Power/Control Motivation and Helplessness


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    12-20

ABSTRACT:  Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are posited to be prime motivating factors for persons to seek power and control over others.  Political implications are explored.

KEY WORDS:  helplessness, vulnerability, power motives, power, control, control motives, emotions, politics

Human beings vary in their motivation to seek and to have power over others, but the immediate motivation for having power is to be able to control the behavior of others so that that behavior is to the controller’s benefit or to at least minimize harm to the controller.  Since all behavior is motivated mostly through our emotions, it is worthwhile to ask what emotions underlie this penchant for using control of others to improve one’s overall life situation.  These efforts to control may benefit the controller, but they usually have negative effects on those who are controlled, either in limiting the behavioral possibilities of the controlled or in applying negative reinforcements to the controlled to establish and maintain the controller’s control.  Positive reinforcement can also be used to control and is perhaps more humane, but it will still constrain the behavior of the controlled to some extent.

Power-control (having power over others in order to control the others’ behavior for the benefit of the controller) is related to domination, which contains the same wish to control one’s own outcomes by controlling the behavior of others but often also contains a triumphant wish to punish, to lord it over the dominated one or grind the dominated one’s face into the dust, in return for the previous, supposed mistreatment the dominator received.  A common archetypal image of “power” is an angry, dominating person descending on one with violence.  This is an exertion of power, but it combines the application of negative influence to prevent future harm, with punishment for current and/or past harm.  The anger part of this is the reaction to being harmed, and this anger may also be one of the negative influences brought to bear in gaining control.  The tendency to dominate may have partially a genetic component, but there is no way currently to prove that genetics plays a role in any given individual’s dominating behavior.  The same goes for power-control, as we shall note later.

It is well to recognize that human beings as social creatures will always (except for hermits) be engaged in some efforts to influence the behavior of others in their favor.  All of us do it every day.  There are many kinds of influence—written, oral, non-verbal, and others.  This essay will view power-control as one of those types of influence but one which is characterized by the controller’s capacity to apply reinforcers directly to the controlled when the controlled’s behavior needs to be shaped (in the opinion of the controller).  President Trump tries to harm those who criticize or disagree with him, through his texts and exaggerations in speeches, in order to control them and make them stop their disagreeing or criticizing.  The woman who displays her physical charms in efforts to get positive responses from others is exerting influence, but this is quite different from the controller who has the ability to demote, hurt, humiliate, or reward.  If the woman in this example achieves a position in which a person is emotionally dependent on her, and she is then willing to give or withdraw favor and love as means of control, then this moves her influence into the sector of “power-control.”  One could say that a person doesn’t have (full) control of another person unless he/she has the means of changing any disliked behavior of the person controlled, but in many real-life cases control may be partial.  Complete control may be achieved adequately through threats of harm, through overt harm that seems legal or permitted (if specious justifications are employed), or through secret illegal or immoral behavior.

We all experience helplessness and vulnerability as infants and children, and for some, these emotions continue to be salient in adulthood, depending on their circumstances.  Infants soon learn that their welfare and how they feel are influenced by others (caretakers) who can have various (and varying) levels of attunement to the needs and feelings of the infant.  They learn, as soon as they can, to begin to influence the behavior of those caretakers through their actions and verbalizations (crying, cooing, imitating, screaming, kicking, etc.).  This struggle continues through childhood as children attempt to get what they need from caretakers, always cognizant of their dependence on those caretakers.  (In a small number of families, the child actually achieves control in the sense that the parents are not willing to experience the negative reinforcers that the child can apply to them (which would be necessary in order for them to maintain their parental control.)  A significant break in this dynamic occurs when the child “moves out” and takes primary financial responsibility for himself, but the emotional dependencies probably never leave many of us for the entire life cycle.  Fundamental helplessness is a lost in space/overwhelmed feeling, but in those old enough to attribute causation to themselves and others, helplessness may also lead to feelings of shame (at being so unable to defend the self that one feels below and inferior to the powerful who are controlling one).

