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Control, Perceived


Healthy and successful individuals often have a strong sense that they are in control of their lives and the world around them. Likewise, men and women who feel that they are in control of their lives tend to be healthy and successful. An individual's perception of his or her ability to be effective in the world, what psychology textbooks refer to as perceived control, is widely studied because it has such an important, and sometimes obvious, impact on an individual's physical and mental health. Perceived control reflects the degree to which an individual believes that a situation is controllable and that he or she has the skills necessary to bring about a desired (or avoid an undesired) outcome. There are two fundamental aspects: contingency (i.e., does the person believe that this outcome is controllable?) and competence (i.e., does the person perceive himself or herself as capable of producing the desired, or suppressing the undesired, event?).

Perceived control differs from objective control in that it focuses on a person's subjective perception (i.e., what the person believes is accepted as the reality for that individual, regardless of the actual control available). When people perceive themselves to be in control, but are not, it is called an illusion of control. A number of studies have investigated illusions of control. However, because the amount of control actually available is often not known, the practicality of examining this aspect of control has been questioned. Overall, research points to a fundamental difference between the actual control available in a situation and a person's perception of control; the perception of control (whether accurate or not) influences people's behaviors and emotions more strongly than actual control.

Historically, control beliefs, studied as locus of control, were conceived of as unidimensional, with internal control on one end of the continuum and external control on the other. Deriving his work from social learning theory, Dr. Julian Rotter developed the Internal-External scale in the 1960s. The Internal-External Scale utilized a forced-choice format questionnaire, and individuals were divided into those with either internal or external control beliefs. Those with an internal orientation believed that their own actions could produce desired outcomes, whereas those with an external view expected external forces (e.g., chance) to produce outcomes. This traditional conceptualization focused on what people believed caused events, irrespective of their perceived abilities to bring forth or prevent the events. In other words, this conceptualization lacked the component of competence.

Locus of control has since been expanded, and is now called by many different names, including primary/secondary control, sense of control, control beliefs, decisional control, control motivation, self-efficacy, self-directedness, self-determination, choice, decision, mastery, autonomy, helplessness, and explanatory style (see Skinner for a thorough compilation of terms falling under the rubric of control). Researchers now believe control beliefs are multidimensional, with internal and external beliefs independent. In Dr. Hanna Levenson's model (developed in 1972), there are three dimensions related to how a person views the cause of an event: internal or personal mastery ("It's due to me"), chance ("It's luck"), and powerful others ("It's due to others").

Rather than simply assessing beliefs about the controllability of a situation, modern conceptualizations also measure competence. That is, if people have a strong sense of control, they will likely believe not only that the outcome is dependent on their behavior but also that they have the ability to engage successfully in relevant actions. Further, perceived control is measured in both general (e.g., control over life in general) and specific domains (e.g., control over health, intellectual functioning, memory, and interpersonal relations). Domain-specific measures have helped to clarify complex relationships; for example, while there are typically no age differences on generalized measures of control, age differences have been found in domain-specific control beliefs in the areas of health and intelligence, with older adults showing decrements in these domains.

Control and self-efficacy

Domain-specific control beliefs are often studied under the term self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the most studied component of Dr. Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory, originally formulated as the unifying theory of behavior change (1977). This theory states that behavior is governed by expectancies and incentives, and includes aspects of both contingency (outcome expectations) and competence (efficacy expectations). Efficacy expectations are influenced by four primary sources of information: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and motivational arousal. Performance accomplishments are the most effective type of information in forming efficacy beliefs. Successes will increase beliefs, and once an individual has a strong sense of efficacy, occasional failures will not be processed as negatively. Individuals with many performance accomplishments will persist in the face of defeat, and a failure that is later overcome will greatly strengthen efficacy beliefs.

Self-efficacy is measured in a specific and graduated fashion rather than on a general and global level. For example, an item measuring perceived control in the domain of health may read "How much control do you have over your health these days?," and the respondent rates his or her perceived control on a scale ranging from "No Control" to "Very Much Control." An item on a self-efficacy scale measuring perceived ability to exercise would read "How confident are you that you would exercise if you were in a bad mood?," and the respondent would give a confidence rating ranging from 0 to 100. Self-efficacy is frequently measured in studies examining behavior change, such as smoking cessation, exercise adherence, and phobia reduction. Most theories explaining human behavior include a self-efficacy component, and many researchers have called for an integration of the prominent theories. However, the social cognition theory, often referred to as simply the self-efficacy theory, is probably the most straightforward and popular framework, although it is not without its critics (see Maddux for a discussion of conceptual issues, and Smedslund for criticisms related to definitions and theoretically necessary versus empirically testable constructs within the theory).

