Perceived control

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Perceived control (PC) can be defined as the belief that one sees he or she has control over their inside state, behaviors and the place or people or things or feelings or activities surrounding a person. There are two important dimensions: (1) whether the object of control is in the past or the future and (2) whether the object of control is over outcome, behavior, or process.[1]


The cognitive revolution which was completed around the 1940s changed Psychology. Being influenced by the idea of Pavlov and other physiologists,[2] scientists turned their interest in direction of the observable. Away from subjectivity, the objective investigation of behavior became trustworthy and allocable. This revolution helped developing fields of the study of perceived control. Goal seeking and human motivation became important in many theories. In 1959, White introduced a theory called "effectance motivation", in which human drive for control is explained through an innate need to be able to handle a situation and the obtainment of control over the environment.[3]

In 1966 Julian Rotter published his Publication:"Generalized Expectancies for Internal versus External Control of Reinforcement.” in which he used the term "perceived control" for the very first time. His work influenced multiple disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics and health care. After his publication, the scientific work on his concept of perceived internal control differed mostly into two branches. One believed perceived control to be a fixed personality trait, and therefore refers to concepts like self efficacy and competence, the other spoke about perceived control as a cognitive process, influenced from environmental clues that could be manipulated systematically. This relates to concepts as illusion of control, learned helplessness and mindfullness.[4]

A series of studies provide strong support for the hypotheses that the individual who has a strong belief that he (sic) can control his own destiny is likely to be alert to those aspects of the environment, which provide useful information for his future behavior; (b) take steps to improve his environmental condition; (c) place greater value on skill or achievement of reinforcements and be generally more concerned with his ability, particularly his failures; and (d) be resistive to subtle attempts to influence him.” Rotter 1966[5]

From this perspective perceived control can either be seen as a personality trait or a cognitive processing, which in either case enhances functioning and survival.[4]

Historical research[edit]

In the year 1975, Martin E.P. Seligman coined the term "learned helplessness". In Terms of perceived control, Seligman's term of "learned helplessness" described that the perceived control of a situation leads to a specific outcome of behavior. Seligman confronted dogs with a situation accompanied by a total lack of perceived control, which ultimately lead the dogs to give into the situation. They learned passiveness, helplessness. Seligman transferred his experiments to humans, speculating that perceived control is related to the development of, for instance, depression.[6][7]

Research by Schulz and Hansua on Perceived Control focuses on the causal relationships between one's own control and his psychological and physiological well-being and not only on the correlation of these factors. In a study done in 1978, pensioners living in a retirement home participants were about to gain control or lose control. They could either decide themselves when they wanted students to visit them or had no influence on scheduling the student's visit. The results show that pensioners who have control over when they will be having visitors felt better and were healthier than pensioners in the "no influence"-group. This study describes perceived control as a cognitive process that manipulates the person's health and motivation.

Therefore, self-efficacy is an important factor influencing the effectiveness of perceived control. Blittner, Goldberg and Merbaum reasoned in 1978 that only if the person believes in his/her abilities and success, he/she can perform better or change behavior.[8]

A study by Sastry and Ross in 1998 concluded that there are cultural differences on perceived control, too. According to the researchers, perceived control is seen as more important by people living in Western Countries than by Asians. Additionally, Asians do not make an association between perceived control and mental well-being. This difference is explained by different focuses of the cultures. Western Culture appreciates individualism and personal success which leads the people to feel the urge of controlling the own process and performance. People are more likely to understand perceived control as a personality trait.[9]

Scientific models[edit]

Two Process Model of Perceived Control[edit]

The Two Process Model of Perceived Control was first proposed by Rothbaum, Weisz and Snyder. According to the Two-Process Model People attempt to gain control not only by bringing the environment into line with their wishes (primary control) but also by bringing themselves into line with environmental forces (secondary control).

Four manifestations of secondary control are considered:

  1. Attributions to severely, limited ability can serve to enhance predictive control and to protect against disappointment.
  2. Attributions to chance can reflect illusory control since people often construe chance as a personal characteristic akin to an ability ("luck").
  3. Attributions to powerful others permit vicarious control when the individual identifies with these others.
  4. All of the preceding attributions may foster interpretive control, in which the individual seeks to understand and derive meaning from otherwise uncontrollable events in order to accept them.[10]

Four Factor Model of Perceived Control[11]

In December 1989 Fred B. Bryant published his research, introducing his “Four-Factor Model of Perceived Control”. He referred to the Two-Process Model of Perceived Control proposed by Rothbaum et al. which states that people’s controlling responses are classified as either attempts to change the world (I e, primary control) or attempts to change oneself to fit in with the world (I e, secondary control). Bryant added two more factors to that model; positive and negative experience. He explained that perceived control results from a self-evaluation of one’s ability to:

  • Avoiding – Primary-Negative Control

Avoiding, according to Bryant is defined as “The perceived ability to avoid negative outcomes”. It is dependent on the 1. The degree of personal control over bad things, 2. The Frequency of bad things occurring and 3. The Likelihood of bad things occurring.

