Control Definition

The term “control” has a rich and varied history in the field of social psychology, encompassing a range of meanings and applications. At its core, control can be defined as the capacity to exert influence, whether it pertains to internal states, external environmental factors, desired outcomes, or even interpersonal dynamics. Psychologists from diverse perspectives have explored this fundamental construct, shedding light on its multifaceted nature and its significance in understanding human behavior and cognition.

1. Influence Over Internal and External Domains:

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  • Emotional Control: Control extends to the regulation of one’s emotional states, encompassing the ability to manage and modulate one’s emotions effectively. This aspect of control involves techniques and strategies for navigating one’s emotional experiences.
  • Self-Control: Building on emotional control, self-control represents the capacity to govern one’s own behaviors, impulses, and choices. It involves the ability to resist immediate temptations in pursuit of long-term goals and values.
  • Control Over External Outcomes: Control is also manifested in the ability to shape and attain desired outcomes in one’s life. This form of control involves taking deliberate actions to achieve specific objectives, whether in personal, professional, or social domains.
  • Control Over Others: In interpersonal contexts, control emerges as the ability to influence or persuade others, motivating them to act in accordance with one’s intentions or desires. This aspect of control explores the dynamics of power and influence within social relationships.

2. Variations in Environmental Circumstances:

  • Environmental Control: Researchers have investigated how changes in external circumstances and environmental factors can either enable or constrain individuals’ sense of control. Alterations in the environment can affect the degree of control individuals perceive they have over their lives and outcomes.

3. Subjective Experience of Control:

  • Perceived Control: A significant area of research centers on the subjective experience of control, examining individuals’ perceptions of their ability to influence outcomes. This perception can significantly impact motivation, decision-making, and well-being.

4. Antecedents and Consequences of Control:

  • Antecedents of Control: Scholars have explored the factors and conditions that lead individuals to either experience a sense of control or perceive themselves as being controlled by external forces, including social, cultural, and situational factors.
  • Consequences of Control: Understanding the implications of feeling in control or controlled is vital. Research has explored the consequences of these experiences on various aspects of psychological well-being, behavior, and interpersonal relationships.

5. Conscious vs. Nonconscious Determination:

  • Conscious Control: Some uses of the term “control” pertain to aspects of cognition and behavior that are consciously determined. This distinction helps differentiate deliberate, intentional actions and decisions from those that occur nonconsciously or automatically.

Each instantiation of the term “control” carries its unique nuances and holds a distinct place in the rich tapestry of social psychology. The exploration of control in its various forms deepens our understanding of human agency, influence, and adaptation in the face of changing circumstances. As social psychology continues to evolve, the concept of control remains a dynamic and essential focal point for researchers seeking to unravel the intricacies of human behavior and cognition.

On Being and Feeling in Control


The concept of control, as a pivotal construct in psychology, found early proponents in Julian Rotter during the 1950s and Martin Seligman in the 1970s. Their work shed light on the intricate relationship between perceived control and its influence on behavior, motivation, and psychological well-being.

Julian Rotter’s Loci of Control:

  • Rotter’s social learning theory introduced the notion that behavior is intricately tied to individuals’ expectations regarding future reinforcement. Central to his theory was the concept of “loci of control,” which delineated two distinct types of expectations.
  • Internal Locus of Control: Individuals with an internal locus of control hold the expectation that their actions can influence the attainment of desired outcomes. They perceive a direct link between their behavior and the results they desire, fostering a sense of agency and motivation to act accordingly.
  • External Locus of Control: In contrast, those with an external locus of control anticipate that the attainment of desired outcomes lies beyond their control, subject to fate or chance. Here, the belief is that external forces, rather than personal actions, dictate the outcomes. This perspective tends to diminish motivation to engage in behaviors perceived as ineffective in influencing desired outcomes.

Martin Seligman’s Theory of Helplessness and Depression:

  • Seligman’s work in the 1970s centered on the concept of control over outcomes, which played a pivotal role in his theory of “learned helplessness.” He postulated that when individuals consistently experience a lack of control over their environmental outcomes, they are susceptible to developing a condition known as “learned helplessness.”
  • Learned Helplessness: This chronic condition, as posited by Seligman, results from a perceived lack of control over external events. Individuals who feel helpless in the face of uncontrollable circumstances are at a heightened risk of experiencing negative emotional states, including depression.
  • Personality vs. Phenomenon: It is essential to distinguish between the concept of “locus of control,” seen as a personality variable varying from one individual to another, and “learned helplessness,” viewed as a phenomenon resulting from objective environmental circumstances that deprive individuals of control.

In essence, both Rotter and Seligman underscored the profound impact of perceived control on human cognition, behavior, and emotional well-being. Rotter’s exploration of loci of control delved into the motivational implications of these beliefs, while Seligman’s work illuminated the consequences of a chronic lack of control, particularly in the context of learned helplessness and depression.

These pioneering perspectives continue to inform the study of control in psychology, offering valuable insights into the ways individuals navigate their perceptions of agency and influence over their lives. Understanding the interplay between perceived control, motivation, and psychological outcomes remains a dynamic area of inquiry, with enduring relevance in contemporary psychology.

