Control Motivation

Control Motivation Definition

Control motivation refers to the motive to exercise at least some control over important events in our lives. The extent to which control motivation is innate or learned remains a point of discussion. But many psychologists argue that virtually all people are motivated to establish a sense of mastery, that is, to see themselves as capable individuals who can exert some influence over events and outcomes. This motive is also sometimes referred to as effectance motivation.

Positive Aspects of Personal Control

Control MotivationAn abundance of research suggests that people generally prefer to control the events in their lives and that exercising control is good for people’s well-being. Even in situations in which individuals exercise little control, simply believing that they could exert control usually causes people to feel better, cope with adversity better, and work more efficiently. In fact, a case can be made that feeling in control is a critical component of well-being.

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Participants typically have adverse reactions when researchers take control away from them or place them in situations in which they have little or no control. Psychologists studying learned helplessness often present participants with an unpleasant stimulus, such as loud noise. Whereas some participants find they can turn the noise off by solving simple problems, such as anagrams, others are given problems that are impossible to solve. Participants who learn they can control the noise have little difficulty when later working on unrelated tasks. However, participants exposed to uncontrollable noise do poorly on subsequent tasks, even when they have received the same amount of noise as the other participants. Many psychologists point to similarities between participants in these laboratory studies and people suffering from depression. Studies find that a perceived lack of control over important events often triggers the onset of depression, and that depressed individuals frequently believe they are unable to exercise control over important aspects of their lives.

Developing or maintaining a sense of personal control also is beneficial when attempting to cope with many of the sad, stressful, and tragic events in life. Even when people face circumstances clearly out of their control, focusing on what they can control typically helps them cope with their problems and return to a positive state of mind. In one study, women with breast cancer who believed they could control their emotional reactions, aspects of their treatment regimen, and some of their physical symptoms showed better emotional adjustment than women who felt they had little ability to control what was happening to them. Although none of the women could directly control the course of the disease, those who focused on what they could control fared better than those who did not.

Negative Aspects of Personal Control

There is little doubt that feeling in control goes hand in hand with positive adjustment and well-being. But this does not mean that people want to control everything or that control is always desirable. People sometimes relinquish control because they don’t want the responsibility that comes with being in charge. This is particularly true if individuals feel they lack the skills necessary to do the job well. Often the fear of looking foolish in case of a poor performance keeps people from accepting assignments or positions of responsibility. Participants in one study experienced higher levels of anxiety when given the opportunity to choose which of three tasks they were to work on, but only when they thought the experimenter would know how well or poorly they performed. In extreme cases, people engage in self-handicapping, in which they take steps to ensure a poor performance, such as not studying for a test, rather than acknowledge that they gave it their best and failed.

Sometimes people simply don’t want the extra work that comes with increased control. Thus, in some situations people actually prefer fewer rather than more choices. When shoppers in one study were given the opportunity to sample from six types of jam on display at their local supermarket, they were 10 times more likely to purchase jam than shoppers who were shown 24 flavors they could sample from. Tasting more jams no doubt gave the participants a better chance of choosing just the right one, but the extra effort made the task undesirable.

People often relinquish control to more qualified individuals, thereby increasing the chances of a good outcome for themselves. This is why patients frequently rely on doctors to make medical decisions for them. Although many people prefer to play a role in their health care, when given responsibility for decisions they feel unqualified to make, patients often experience anxiety and depression.

Individual Differences in Control Motivation

Although all people are motivated to control the events in their lives, psychologists also can identify individual differences in this motive. Psychologists can place people along a continuum from those with a high desire for control to those who are low on this trait. Knowing a person’s desire for control score allows psychologists to predict behavior in a large number of settings. For example, people high in desire for control are more likely than lows to assume leadership roles, control the flow of a conversation, work harder on challenging tasks, and attempt to influence the people they work with. Consistent with research on learned helplessness, highs also may be more vulnerable to depression, because life is not always arranged to satisfy their high need for control. People high in desire for control tend to react more strongly to stress than do lows, but they also cope better because they typically take steps to do something about the problem.


  1. Burger, J. M. (1989). Negative reactions to increases in perceived personal control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 246-256.
  2. Shapiro, D. H., Schwartz, C. E., & Astin, J. A. (1996). Controlling ourselves, controlling our world: Psychology’s role in understanding positive and negative consequences of seeking and gaining control. American Psychologist, 51, 1213-1230.