation of knowledge in the mind is a subject that will be returned to in some detail later, but for the moment the analogy used is that of a map. There is a good deal of psychological evidence to suggest that spatial reasoning is often used in the codification, storage and retrieval of knowledge, especially the type of knowledge that can form the content of conscious thought. Knowledge in the form of skill is different and is often relatively unconnected to more conscious, ‘propositional’ knowledge.

You can control to the extent to which you have knowledge and understand how to apply it. This is referred to as ‘orientation’. Orientation is knowing the territory you are in. It is having a map of the landscape. It is knowing routes through the landscape and being able to navigate them without very much effort. The landscape is your mind-map. It is a mental map of what’s what and how what you do affects it.

Being oriented is a fundamental capability that we all need, not just to be able to navigate around physical spaces, but also to navigate around our memories and thoughts. The following broadcast looks at the ability of birds and humans to navigate. It identifies the role of a brain structure called the hippocampus in facilitating navigation.

BBC Radio 4, The Forum, Natural Navigation, December 2014, 29 Minutes

Disorientation is not knowing where you are.

YouTube Video, Nicolas Cage – Oh God Where Am I?, TheJim595, uploaded March 2011, 47 seconds

So, to exit the front door with the confidence that you will return with the necessary items to make tea, is to predict that you will be able to successfully navigate through all the obstacles like getting to the shop, finding what you want, making the purchase and returning. This is orientation.

To be orientated is to be able to set purposeful goals that are achievable within the boundaries of your ability to set out the path between where you are now and where you are aiming to get to. If you feel you understand the path well, you feel in control. If you have no idea what you want, or how to get what you need, then you feel powerless. Control is at zero.

And when you lose access to knowledge, power and control diminish.

YouTube Videos, Teepa Snow Discusses the Ten Early Signs of Dementia, Senior Helpers National, July 2013, 17 Minutes

Knowledge to Control in Society

To control in the social world you have to understand the way your actions, and the things you say, affect other people. Whatever your intent, good or bad, you will have some impression about how your actions affect others. You will use that knowledge to influence others in whatever way your needs, priorities and value systems dictate.

However, you can only have knowledge and orientation within the confines of your experience. If your upbringing and education is narrow, even though it might be deep in a career sense, you may only have orientation and control within a limited sphere. In a world of increasingly narrow specialisation, you need deeper knowledge to have control in areas of increasingly limited scope. Control is not possible without knowledge and orientation. To put it another way, orientation is an enabler of control. This is not a new concept. We have long believed that ‘knowledge is power’.

Here is a video that puts this point of view. Although it may seem a simplified interpretation, in view of our increasing understanding (and indeed passive acceptance) of the way financial markets work, it has credibility. Indeed, much of the world is bought into a system in which we accept that life is a competitive struggle for control, according to a set of rules (laws, regulations, policies and political approaches).

YouTube Videos, Knowledge is Power, Freeman Borealis, July 2007, 1:20 Minutes

What is less clear is how the rules of the game are formulated and implemented, the subtle ways in which they operate to advantage and disadvantage different interest groups and value systems, and whether there is a genuine link between their espoused intention and their outcome. Here is one view:

YouTube Video, Wesley P P Hall World banking explained in less than 2, Nils Humano, September 2015, 1:57 minutes

But if things are going to change, where will that change come from? One answer is that it will not come from re-vamping financial markets, bailing out banks or politics. It will come from science, technology and advances in healthcare.

TED Videos, The Next Species of Human, Juan Enriquez, February 2009, 18:50 Minutes


To continue with the spatial analogy, purpose is knowing where you are going. It is having a destination in the landscape of possibilities. It is knowing your goal and having some idea of the route you need to take to get there. In a general sense, purpose is knowing where you are going in life.

Purpose can potentially come from outside forces like family, peers, employers of the state but to feel comfortable it needs to be internal, or at least external and internal purpose need to align. If they are in conflict they create dissonance. If you do not fully understand your own internal purpose but accept externally imposed purpose, there can be a sense of unease until you have worked out exactly where you are going.

YouTube Video, Turning on the Light, ItsWayPastMyBedTime, November 2012,3:34 minutes

Why do you need purpose? This video suggests that it is about becoming a human being and that in order to find purpose you need to establish boundaries.

YouTube Video, The Power of Extreme Purpose, Motivational Video, RSD Tyler, April 2014, 2.05 minutes

Purpose, meaning and significance are all inter-twined. Psychologist Michael Steger considers how purpose arises out of meaning and that meaning arises out of survival. You live longer if there is meaning in your life.

YouTube Video, What Makes Life Meaningful: Michael Steger at TEDxCSU, TEDx Talks, March 2013, 16:45 minutes

Finding purpose and designing your life is a long-term venture. It is easy to be distracted by short-term rewards and benefits, but to lose the plot of your own life purpose.

YouTube Video, Life Purpose – Critical Points For Finding Your Life Purpose,, July 2013, 22:16 minutes

And here is some advice to young men! Develop purpose early, mix money and passion, keep options open, commit to your vocation or keep open to experience, enjoy the rewards. ‘Gravity sucks in the armour of boundaries’.

YouTube Video, How To Find Your Life’s Purpose In 15 Minutes Or Less!, RSDTyler, November 2014, 15:39 minutes


To control with confidence you need to be able to predict, with some degree of success, the outcomes that correspond to your actions. Control and confidence grow with practice both in physical skills and mental skills.

YouTube Video, Step 1 – Ball Mastery, SoccerSkillsUSA, September 2008, 2:48 minutes

You have to believe that you understand the relationship between what you do and the effects of your actions to be confident that you have control.

