ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (5): 1119-1130.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01119

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Compensatory control in public emergencies

RAO Tingting1, ZHU Xiaowen1, YANG Shenlong1(), BAI Jie2   

  1. 1School of Humanities and Social Science, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an 710049, China
    2School of Psychology, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210097, China
  • Received:2021-03-24 Online:2022-05-15 Published:2022-03-24
  • Contact: YANG Shenlong


Public emergencies refer to social events that occur suddenly, cause, or may cause serious social harm and require emergency measures in dealing with them. Previous studies have focused on the psychological and behavioral responses of individuals during public emergencies. However, most of these studies have focused on describing psychological phenomena rather than exploring psychological mechanisms. Thus, the present article proposes that compensatory control theory can be used as a basic theoretical framework to understand a series of psychological and behavioral manifestations of individuals in the context of public emergencies. The core idea of this theory is that when individuals lack a sense of control, they tend to show a variety of reactions that have a common motivation; that is seeking structure. We analyzed the applicability of compensatory control theory to explain individuals’ psychological performance in the context of public emergencies from four perspectives. First, after major public emergencies occur, conspiracy theories on the cause of the event often follow. From the perspective of compensatory control theory, when individuals’ sense of control is threatened due to the occurrence of public emergencies, they tend to form conspiratorial thinking to some extent. Hence, they are eager to obtain a sense of order or structure to compensate. Since it is often difficult for authorities to immediately give a definitive answer about the cause of the incident, the conspiracy theory is often believed, which satisfies people’s search for causality and certainty. Second, during public emergencies, people tend to believe in and spread rumors. From the perspective of compensatory control theory, this can also be interpreted as individuals’ need to obtain a sense of structure brought about by deterministic information in a crisis, which leads to blind acceptance of unreliable information. Third, people exposed to public emergencies will also show stronger concern for moral issues, which, according to the compensatory control theory, is an individual’s search for certain social values. Further, the need for order and structure still matters when focusing on values. By emphasizing the objective standard of morality and strengthening the value that they believe in, people can achieve a sense of structure and order to some extent and thus, compensate for the lack of perceived control. Finally, in the context of public emergencies, there is another typical public behavior: irrational buying and hoarding of commodities required for daily life or event protection materials. This phenomenon can also be partially attributed to the performance of the individual need for structure. Due to the lack of a sense of control, individuals need to satisfy their internal needs for control and order through the possession of tangible material resources, which leads to their irrational purchasing behavior. These typical symptoms (belief in conspiracy theories, spreading rumors, moral concerns, and irrational hoarding) can also be explained by other social psychological theories to some extent. For example, by analyzing an individual’s fear of death and the worldview defense process used to overcome this fear, terror management theory can explain an individual’s focus on moral values. Similarly, the uncertainty management theory and meaning maintenance model can also explain some psychological and behavioral reactions of individuals in public emergencies. However, we believe that compensatory control theory has a unique advantage in understanding the above phenomena. This is because it has a clearer definition of antecedents (lack of perceived control) and consequences (need for structure) and shows a wide range of explanatory power and cross-cultural applicability. We suggest that in future studies, people’s psychological and behavioral responses to public emergencies should be further explored from the perspective of compensatory control. In addition, future research should delve deeper to explore this issue from theoretical, empirical, and practical perspectives.

Key words: public emergencies, compensatory control, perceived control, need for structure