Yearning for Choice – the Desire to be Free!

Along with the need to be needed, a major force that influences the decisions and actions of most humans seems to be the desire to be free. We often gravitate towards decisions and courses of action that appear to be chosen freely than through compulsion. Ironically, the predisposition for choices that reinforce our faith in free choice is so strong that it will often leave no room for choice!

In the anime series “Naruto”, in a clan named “Hyuuga”, the head family consists of the eldest child of each generation and all others are part of branch family. The branches exist only to protect the head. At one point, when one of the members of the branch decides to sacrifice their life for the sake of his elder brother who is in the “trunk” of the clan, he goes ahead with it in spite of his brother’s opposition. He says that was the first time he could do something of his own choice. He was not doing it as a member of the branch family was required to; rather, as a free man who chooses to protect his brother at the cost of his own life.  If death was the only thing he could choose himself, he wanted to choose it!

In the Malayalam movie “My Boss”, the boss is a lady who strikes a deal with one of her subordinates to help her out of a difficult situation. When the latter insists that his promotion be made a part of the deal, she gets upset. She confesses to her friend that she was already planning to give him that promotion, but that there was a big difference between her freely bestowing it upon him and he forcefully taking it from her.

There are instances when I could see this line of thought in myself. For example, though usually happy to get up and offer my seat for a pregnant lady or an old woman who board a crowded bus, if the seat I am occupying happens to be reserved for them, I would part with it grudgingly.

Many a time, those who receive are also usually happier and more satisfied if they can think of having won it through their own hard work or merit and not received as charity or due to somebody else’s goodwill.

Understanding these sentiments and how people are controlled by it is very important when dealing with people, even if you have their best interests in mind. As an example, consider running a business in Kerala, which is made very difficult by the meddling of belligerent and parasitic trade unions. Since they don’t add any value to the system, they are always under pressure to build a perception that they bring value! So, if a company is willing to give a bonus payout to their employees at the rate of 15% of their annual wages, they should start by offering only 10%. Then these trade unions will take an aggressive posture demanding 15% and after a lot of debate and bargaining, the management can agree to some 13% or 14% and the workers will be happy to have won their “rights” through force. The trade unions will be happy because it will look like they have done something for the labourers, while truth may be that if they were not involved, the management would have gladly given a 15% bonus for the sake of employee satisfaction.

Those who are new to running factories and manufacturing units will be disappointed and frustrated that in spite of their good intentions, it will look like they were not willing to give the workers their due, and whatever they finally gave had to be snatched out of their hands. If they are controlled by their desire to reaffirm choice and try to one-up the trade unions by giving more than they even asked for, he would be inviting trouble by removing the very reason of existence for those trade unions, which will then go to any length to destroy him and his business. After all, trade unions have no need for the existence of a business that treats is workers well – it defeats their whole purpose of existence, and they will strive to destroy it even if it means destroying the livelihood of the workers whose cause they claim to support! Instead, if the owners can understand this psychology well and override their predisposition, they will be able to run the business the way they want by giving the other party an illusion of choice.

This yearning for choice appears at a very young age, and is often used as a lever to manipulate their behavior and action, all while they think they are following their own choices freely! If you want to make a child eat rice, for example, just try asking them not to take the rice that you have kept there and they will take it. “Now, don’t put it into our mouth”, and they do exactly that. Adults are manipulated in the same way by those who know how to exploit this weakness.

An interesting manifestation of this tendency in adults is how many women will want to work outside their home even if it means struggling with work-life balance, being involved in mundane, tedious tasks, working extra hours, being away from their kids and family, etc because they have been conditioned to see that as a sign of freedom. They might enjoy taking care of their kids at home much more, but the view that it is something society thrusts upon them reduces its attractiveness. Also involved is the “purpose” angle.  This comes from a strange notion that mechanically filling up excel sheets with data count as “achievement”, but contributing meaningfully at home doesn’t. This notion of purpose as well as the idea that burning yourself out at work counts as freedom are both craft inventions of the capitalistic economy that is always in need of a manipulable and motivated workforce!

desire to be free can lead to greater bondage when pursued without wisdom
This G. K. Chesterton quote beautifully captures the essence of the paradox of the desire to be free leading to bondage of a different sort or even greater bondage!

Many entrepreneurs are also victims of this obsession with “being in control”. It is said that “entrepreneurs work 80 hrs a week to avoid 40 hrs”, or they work round the clock to avoid working nine to five! Those who quit their job to pursue their own venture solely because they don’t want to work “under” anyone will soon be disappointed. Instead of a single boss that they were answerable to, they will now be accountable to many, including customers, investors and employees.

The desire to be free, like the need to be needed, is a very powerful instinct in humans that can be used to motivate or manipulate them. (Well, motivation is perhaps a form of manipulation, differing only in the intention behind it)! These are usually harder to break free from than shackles and chains made of steel, for we typically wear these of our own “free” will!

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