Here is Malcolm Gladwell who first popularised the theory that mastery in any subject takes about 10,000 hours of effort or practice.

YouTube Video, Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers – The Story of Success, London Business School, December 2008, 5:51 minutes

Changing Your Mind

But is mastery just about practice and hard work? The evidence suggests that attitude or mind-set is not just important but a prerequisite to the development of high levels of skill and generally in overcoming life’s challenges.

YouTube Video, The Power of belief — mindset and success | Eduardo Briceno | TEDxManhattanBeach, TEDx Talks, November 2012, 10:51 minutes

The growth mindset can be taught. Encouraging students to take on challenges at the upper boundary of their capability, not to fear failure but to embrace challenge and difficulty reaps more benefit than rewarding students on the basis of success.

TED Video, Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve, TEDx Talks, November 2014, 10:20 minutes

Changing attitude and mindset can also work for anxiety and depression:

YouTube Video, How Neuroplasticity Could Help with Depression, with Ruby Wax, Big Think, December 2014, 6:57 minutes

The Relationship Between Wellbeing and Control

Not having control can have major impact on wellbeing under some circumstances. Whenever needs are un-met if you don’t believe that you sufficient control to be able to achieve the satisfaction of that need, wellbeing can suffer. It follows from this that if a need is satisfied then it does not matter whether or not you have control over its satisfaction.

An example: You are thirsty – you have a need for a drink. This is an un-met need. You have some tea, water, milk and a kettle. You make some tea. The need is satisfied. You did not need (much) control. Even if you did not have some tea you could easily go to the shop and get it. Now say you are thirsty but you have nothing to drink. Now you need sufficient control that you can obtain it. Let’s say you live on the streets and have no clean water, you have no money or anything you can exchange to buy water and no other means of obtaining it. Now you have an un-met need and no control. Your wellbeing will suffer.

In a sense this is so obvious that people do not usually think of it in this explicit way. They just live. Every time they put the kettle on for a cup of tea, they do not think ‘I have an un-met need for a cup of tea but, as I have control over being able to get one, my wellbeing does not suffer’. You don’t have to think that because when you have control everything is easy and automatic. You just get on with it. Only when you are surprised, and automatic thinking does not work, is conscious thinking engaged. Daniel Kahneman refers to automatic thinking as system 1 thinking and conscious thought, as system 2 thinking,

YouTube Video, Daniel Kahneman on The Machinery of the Mind, tvochannel, March 2012, 47:26 minutes

If you cannot get want you want easily (i.e. without having to think out exactly how you are going to get it) then that creates a minor dissonance or anxiety that drives you to plan how you will satisfy the need. If you can think of no good plan then your anxiety level may be raised and this means you wellbeing is suffering. There are some alternative ways of dealing with this. They include denial, change and escape.

YouTube Video, Anxiety: Hibernate, Adapt, or Migrate: Summer Beretsky at TEDxWilliamsport, TEDx Talks, November 2012, 17:14 minutes

The above video brings together circumstances, orientation, anxiety, physical symptoms, remedies for anxiety (hibernate, adapt or migrate), autonomy, purpose and control. There are some universal neurological and psychological mechanisms at play.

YouTube Video, Your Brain on Stress and Anxiety, Dr John Kenworthy, November 2013, 4:44 minutes

YouTube Video, 90:10 The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Stress, DocMikeEvans, June 2012, 11 minutes

Anxiety focuses attention on the un-met need and raises its priority on your agenda of things that you intend to deal with. Mild anxiety provides motivation to think through ways to satisfy need. High levels of anxiety, however, can be counter-productive as they may prevent you from seeing solutions ‘outside the box’ of your focus of attention. Prolonged higher levels of anxiety are called stress. Prolonged levels of stress lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness (i.e. a total lack of control).

Setting out the relationship between wellbeing and control in this way is sufficiently abstract that it can accommodate many different value systems. So, in one value system, ‘drinking tea’ is a good thing, and in another it is bad. In the first, there is a need to drink tea and in the second there is a need to avoid drinking tea and drink something else instead. Whichever, without control you can be in a state of learned helplessness:

YouTube Video, Learned Helplessness, zooeygirl, November 2007, 6:55 minutes

Sudden and significant loss, for example through bereavement, injury or financial loss, can also create anxiety and stress. This too, is routed in lack of control. Significant loss is disorientating. It throws everything into the air. Nothing is in its place. All seems unfamiliar. You do not know where you are. You are ‘all at sea’, tossed around by circumstances beyond your control. You have nothing fixed and stable to hang on to. You have no reference points to navigate by.

Sudden loss, or experience of trauma, often creates a kind of mental paralysis. It’s like being caught in the headlights. You have no idea which way to run so you find yourself bound to the spot. You become stuck, fixed in a particular view-point or habits of thought. To become ‘un-stuck’ you have to re-interpret and re-write the story of the loss in a way that allows you to move on. This is re-orientation (and often also a form of re-calibration of expectations) that gives you back a belief system you can trust to again navigate and control.

One treatment based on this approach is Cognitive Processing Therapy:

YouTube Video, What is Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) , Veterans Health Administration, July 2012, 2:00 minutes

In This Blog: ’Knowledge is Power to Control’ the roles of orientation and purpose have been identified as prerequisite of control, and mastery as a necessary feature of highly skilled and confident ability to control.

Up Next: ‘Representations of Reality Enable Control’ shows the different ways, from neurophysiology to imagination, in which we model the world.

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Rod Rivers' passions include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

Posted in Control, Influence, Mental Health, Mind, Needs, Power

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.