Locus of Control
Expectancies about the degree of influence one has on outcomes and events in their life (Rotter 1966). The locus of control is operationalized with self-assessments using items or statements that rate the degree one expects to be able to bring about desired outcomes or overcome external constraints in order to reach goals, in general or within specific domains and situations (Lachman et al. 2015).
The locus of control was first conceptualized by Julian Rotter (1966) in his social learning theory, where he described the locus of control as either internal (e.g., abilities, effort) or external (e.g., chance, fate, powerful others). While this line of work was prolific, there were limitations with its initial distinction between internal and external control. Internal and external control were described as two extremes on a continuum, rather than distinct, relatively independent constructs. The locus of control was also thought of as a general, stable variable that applied across domains and varied between individuals, rather than a construct that varied across time (Eizenman et al. 1997) and life domains (Lachman 1986). Earlier work was also limited as internal sources of control were presumed to be controllable, yet some internal sources (e.g., genetics) are uncontrollable.
The locus of control has been studied from infancy to old age (Schulz and Heckhausen 1999). Initial work on the locus of control was concentrated primarily on college students and children. However, in the late 1970s, researchers started thinking about the locus of control in aging; preliminary studies focused on enhancing control in institutional adults (Langer and Rodin 1976; Rodin and Langer 1977; Schulz 1976). Studying the locus of control in aging has led to advancements in both assessment and theory. Those interested in adult development and aging began thinking about the locus of control in developmental and contextual terms (Lachman 1986), and theories such as the life span theory of control (Heckhausen et al. 2010), Bandura’s theory on self-efficacy (Bandura 1977, 1986), and the two-process model of control (Rothbaum et al. 1982) were formulated.
Key Research Findings
Scientific literature on the locus of control has grown substantially, partially due to increasingly accessible databases from large-scale studies that include measures of control beliefs. Many countries support comprehensive, publicly available datasets such as the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS; Brim et al. 2004) study and the Health and Retirement Study (HRS; Juster and Suzman 1995). MIDUS offers 20 years of longitudinal data, which has led to many advances in understanding the trajectory of the locus of control over the lifetime. Research supports that the relationship between sense of control and age follows an inverted u-curve, where it increases in early adulthood, peaks in midlife, and subsequently declines later in life (Lachman et al. 2009). Many age-related changes are not controllable. Therefore, it is conceivable that when one faces the increased losses and decreased gains commonly associated with aging (Baltes 1995), one’s sense of control might decline (Lachman and Firth 2004; Lachman and Weaver 1998a). For example, studies have found that age-related events, such as falls, can diminish one’s sense of control (Ruthig et al. 2007).
Along with age-related differences, there are also an array of individual differences (Lachman and Andreoletti 2006) and intraindividual differences in control beliefs (Eizenman et al. 1997). Previous work documents systematic differences in one’s level of control beliefs in relation to other demographic variables including sex, socioeconomic status, culture, and race/ethnicity. These differences do not typically interact with aging effects (Lachman and Weaver 1998b). However, these group differences are relevant to aging as those who start out with a lower level of perceived control may be more vulnerable when face with losses and declines and less resilient. There is a well-established link between individual differences in control beliefs and key aging outcomes such as cognitive and physical health (Rowe and Kahn 1998). Lachman et al. conclude that a higher sense of control is related to being “happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise” (Lachman 2006; p. 283). That is, higher control is linked to emotional and psychological well-being and physical and cognitive health (Lachman et al. 2008).
Along with variations between individuals, control beliefs also vary within persons under different circumstances, i.e., intraindividual variation. One’s ability to maintain a sense of control in the face of loss or failure can ameliorate negative effects of the loss. Both major life stressors, like the loss of a spouse, and minor daily stressors, such as an unexpected work deadline, have potential to influence well-being and health (Almeida 2005; Infurna and Luthar 2016). Previous work shows that perceiving fewer constraints was related to less emotional and physical reactivity to daily interpersonal stressors and that having a greater sense of mastery was related to less physical reactivity to work stressors and less emotional reactivity to network stressors (Neupert et al. 2007).
Adverse Effects of Control
While the benefits of control are well-established, having a high sense of control can be disadvantageous in some circumstances, such as when objective controllability is low. For example, those who perceive greater control over their health may be more likely to ignore actual health problems or not regularly go to the doctor (Lachman et al. 2015). A realistic assessment of one’s control may be more beneficial than optimistic overestimations. That is, knowing when to surrender control may be a form of wisdom and associated with increased well-being (Lachman et al. 2011).
Modifying the Locus of Control
Given the benefits of high control beliefs and likelihood of declines in later life, it is worthwhile to consider whether and how control beliefs can be enhanced. There are a number of studies that have examined whether it is possible to modify control beliefs among older adults and if this would affect outcomes in a given domain. When the locus of control first was considered in the context of aging, a classic intervention study was carried out by Langer and Rodin (1976) with nursing home residents. The residents were given more control over their environment, such as taking care of a plant, which had positive long-term effects on well-being, activity, and health. These findings have been replicated in more recent, innovative laboratory-based experiments (Bollini et al. 2004), strengthening the validity of Langer and Rodin’s initial findings and pointing to a causal relationship between control beliefs and positive outcomes.
