The Dangers of Trying to Control Other People

Worry too much about trying to control other people and you might just end up giving yourself high blood pressure.

Psychologists call being concerned with influencing other people’s behavior agonistic striving. And in several studies, they’ve linked agonistic striving to health problems.

In one study published last November, for example, researchers looked at the relationship between agonistic striving, blood pressure and levels of cortisol – sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone” because it’s released in response to stress.

They found that people with higher levels of cortisol also tended to have higher blood pressure – but only when those people displayed agonistic striving. In other words, higher levels of cortisol were associated with higher levels of blood pressure in people who were more focused on trying to control others but not in people who were less invested in influencing other people’s behavior.

Another study found that youth who exhibit agonistic striving had a more extreme cardiovascular response to stress. According to the researchers, this could mean that going out of your way to change other people’s behavior could be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The same study found that participants who displayed agonistic striving tended to be less socially competent.

Besides being associated with cardiovascular symptoms, agonistic striving has also been linked to somatic symptoms of unexplained illnesses in teens and adults. Moreover, the relationship between trying to influence others’ behavior and somatic symptoms apparently doesn’t have to do with anxiety, depression, anger, low self-esteem or emotional reactivity.

Of course, if trying too hard to control others is unhealthy (literally), trying too hard to control yourself might be just as bad. A 2012 study found that people high in both “agonistic” and “transcendence” motives – that is, both people who wanted exert control over others and who wanted to exert self-control – had higher levels of blood pressure.

We don’t know why this is the case. More research will have to be done to untangle the cause-and-effect and figure out how these findings could be applied in interventions that lower people’s cardiovascular risk. But for now, we do know that people who try harder to influence others do seem to be at higher risk for high blood pressure and possibly other medical symptoms.

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