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Life-Span Theory of Control

Research about control striving and behavior

The evolutionary origin of control-related behavior lies in the universal strive to achieve outcomes in the environment by one's own activity. Control behavior should be distinguished from perceptions or beliefs about control. Perceived control exclusively addresses mental representations of the degree of control available to the individual. Control behavior, by contrast, encompasses behavior directed at producing effects in two realms: the environment and the inner world of the individual. Control behavior directed at the external world is conceptualized as primary control, whereas control behavior addressing one's mental states, emotion, and motivation is referred to as secondary control.

In all activities relevant for survival and procreation, such as foraging, competing with a rival, or attracting a mate, organisms strive for control in terms of bringing about desired outcomes and preventing undesired ones. The most fundamental and universal motivational tendencies relate to this basic strive to control the environment, or in more specific terms, to produce contingencies between behaviors and events in the environment. This striving to produce behavior-event contingencies is referred to as primary-control striving.

Striving for control is shared by a broad range of species and goes back far into the phylogenetic past; at least as far as to those species that first acquired a notable flexibility in their behavior programs (Gallistel, 1990; Rumbaugh and Sterritt, 1986; see review in Heckhausen, 2000). This assumption converges with White's classic 1959 article on the motivation for competence, effectance, and mastery as a universal striving of humans and mammals in general. For example, both children and rats prefer response-elicited rewards to receiving the same rewards without having to respond.

Particularly in humans, primary-control striving can encompass multiple steps and bridge extended time periods, such as in long-term career goals. This capacity rests on the human ability to have long-term goals and on the ability to reflect on the self as the originator of goals and goal attainments. However, this capacity also renders humans vulnerable to the negative effects of failure on conceptions about the self. Failure and loss of control may undermine an individual's motivation to pursue goals in the future. In order to protect motivational resources for primary-control striving, individuals need to regulate their internal responses to experiences of failure and loss. The system of control behavior in humans therefore needs to involve processes that protect and restore conceptions of competence and mastery. Heckhausen and Schulz, in their life-span theory of control (Heckhausen and Schulz, 1995; Schulz and Heckhausen, 1996), subsume diverse, mostly cognitive, processes that serve to protect motivational resources and focus on a given goal (e.g., volitional commitment) of primary-control striving, under the construct of secondary-control striving. Among such secondary-control processes are those that help the individual to disengage from a futile goal (e.g., devalue the goal, increase the value of alternative goals) or protect the self against unfavorable implications of failure and loss. Examples for self-protective secondary control strategies are downward social companions, when the individual compares herself with inferior others, and egotistic casual attributions, where success is attributed to one's own ability, whereas failure is blamed on external factors. In addition, secondary-control strategies are also needed for generating and maintaining motivational commitment to a chosen goal (e.g., enhance the value of the chosen goal, devalue alternatives, overestimate the perceived control for goal attainment).

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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