Correlates of perceived control

Researchers examining diverse outcomes, and using various definitions of control, repeatedly find a relationship between perceived control and numerous positive outcomes. For example, individuals who possess a strong sense of control are wealthier and more educated, have better memories and higher intellectual functioning, are more physically active, enjoy better health, and live longer than those with a weak sense of control. Control is also associated with positive psychological outcomes, including greater life satisfaction, a more positive self-concept, greater well-being, and feeling young for one's age. Cross-sectional research cannot exclude the possibility that the above correlates produce a sense of perceived control; for example, greater wealth may lead to stronger control beliefs. Studies that do offer evidence for control as a causal agent indicate that a strong sense of perceived control is beneficial to an individual; however, little is known about possible negative effects of control.

Negative outcomes associated with control occur when there is a lack of fit between the person and the environment. For example, people who want low control may be dissatisfied with a situation that encourages them to take control. Further, encouraging perceptions of control may have harmful effects (e.g., frustration or helplessness) if a person lacks ability or if the situation does not allow control (as in some institutional settings).

It may be that global control beliefs are generally adaptive, whereas domain-specific control beliefs may or may not be adaptive, depending on the controllability of the domain. For example, interpersonal relationships at a minimum involve two people (and, when considering an entire social network, consist of an intricate web of social ties); thus the controllability over these relationships will vary, with control shared across the network. In this case, it would be reasonable to expect that a person with a moderate sense of perceived control could build and utilize a successful network, whereas someone holding strong beliefs about his or her control over other people in the networkfor example, a partner or family membermay be exposed to social conflict or disappointment. While it may be harmful to exert efforts to control an event that is truly uncontrollable, a strong sense of control will be adaptive if it is assumed that most of the situations people face throughout their lives, as well as their responses to them (i.e., how one copes), are to some extent controllable or of unknown controllability (e.g., illness and disease).

Processes of control

There are two primary mechanisms through which perceived control may produce beneficial outcomes: direct (main-effect model), or indirect, through a reduction in stress (stressbuffering model; see Cohen).

The main-effect model suggests that having a strong sense of control has a direct positive effect on health through various mediators, or mechanisms. These mediators include cognitive, behavioral, and physiological factors. For example, control may lead to positive psychological states, such as high self-esteem and positive affect. This in turn may lead to favorable physiological responses as well as to participation in health-promoting behaviors. Together, these produce health-relevant biological influences (e.g., immune effects) resulting in good health. This model does not explicitly include alternative paths, which also likely exist. For example, it is plausible that a health-promoting behavior like exercise would influence health, physiological responses, and subsequent feelings of control.

There is evidence for a main-effect model. For example, an internal health locus of control has been related to the importance placed on good health, and both of them are predictors of engaging in preventive health behaviors. Thus, control beliefs can help explain why some people abstain from risky behaviors (e.g., smoking) and participate in healthy ones (e.g., exercise).

In the psychological domain, perceived control has been associated with increased levels of self-esteem, optimism, vigor, and social support, and decreased levels of depression and anxiety. While many of the studies in this area are correlational, growing numbers of experimental manipulations of objective control and interventions enhancing efficacy beliefs have produced beneficial results, suggesting that the causal direction is from feelings of control to health and wellbeing.

While the main-effect model assumes that there are effects of control on health and wellbeing (through cognition, behaviors, and/or physiology), an alternative and equally plausible view suggests that a strong sense of control may aid in the buffering of stress. Stress is assumed to have negative effects on health and well-being. In the stress-buffering model, a potentially stressful event is tempered by feelings of control at multiple points. For example, control may lead a potentially stressful event to be appraised as less so, or, once a stressful event is perceived, control may ward off feelings of helplessness.

Studies in which outcomes depend upon an interaction between stress and control support a stress-buffering model (e.g., control moderates the effects of stress on physical and mental health). Research also supports interactions between control and physiological aspects of stress; physiological responses to stressful events are lessened in those with strong control beliefs. For example, when people believe they have control over an aversive event like noise, or that they can successfully overcome a stressor, they show lower levels of stress-related hormones.

Perceived control in aging

A desire to exert control over the environment is implicit in theories of control, and evidenced in early life. Whether described as an effectance drive, mastery motivation, or the need for competence, research indicates that perceiving control over the environment is a basic need in humans (see Heckhausen and Schulz for a review).

