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Perceived Control

Control And Self-efficacy, Correlates Of Perceived Control, Processes Of Control, Perceived Control In Aging

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.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1