  • Coping – Secondary-Negative Control

Coping, according to Bryant is defined as “The perceived ability to cope with negative outcomes”. It is dependent on 1. The ability to cope with bad things, 2. How much one is bothered by bad things and 3. How long bad things affect one’s feelings.

  • Obtaining – Primary-Positive Control

Obtaining, according to Bryant is defined as “The perceived ability to obtain positive outcomes”. It is dependent on 1. The degree of personal control over good things, 2. The personal responsibility for good things, 3. The frequency of good things to occur and 4. The likelihood of good things to occur.

  • Savouring – Secondary-Positive Control Savouring, according to Bryant is defined as “The perceived ability to savor positive outcomes”. It is dependent on 1. The ability to enjoy good things, 2. How much one is pleased by good things, 3. How long good things affect one’s feelings, 4. The frequency of feeling on top of the world and 5. The frequency of feeling overjoyed.

Applications and clinical perspective[edit]

In a study conducted by Wallston et al. (1997)[12] it was stated that perceived control can influence health in two conscious forms: health behavior (e.g. eating healthy) and health status (e.g. obesity). Furthermore, it can also affect it in an unconscious way by impacting the physiological processes directly, as proven by Rodin (1986).[13] He states that internal events such as unpredictability and loss of control can affect catecholamine, neurohormonal and immune changes.

Wallston et al. go on explaining that there is also a connection between the locus of control and perceived control on health outcomes. Locus of control, a concept developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954,[14] says that a person can attribute certain events in their life internally, as they themselves being responsible for them, or externally, as outside sources being accountable for them. The study by Kaplan, Atkins, and Reinsch (1984)[15] dealt with these ideas. They wanted to see if individual differences in loci of control can predict the amount of exercise tolerance and health status criteria in pulmonary disease patients. The results showed that for health internals, the more efficient and in control they felt, the higher their exercise tolerance and in turn the better their overall health status was. On the other hand, there was no relationship between efficiency beliefs and outcomes in the case of health externals.

There have also been several studies about the relationship between perceived control and cancer. A cancer diagnosis can greatly reduce the Perceived Control a patient beliefs to have. This loss of perceived control has been found to correlate with greater psychological distress.[16]


  1. ^ A. Wallston, Kenneth; Strudler Wallston, Barbara; Smith, Shelton; J. Dobbins, Carolyn (March 1987). "Perceived Control and Health". Current Psychology. 6 (1): 5–25. doi:10.1007/BF02686633.
  2. ^ Miller, George (March 2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective" (PDF). Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 7 (3): 141–144. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00029-9. PMID 12639696.
  3. ^ Chipperfield, Perry, Stewart (2012). "Perceived Control". Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. pp. 42–48. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-375000-6.00109-9. ISBN 9780080961804. Retrieved 2 June 2018.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b Reich; Infurna (2016). Perceived Control: Theory, Research, and Practice in the First 50 Years. Oxford Scholarship online. ISBN 9780190257040.
  5. ^ Rotter, J.B. (1966). "Generalized expectances for internal versus external locus of control". Psychological Monographs. 80. doi:10.1037/h0092976.
  6. ^ Nolen, Jeannette. "Learned Helplessness". Retrieved 15 May 2018.
  7. ^ Seligman, Martin E.P. (1992). Helplessness, On Depression, Development and Death. W.H. Freeman. ISBN 978-0716723288.
  8. ^ Aronson, Elliot; Akert, Robin M.; Wilson, Timothy D. (2010). Sozialpsychologie. Pearson Studium. pp. 535–541. ISBN 9783827372765.
  9. ^ Sastry, Jaya (June 1998). "Asian Ethnicity and the Sense of Personal Control". Social Psychology Quarterly. 61 (2): 101–120. doi:10.2307/2787064. JSTOR 2787064.
  10. ^ Rothbaum, Weisz & Snyder (1982). "Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 42: 5–37. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.42.1.5.
  11. ^ Bryant, Fred B (1989). "A Four‐Factor Model of Perceived Control: Avoiding, Coping, Obtaining, and Savoring" (PDF). Journal of Personality. 57 (4): 773–797. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1989.tb00494.x.
  12. ^ Wallston, K., Ph.D., Wallston, B., Smith, S., & Dobbins, C. (1987). Perceived control and health. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues
  13. ^ Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: Effects of the sense of control. Science, 233
  14. ^ Rotter, J. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology (Prentice-Hall psychology series). New York: Prentice-Hall.
  15. ^ Kaplan, R.M., Atkins, C.J., & Reinsch, S. (1984). Specific efficacy expectations mediate exercise compliance in patients with COPD. Health Psychology, 3
  16. ^ Ranchor, Adelita V; Wardle, Jane; Steptoe, Andrew; Henselmans, Inge; Ormel, Johan; Sanderman, Robbert (2010-06-01). "The adaptive role of perceived control before and after cancer diagnosis: A prospective study" (PDF). Social Science & Medicine. 70 (11): 1825–1831. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.10.069. ISSN 0277-9536. PMID 20338679.