On May 17th, 2018 we learned about

Narrowing down the reasons some people have a harder time with rules and requests

My son is currently in a difficult place, as he has decided to care deeply about being “the boss” while also being five years old. So as much as he’d like to dictate the terms of bedtime or timing of dinner, there are many moments when we can’t agree with the demands and judgments of a pre-schooler. There are signs that, as he grows older, he’s becoming a bit more understanding about when it’s appropriate to cede control to the adults around him, but there’s also a chance that he may be a naturally control-averse person. It’s a mindset that everyone’s encountered from time to time, as we all have moments where expressing defiance is somehow more important than solving the problem at hand, and yet we don’t really know much about how it manifests in our brains. Researchers are getting closer, but pinning down what makes some people have a harder time following “the rules” is proving to be a difficult task.

When being asked for something backfires

If you ask people to share their thoughts on freedom, rules and autonomy, you won’t actually get very far. Most of us, from age five to age fifty, generally feel like making our own choices is a pretty good idea, even if we don’t back those opinions up in our behavior. To come up with a more objective definition of control-averse behavior, researchers had volunteers play a money-trading game in an fMRI, observing brain activity while also looking for patterns in the way people conducted themselves when they weren’t explicitly thinking about if they were “the boss” or not.

Most participants were fairly generous with their partner when playing the game. Likewise, most participants didn’t like their generosity being questioned. During some rounds of “trading,” people’s partners would request a minimum amount of money to be handed over. Almost every participant balked at these requests, complying but handing over less money than if they hadn’t been asked. So for example, if a test subject would have normally shared $15, a request for $10 would spur the subject to share less, maybe only giving $10 or $11 that round. The more control-averse someone was, the more they were likely to reduce their generosity. When asked further questions about their motivations, people who were more control-averse also reported that they were more bothered by the implied lack of trust in their partner’s request as well as a general distrust if they didn’t understand why their partner would ask for a minimum amount. More than ideas about freedom, it seemed that the issue was in understanding the partner’s motivations.

A confusing basis in the brain

Since these behavior patterns were operating on a spectrum, with some people having more pronounced reactions to minimum requests than others, it still wasn’t enough to really define control-aversion. Fortunately, the data from the fMRI scans of participants’ brains helped find a more tangible clue, as control-averse people also showed pronounced activity in the inferior parietal lobule and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Those brain regions don’t explain everything at this point, as they linked to everything from math to moral decision-making, but they at least offer a more objective metric than asking for people’s opinions. As researchers look into these particular bits of anatomy further, there’s speculation that the activity seen in this study is the result of a person coming to terms with their own motivations and outside stimuli that they perceive as being in conflict with their goals, even if they’re just a minimum request.

It’s worth noting that as much as control-aversion sounds like a negative (and feels negative when its coming from a tired five-year-old), it’s not necessarily a bad trait to have. There are times when questioning authority or dogma can provide important leadership, helping the rule-breaker and everyone around them. However, in some contexts it obviously causes problems, leading people do to the clash with rules or laws for what seems like a very unnecessary reason.

Source: Why Some People Just Can't Have a Boss: Study Reveals Brain Differences by Bahar Gholipour, Live Science

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