Personal control beliefs (internal control) increase during childhood. In middle childhood, concepts of control become more differentiated, and there appears to be an increase in internal control beliefs as people age. Several studies have shown that general control beliefs remain relatively stable, decreasing only slightly, well into older adulthood. However, age-related changes in domain-specific control beliefs have been found, with older adults showing declines in areas of health, physical appearance, and intellectual functioning. In addition there is evidence that beliefs about constraints increase markedly in later life.

Control beliefs in older adults are especially important subjects of study; normative beliefs about aging include an increase in the risk for losses (social, personal, and physical) and a corresponding decrease in opportunities for gains. Thus, developmental changes in later life present challenges for an individual's actual, as well as perceived, control. However, studies have indicated that older adults can maintain a sense of control through accommodation processes. A theory that incorporates accommodation, termed selective optimization with compensation (Baltes and Baltes), explains a person's ability to maintain beliefs in control by selecting high-efficacy domains, taking measures to optimize functioning in these areas, and, when necessary, compensating when requisite skills or resources are no longer available. For example, an aging pianist may give up other activities and reduce her repertoire (selection), practice more often (optimization), and slow down the playing of the song before a fast section to give the impression of speed (compensation). Thus, while general internal control beliefs remain stable in adulthood, external control beliefs increase in later life, and domain-specific decreases in control are likely to occur in areas that are susceptible to age-related loss.

The modifiability of control beliefs has also been studied from a life span perspective. Interventions designed to affect control beliefs in adulthood have demonstrated that while control beliefs are more malleable in younger adults, once older adults are convinced of their ability, they devote more time and effort to relevant tasks and therefore attain further gains in both performance and efficacy beliefs.

Implications for research in aging

Because strong control beliefs have been related to so many positive outcomes, there have been many attempts to enhance such feelings through interventions. Researchers have attempted to modify or enhance control beliefs in regard to memory, rehabilitation from physical impairments, cancer treatment, dealing with chronic diseases such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, as well as to facilitate control beliefs in the face of losses associated with aging. These studies indicate that control beliefs can be influenced well into late life. Such findings grow in importance as models of health behavior move from the treating of acute illnesses in a physician-directed environment to long-term symptom management associated with chronic diseases in a patient-directed environment.

For example, a number of nursing home studies have reported that when people are given opportunities to exercise control, they show significant improvements on a number of measures, ranging from memory tasks and activity to overall health and psychological adjustment. In an often cited study by Drs. Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, conducted in 1996, nursing home residents who were given more control over their environment (e.g., when to watch a movie, taking care of a house plant) were happier, more active, and more alert at a follow-up conducted months later. Also, only 15 percent of the group with enhanced control had died, compared with 30 percent in the group of residents who were told the hospital staff was responsible for their care (see also Banziger and Roush; Schulz and Hanusa for other interventions in institutional settings). The research in this area indicates that strong beliefs in perceived control may reverse, delay, or protect against functional declines associated with aging.

The success of interventions seeking to increase control beliefs (especially in later life) presumably will hinge on the assessment of relevant components of control: desire, ability/perception, and actual control available. Efficacious interventions will likely be those that first determine which aspects should be changed and then successfully produce the desired changes. For example, if nursing homes are designed to discourage control, attempting to enhance control in such a setting could lead to frustration for the individual as well as for the staff. Accordingly, interventions designed with a multilevel focus that balance an individual's needs and abilities with the adaptability of the environment may be the most effective.


The finding that perceptions of control and feelings of self-efficacy are beneficial and adaptive is robust. People with a strong sense of perceived control generally fare better (both mentally and physically) than do those who do not hold such beliefs. However, the relationships between health and aspects such as desire for control and maladaptive control beliefs are less studied. Some research suggests that there may be an adaptive level of control for certain situations, and that an individual's desire for control should be considered when explaining positive or negative outcomes. Research that aims to increase and/or maintain high levels of perceived control in adulthood and later life becomes an increasingly fertile area of investigation as the population ages. Whether effecting change directly in an individual, an entire social group, or through the restructuring or developing of institutions, hospitals, or communities, innovative ideas from a collection of fields (e.g., psychology, medicine, architecture) may change the way people age.

Heather R. Walen

See also Interventions, Psychosocial Behavior; Life Span Theory of Control; Selective Optimization with Compensation Theory; Stress and Coping.


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