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Life-Span Theory of Control - Research About Control Striving And Behavior

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The study of actual control behavior and control striving, as distinct from perceived control, is an emergent field of research. The life-span theory of control proposes that the desire to exert control over one's environment, and thus realize primary control, rules the system of control behavior in humans and, in mammals in general (for phylogenetic roots of control behavior, see Heckhausen, 2000). The life-span theory of control elaborates on the distinction between primary and secondary control, originally proposed by Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder (1982), and applies it to the human life span. Primary-control striving is seen as the dominant motivator of behavior across the life span, while the potential to realize primary control undergoes radical changes. During childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, primary-control potential increases substantially, reaching a maximum plateau during midlife and declining with the loss of social roles and physical fitness associated with old age. The increasing discrepancy between primary-control striving and primary-control potential at older ages provides a challenge for the individual, in that it can only be managed by disengaging from age-inappropriate goals and engaging in more age-adapted goals. Such cycles of goal disengagement and engagement can only be mastered when the individual employs specific secondary-control strategies related to goal hierarchies and motivational commitment.

Heckhausen and Schulz (Heckhausen and Schulz, 1993, 1995; Heckhausen, 1999) distinguish between four types of control strategies: Selective primary control refers to the investment of internal behavioral resources such as effort, time, and skills in the pursuit of a goal. Compensatory primary control is required when internally available behavioral resources of an individual are insufficient to attain the goal and external resources have to be recruited. Specifically, compensatory primary control addresses the recruitment of help or advice from others, the use of technical aids (e.g., a wheelchair), or the employment of unusual behavioral means typically not involved in the activity (e.g., lip reading to compensate for a hearing disability). Selective secondary control serves to enhance and maintain motivational commitment to a chosen action goal, particularly when it is challenged by unexpected obstacles or attractive alternatives. Selective secondary-control strategies include enhanced valuation of the chosen goal and devaluation of nonchosen alternatives. In addition, the goal engagement is served by enhancing one's perceptions of control and self-efficacy. Compensatory secondary control is required when an individual experiences a loss of control or when the goal becomes unattainable or excessively costly. Compensatory secondary control can be attained by disengaging from the obsolete goal, possibly in favor of engaging in an alternative or substitute goal. In addition, compensatory secondary control involves specific self-protective strategies, such as deflating one's perceptions of control and attributing the failure to external forces (thereby avoiding self-blame) and downward social comparisons, which deflect the potential negative effects of failure on important motivational resources of affective balance and self esteem.

The theory of control behavior can be integrated with modern motivational action theory, which views motivation behavior as organized in action cycles of goal engagement and goal disengagement (Heckhausen, 1991). Specifically, goal engagement involves the strategies of selective primary and selective secondary control, as well as (in dealing with obstacles), compensatory primary control. Goal disengagement relies on the compensatory secondary-control strategies of goal distancing and self-protection.

Several studies have examined the use of primary- and secondary-control strategies in various developmental ecologies during the life span. Heckhausen (1997) found in a socially heterogeneous sample of East German and West German adults that striving for primary control remained constant across age groups, whereas the flexibility of adjusting one's goals, a key component of compensatory secondary control, increased at older ages. In the particularly challenging context of German reunification, East German adults activated primary-control striving when they were in early adulthood, and resorted to compensatory secondary control when they were close to or past retirement age. Women and men who were in their early fifties during German reunification were "caught in the middle" and lost ground in terms of both primary and secondary control. Chipperfield and colleagues (Chipperfield et al., 1999) investigated the effectiveness of primary- and secondary-control strategies in a sample of older adults experiencing either acute temporary or chronic severe health stress. They found that primary-control strategies had positive health implications for the young-old, but that the same strategies appeared to be detrimental to health in more advanced old age.

Heckhausen and colleagues developed the paradigm of developmental regulation around developmental deadlines to study control strategies in different action phases. Developmental regulation across the life span is organized along a timetable of waxing and waning opportunities to attain important developmental goals, such as graduating from school, building a career, finding a permanent partner, and having a child. The age-graded opportunity structures for various developmental goals involves final time constraints, conceptualized as developmental deadlines. An example is the so-called biological clock for child-bearing. In a series of studies, developmental deadlines were shown to be the watersheds between urgent predeadline goal engagement and postdeadline goal disengagement and self-protection. Individuals approaching a developmental deadline, such as the early forties in the case of child-bearing, activated goal engagement strategies of control (e.g., selective primary control, selective secondary control, compensatory primary control), fervently striving to attain the goal before time ran out. In contrast, once a deadline has been passed, (e.g., women in their late forties or fifties with regard to child-bearing) control strategies of goal disengagement, such as devaluing the goal and self-protective downward comparison with others, were preferred. Moreover, it was shown that the employment of phase-congruent control strategies (i.e., goal engagement in the predeadline phase and goal disengagement in the postdeadline phase) was associated with greater psychological well-being and mental health (e.g., less depressive symptoms, more positive affect) than phase-incongruent control strategies.

Future research about control behavior can exploit the model of action cycles. In both developmental and nondevelopmental contexts, control processes associated with goal engagement and goal disengagement can be investigated in terms of their congruence with control opportunities. This approach also allows the study of individual differences in the ability to recognize changes in opportunity structures and in the flexibility of switching between goal engagement and goal disengagement. This may provide an avenue to investigate differences in vulnerability and resilience to developmental transitions.



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