The concept of control over outcomes takes center stage in the realm of psychology, with Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory providing valuable insights into the motivational dynamics of perceived control. Bandura’s theory emphasizes the role of expectations in driving motivation, highlighting the crucial components of belief in contingency and self-competence.

Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Theory:

  • Bandura’s self-efficacy theory posits that motivation hinges on individuals’ expectations regarding their ability to attain desired outcomes. Central to this theory are two key components of expectations related to control:
    • Contingency Belief: This component centers on the belief that a particular behavior is causally linked to the attainment of a desired outcome. In other words, individuals must perceive a direct connection between their actions and the results they seek.
    • Competence Belief: The second component relates to the belief in one’s own competence or capability to perform the requisite behavior effectively. Self-confidence in one’s abilities plays a pivotal role in shaping expectations of control.
  • Bandura’s theory underscores the primacy of self-efficacy beliefs in motivating individuals to engage in behaviors aimed at achieving desired outcomes. While it acknowledges the existence of contingencies, it places greater emphasis on the expectancies of efficacy or competence.

Perceived Control: The Common Thread:

  • In contemporary discourse, the term “perceived control” has become the prevalent terminology for describing individuals who possess an internal locus of control or expect to exert control over outcomes. This concept serves as a unifying framework for understanding the belief in one’s capacity to influence events.
  • Studies investigating perceived control have unveiled its adaptive nature, with strong associations to numerous positive outcomes:
    • Enhanced Performance: Individuals with higher perceived control tend to perform more effectively and learn more efficiently.
    • Improved Well-Being: Those who perceive greater control experience heightened well-being and report fewer physical health symptoms, such as headaches.
    • Aversion to Crowded Spaces: Perceived control influences how individuals perceive and respond to environmental factors, such as crowded spaces.
    • Mortality Rates: Notably, lower levels of perceived control among institutionalized elderly individuals have been linked to increased mortality rates.

The Illusion of Control:

  • Research by Ellen Langer and her colleagues has illuminated the profound human desire to perceive control over outcomes. This desire is so potent that individuals often exhibit a cognitive bias known as the “illusion of control.”
  • The illusion of control entails perceiving a greater degree of control than objectively exists. People tend to overestimate their influence on events, even in situations where chance plays a significant role.

In essence, from Bandura’s emphasis on self-efficacy to the pervasive phenomenon of perceived control and the intriguing illusion of control, the exploration of control in psychology remains a multifaceted and dynamic endeavor. These perspectives collectively underscore the profound influence of perceived control on motivation, behavior, and well-being, offering valuable insights into the intricacies of human agency and decision-making.

On Being and Feeling Controlled

Numerous studies in the realm of psychology have delved into a nuanced aspect of control – the sensation of being or feeling controlled, especially by external forces, in contrast to experiencing autonomy and freedom. Richard deCharms, an influential figure in the field of social psychology during the 1960s, was among the pioneers in highlighting the significance of this dimension. He postulated that many of the positive outcomes previously attributed to an internal locus of control were, in fact, a result of feeling liberated rather than constrained. This shifted the focus from controlling outcomes to controlling one’s behavior, prompting the question of whether individuals were autonomously directing their actions or being manipulated by external influences.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, through their self-determination theory, further identified the yearning for freedom as a fundamental psychological need. They coined this desire as the need for autonomy, which stands in opposition to feeling controlled. In simpler terms, this perspective suggests that for an individual’s well-being, it is crucial not to feel subjugated by external forces; rather, they should perceive themselves as the regulators of their own conduct. Consequently, the theory characterizes social environments in terms of how well they support individuals’ autonomy as opposed to controlling their behavior. Substantial research has unveiled the components of environments that either foster autonomy or leave individuals feeling controlled. Empirical evidence demonstrates that factors such as offering choices in actions and decision-making, providing meaningful explanations for tasks, and abstaining from language that implies control (e.g., ‘should,’ ‘must,’ ‘have to’) all contribute to a sense of autonomy. Conversely, several factors have been identified as fostering feelings of control, including the use of tangible rewards, threats of punishment, surveillance, deadlines, critical evaluations, goal imposition, and pressure to succeed in a competitive setting.

The Impact of Autonomy Support: Cumulative research has consistently shown that individuals fare better across various domains of life when parents, teachers, managers, coaches, and healthcare professionals prioritize autonomy support over control. When individuals feel their autonomy is respected and supported, they tend to experience a multitude of benefits, including enhanced learning, improved performance, greater persistence in tasks, heightened job satisfaction, healthier behavioral choices, and an enhanced sense of self-worth.

Learning and Performance: In educational settings, students thrive when educators foster a sense of autonomy. When given choices in their learning processes and a clear rationale for their tasks, students become more engaged and motivated, leading to improved academic performance. Autonomy support is associated with greater creativity and problem-solving skills, as students feel encouraged to explore their own interests and methods.