Helplessness and vulnerability are perhaps the two most avoided emotions for humans.  Think of the panic you would feel if you were on your way somewhere and suddenly couldn’t remember where you were going and how to get there, or consider the feeling of helplessness in the dreams in which you must go somewhere or complete an important task, but you have no idea where or how to do it.  Consider the intense confusion, grief, and helplessness when you finally realize that nothing you can do can save what has been a valued relationship.  These experiences hark back to the infant’s helplessness in not knowing how to or not being able to affect the caretaker in desired ways and the child’s helplessness when being punished wrongfully for something by physical harm or withdrawal of parental love.

Most people when faced with these feelings of helplessness and vulnerabiity react with giving up, crying, bewailing, and temporary emotional collapse.  A smaller percentage (10%?) react with stubborn refusal to give up or collapse emotionally, and instead redouble their determination to continue the struggle until they “win.”  This is reminiscent of the child who refuses to cry when spanked and/or vows to get back at the punisher.  The child thereby refuses to acknowledge the power of the parent.  The essence of this response is to reverse the control that he/she currently feels from the other person(s) and to instead control the other person—to be in control and able to prevent others from hurting him/her as they have before. 

Just being able to influence the other is not sufficient, since one would then worry about whether or not the influence would be sufficient to prevent future harm.  If our protagonist is to be able to relax due to his/her confidence that he/she can control the other, the control must be fairly complete.  (The other ninety percent of children cry and give up for the moment, but they will search for either ways to influence the caretaker to not mistreat the child (be more pleasing to the caretaker, hide misdeeds better, hide when the caretaker is drunk, etc.) or ways to have a more positive environment, like running away or developing pseudo-parent-child relationships with other adults, etc.)

It is not clear whether there are predisposing genetic, personality, or caretaking-environment conditions that result in children adopting the power-control strategy.  We might wonder if children who experience a significant trauma would be more likely than other children who feel helpless to adopt the power-control strategy.  Since significant traumas are almost always overwhelming, it seems reasonable that these children would stay in the cry-and-collapse group, but this deserves further research.

It is my contention that people who opt for the “never give up but instead seek power and control” position are more likely than the rest of us to rise in status in hierarchical groups (families, corporations, governments), since they are likely to be more persistent and more likely to view opposition as a challenge regarding control.  Also, only people with a significant amount of emotional motivation would be willing to endure the many stresses and potential humiliations that are part of a rise to positions of power.  The entitlement that most Presidents (not just Pres. Trump) seem to feel to some extent (that they can get away with more than others and that they deserve to be able to get away with more than ordinary people) would seem to support this.  Our recent change in attitude about presidents, from winking at their faults to ruthlessly exposing them (and acting like a president should have no faults) seems to have revealed that most presidents have a strong need to control through power.  Again, influencing–even having significant influence-is not sufficient, but the president must be able to control others in the sense of being able to sufficiently harm others so that they will stop the undesired behavior.  The general depreciation of Pres. Carter as being a wimp may well spring from his apparently having less of this need for powerful control.  Pres. Trump’s childhood, as portrayed in Mary Trump’s book at least, would certainly support this scenario, as Donald figured out how to avoid the degradation his older brother received from his father and how to stay in his father’s good graces by strong self-assertion in the social arena, never acknowledging fault, degrading others who oppose him, and persisting until opponents give up–a pattern that he continues to employ to this day.

It can be argued that the desire for power and control could arise at any age simply from being hurt and wanting to prevent that hurt in the future.  I think that we all experience our first hurt and pain as infants, when we are most helpless.  If they do experience feelings of helplessness and vulnerability (perhaps rudimentary), these feelings are painful in and of themselves through the resulting frustration and anticipatory fear of further pain (in addition to the pain they feel directly from having needs neglected or being physically hurt), and they begin as soon as they can to try to counteract these feelings.  When people experience harm at later ages (latency and later), they have already established coping methods and are not likely to start trying at that point to develop the “never give up and instead seek power-control” strategy.