Many adults assume they are too old to improve their performance or functioning or to overcome losses in areas associated with aging, such as memory or physical ability. Given these widespread beliefs, interventions to change these age-related outcomes may be more successful if beliefs about control are also directly addressed in conjunction with training new skills. Control beliefs can be modified and thus are amenable to interventions that could optimize health and aging.
In addition to researchers and clinicians, policy makers continue to integrate the locus of control into understanding the aging process (Mallers et al. 2013). The Nursing Home Reform Law from 1987 was designed to enhance control among vulnerable nursing home residents. Additionally, the Patient Self-Determination Act of 1991 was designed to protect patients by enhancing participation and control in one’s own care, especially end-of-life care. The concept of control plays a significant role in several current directions and advances of long-term care, for example, cohousing and intentional neighborhoods where aging residents have control over the design and sustainability of where they live (Mallers et al. 2013).
Future Directions for Research
Despite the vast amount of work that has explored what links perceived control to positive health outcomes, there is still work to be done to fully understand the processes involved. The relationship between perceived control and healthy aging-related behaviors and outcomes are exceedingly complex, and it is critical that future steps continue to investigate these relationships to develop interventions and promote health outcomes. Access to large-scale databases and advanced statistical methods have enabled more powerful tests of what mediates, or explains, these well-established effects of perceived control (Chipperfield et al. 2017).
Various mediators help explain the benefits of perceived control, including motivation (e.g., compensation strategies), affect (e.g., stress), and behavior (e.g., physical activity) (Lachman 2006). For example, recent work suggests that physical activity may act as a mechanism of the well-established link between a greater sense of control and better cognitive functioning (Infurna and Gerstorf 2013; Robinson and Lachman 2018a, b). Additional work is needed to understand the mechanisms involved in the relationship between perceived control and physical activity. For example, is a higher sense of control related to perceiving more control over one’s schedule (i.e., time structure) that is making it more likely to schedule or find time to engage in physical activity? Alternatively, do those who have a higher sense of control value their health more and therefore initiate more health-promoting behaviors?
Perceived control is not just fundamental to major outcomes in life, such as mortality, but is also important to protect other outcomes that vary day-to-day. Perceived control promotes positive affect and everyday physical activity and encourages adaptive approaches to life’s everyday stressors. It is critical that future work continues exploring strategies to maintain or increase one’s sense of control and reduce variability when confronted with daily challenges.
Understanding the mechanisms between control beliefs and positive aging-related outcomes is necessary to develop methods or interventions to optimize one’s sense of control. Though past work has investigated interventions to promote perceived control, it is important to take individual differences into account to personalize interventions (Robinson and Lachman 2016). By considering individual differences in control beliefs, interventions can be established that are relevant to the unique goals or barriers of the individual. This personalized approach considers that there are types of people with commonalities who would respond to particular treatment approaches in similar ways. Such personalized interventions have successfully reduced risky health behaviors (e.g., alcohol consumption) and promoted healthy behaviors (e.g., smoking cessation) (Bierut et al. 2014; Neighbors et al. 2009).
Ultimately, changes in beliefs and behavior are expected to have long-term benefits for performance (e.g., cognitive), psychological well-being (e.g., affect), and health outcomes (e.g., fitness). Although it is not always possible to modify control beliefs, researchers could take such beliefs into account when developing interventions. For those resistant to changing beliefs, the focus may be adapted to target environmental manipulations that create a sense of control without directly changing beliefs (Robinson and Lachman 2016). Such environmental manipulations are exemplified in Langer and Rodin’s (Langer and Rodin 1976) notable study, in which giving someone control over their environment (e.g., the ability to make choices about their living situation) can foster a sense of well-being. Finally, it is important to acknowledge that those who enroll in interventions likely already have a relatively high sense of control. Targeting those who are low in perceived control may require an intervention focused on getting them to participate in the first place. Differences in beliefs about control can critically impact the effectiveness of interventions, such as one’s willingness to enroll in the intervention and one’s receptivity to and success with the intervention.
Perceived control is positively associated with many outcomes related to health and well-being. A depth of aging research has diligently described these outcomes, such as enhanced cognitive functioning, physical health, and longevity. Using longitudinal and experimental designs, researchers have progressed toward identifying underlying mechanisms involved in these relationships. Research suggests a dynamic relationship in which greater control beliefs lead to greater engagement in adaptive strategies and health-promoting behaviors, followed by better health, which can lead to increases in perceived control. Future work should continue to explore the best strategies to modify and/or intervene on control beliefs in older adults. By investigating these mechanisms and what contributes to short-term variability in control beliefs, researchers can inform effective interventions tailored to the older adults’ specific barriers and goals.
This work was supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Academic Affiliations Advanced Fellowship Program in Health Services Research, the Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research (CHOIR), and Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital.
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