Workplace Satisfaction and Productivity: Employees who perceive their managers as autonomy-supportive tend to exhibit higher job satisfaction and motivation levels. They are more likely to contribute actively to their work, leading to increased productivity and a positive work environment. Autonomy support at work allows individuals to align their tasks with their values and interests, resulting in a sense of fulfillment and commitment.

Healthier Behavior and Well-Being: In healthcare, physicians who prioritize patient autonomy and involve them in decision-making processes lead to better patient outcomes. Autonomy-supportive healthcare environments are associated with increased adherence to treatment plans, healthier lifestyle choices, and enhanced psychological well-being among patients.

The concept of feeling controlled versus experiencing autonomy holds profound implications for psychological well-being across various domains of life. Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory has shed light on the importance of autonomy as a basic psychological need, with extensive research demonstrating its positive impact on individuals’ learning, performance, job satisfaction, health-related behavior, and overall well-being. By understanding and embracing the principles of autonomy support, parents, educators, managers, and healthcare professionals can empower individuals to lead more fulfilling lives, characterized by a sense of self-determination and freedom.

Automatic versus Controlled Processes

In the field of cognitive psychology, a significant distinction has been drawn between automatic and controlled mental processes. This differentiation, independently developed from the research discussed earlier, provides valuable insights into the ways our minds operate. Automatic processes are characterized by their operation without conscious awareness, effort, or intention. Think about how you sometimes eat a snack without even realizing it or shift gears while driving without conscious thought. Such behaviors are guided by processes that operate beyond our conscious awareness, effectively making us feel like we are not in control of our own actions. In contrast, controlled processes demand conscious awareness and effort, where individuals actively make decisions and exert conscious control over their actions. These processes consume our limited attention and can interfere with concurrent controlled tasks.

The Interplay of Automatic and Controlled Processes: One fascinating aspect of this research is that neither automatic nor controlled processing is inherently superior to the other. Each type of mental processing has its own advantages and drawbacks, depending on the circumstances. For instance, in novel situations that require careful consideration of multiple factors, the controlled processing system proves to be more flexible and effective. Deliberate evaluation of various courses of action often leads to the most optimal behaviors. However, there are scenarios where speed and efficiency take precedence, and in such cases, the automatic processing system becomes more advantageous. Additionally, the automatic system is less energy-intensive, making it useful in situations where freeing up cognitive resources for more complex problems is necessary. Nonetheless, the trade-off for rapid, less effortful processing is a reduction in flexibility.

The Prevalence of Automatic Processing: Many researchers argue that in our daily lives, a significant portion of our actions is governed by the automatic processing system. They posit that not only is the capacity of the controlled system limited, but its use in everyday life is also constrained. For example, it has been suggested that the controlled processing system may influence our actions as little as 5% of the time, though this estimate remains a subject of debate.

The Pitfalls of Overriding Automatic Processes: A striking phenomenon observed in this literature is that consciously attempting to control activities typically governed by automatic processes can lead to decreased efficiency and lower quality of performance. Consider the coordinated movements involved in jogging – a complex sequence of actions typically managed effortlessly by the automatic processing system, resulting in fluid movements. However, if individuals were asked to consciously and deliberately analyze their actions while jogging, it would likely result in slower, clumsier movement. In such cases, relying on the controlled processing system to manage actions traditionally assigned to the automatic system proves disadvantageous.

The Blurring of Distinctions: It is crucial to note that the distinction between controlled (conscious) and automatic (non-conscious) processes is not always clear-cut. While initially believed to be relatively distinct categories, researchers now recognize that these processes often blur together. John Bargh, for instance, argues that processes of interest to social psychologists are often best defined by a combination of features traditionally attributed to both automatic and controlled categories.

Conclusion: The dichotomy between automatic and controlled mental processes provides a valuable framework for understanding how our minds function in various situations. While each type of processing has its own strengths and weaknesses, the interplay between them shapes our daily experiences and behaviors. Recognizing when to rely on automatic processes and when to engage controlled processes can lead to more effective decision-making and improved overall cognitive functioning. Additionally, as our understanding of these processes evolves, we are beginning to appreciate the nuances and overlaps between them, shedding light on the intricate workings of the human mind.


In the realm of social psychology, the concept of control encompasses various meanings and perspectives. Despite the underlying theme of assessing the extent to which individuals govern their own behaviors and outcomes, the term “control” carries diverse connotations and has its own unique history within different areas of research. Some studies investigate the extent to which individuals perceive they can influence or achieve specific outcomes. Others delve into the autonomy of behavior regulation versus external control. Additionally, there is research examining the balance between automatic, unconscious processes that guide behavior and deliberate, conscious decision-making processes. In essence, the term “control” in social psychology encompasses a multifaceted landscape of inquiry, each with its own distinct history and corresponding literature.


  1. Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American Psychologist, 44, 1175-1184.
  2. Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462-139.
  3. DeCharms, R. (1968). Personal causation: The internal affective determinants of behavior. New York: Academic Press.
  4. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and the “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
  5. Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-329.
  6. Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  7. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: Freeman.