The problem arising from the behavior of persons who live by power-control is that he/she reduces the options of those around him by using power to deny them certain behaviors that the controller deems undesirable in term of his own outcomes.  Also, the person who lives by power-control is tempted to go and often goes beyond morality to do what he “needs” to do, as judged by his own outcomes only (and rationalizes it in some way or other, if he/she still has awareness of norms existing around him/her), since he does not admit that others’ needs could be important and should at times take precedence over his own.

It can be debated whether a strong need for control (power to control and power used to control) is a general liability or a general strength for our presidents, but I suggest that it is more of a liability, especially in this time of Congressional gridlock due to the aggressive attitudes (fight rather than compromise) of many or most politicians.  This wish for control is shown by a president in insisting that staff adhere to what the President wants rather than to principles of democratic government, in punishing criticism of everyone who disagrees with him, and in assertions of reality by the president that are simply not true or even realistic at all (my inaugural crowd was bigger, I didn’t lose the election, Mexico will pay for the wall, China is paying the U.S. through tariffs).  Stubbornness on the part of a president may be laudable in times of war, but an extreme need to avoid feeling helpless and vulnerable by vanquishing others, especially if the pattern also involved distorting reality, may well result in bad decisions in regard to that war.  These needs may have caused Hitler to make some of his greatest blunders in Germany’s loss of WWII.

This attitude toward control on the part of presidents may not cause significant problems for the country as a whole if it is reasonably concealed, but it is causing problems in the case of Pres. Trump–for example, in his psychological inability to accept losing the last election and his preference for contaminating citizens’ belief in our elections rather than admitting defeat.  (There are some issues of lost ballots or some slightly inaccurate counts in all elections, but these have never been significant enough to justify nullifying an election or changing the outcome.  If Pres. Trump’s suggestion that some states’ outcomes be nullified were to be considered, then the various problems in all states’ elections should also be investigated, in every election, which would make court decisions a regular part of every election, which I imagine most citizens would not want.)


It is essential to educate citizens (1) to better recognize (and reject) control through harm or threat of harm and (2) to prevent citizens from electing as leaders those who suffer from the extreme fear of shame, helplessness, and vulnerability that can motivate leaders to harm all who criticize or disagree with them.

In dealing with this problem, we could arrange our elections in general (not just the presidency) not to favor those with this strong need for control and self-aggrandizement through powerful control.  This could include (1) making standing for election easier (rather than slanting it in favor of the political parties, whose candidates are likely to have survived the hassles and traumas of rising through the political ranks because of their dogged determination to eventually be in control), (2) using public funding for a certain amount of communications by candidates to citizens (to temper the possibility of self-funded candidates who may well have accumulated their wealth under the sting of motivation to be in control and never be helpless), (3) focusing on policy proposals rather than personalities of candidates (to minimize the appeal of dominating candidates to weaker voters), and (4) educating citizens to become interested in policies that will help or harm them rather than trying to elect a friend-figure, savior, or parent-figure as president.

An even more fundamental change would be to educate citizens to recognize how difficult helplessness and vulnerability are for all of us and make it more acceptable in general to acknowledge inability, failure, and defeat rather than hiding our shame from others at all costs.  We can, then, (5) “normalize” shame so that people are able to acknowledge it, so that it loses some of its force and becomes readily recognizable in others.  We can learn to be more compassionate with ourselves by doing the best we can and knowing that it is good enough.

Those who give allegiance to a powerful, controlling president do so (particularly in the case of Pres. Trump) because that person offers a solution to the adherents’ own shame and helplessness—“believe me, and believe in me, and I will tell you that you are OK and will take care of you.”  We can find additional ways to help all citizens recognize and acknowledge their helplessness and shame and adopt more adaptive solutions, such as sharing these feelings with others (since everyone feels a certain amount of helplessness in our overly complex and over-interdependent society).  This sharing would take away much of the sting of shame and the shame of helplessness, since “if everyone is doing it, it must be OK” (a strength and protection- in-numbers strategy which is not always completely true but which can still be helpful!).