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Perceived Control

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.

Additional topics

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