MacArthur SES & Health Network
MacArthur SES & Health Network

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Personal Control

Summary prepared by Melvin Seeman. Last revised April 2008.

Chapter Contents

  1. Definition
  2. Measurement
  3. Evidence Linking SES and Perceived Control
  4. Control Beliefs and Health
  5. Limitations
  6. Network Usage
  7. Summary
  8. Bibliography


Personal control beliefs, also referred to as locus of control and personal mastery beliefs, reflect individuals' beliefs regarding the extent to which they are able to control or influence outcomes. A wide variety of theorists have emphasized the importance of perceptions of personal control and have suggested that the desire to control the world around us (i.e., the desire for behavior-event contingency or personal control) is a fundamental characteristic of human beings (Schultz et al, 1994; see also Haidt & Rodin, 1995; Rothbaum, Weisz and Snyder, 1982 for reviews). Reflecting these varied theoretical perspectives (as well as the extensive research interest in the concept of perceived control), the literature exhibits varying conceptualizations of "perceived control" (see Skinner, 1996, for a considered conceptual review).

Most well known is the concept of "locus of control" which derived originally from Rotter's social learning theory (Rotter, 1966; 1982) and which focuses on "beliefs that individuals hold regarding relationships between actions and outcomes" (Lefcourt, 1991). The earliest instrument developed to measure locus of control beliefs, the Rotter I-E Scale, focused largely on the distinction between belief in internal versus external loci of control. Later instruments, elaborated by Rotter, Lefcourt and others, included more specific assessments of beliefs about personal "internal" control contingencies but also control contingencies manifested by "powerful others" and (similar to the original "external" formulation) perceptions of non-contingency (i.e. "chance") (for review see Lefcourt, 1991). The existing literature on control beliefs in relation to both SES and health largely reflects the "internal vs. external" conceptualization with assessment of individuals in terms of the extent to which they see "control" as residing primarily in themselves versus elsewhere (i.e., in others or chance).

A "two-process model of perceived control" has been elaborated. The model, as presented by Rothbaum et al (1982) and others (Schultz et al, 1994), postulates that "the motivation to feel 'in control' may be expressed not only in behavior that is blatantly controlling (referred to as 'primary control') but also, subtly, in behavior that is not (referred to as 'secondary control')" (p. 7, Rothbaum et al, 1982). Whereas "primary control" reflects more directly controlling behaviors, "secondary control" reflects behavior that, while not directly controlling, is focused on promoting a sense of control, not by altering the environment, but by altering oneself (e.g., ones values, priorities, or behavior) so as to bring oneself in line with the environment. The central thesis of this formulation of perceived control is that "persons perceive and are motivated to obtain secondary control in many situations previously assumed to be characterized by perceived uncontrollability and an absence of motivation for control" (p.27, Rothbaum et al, 1982).

This two-process model of perceived control may be of particular interest with respect to issues of SES differences in control beliefs as Rothbaum et al (1982) postulate that "secondary control ... is particularly likely in cases of prolonged failure to obtain highly desired and important incentives, or cases in which the inability is perceived as permanent" (p.29, Rothbaum et al, 1982). One might hypothesize that this would be a more frequent scenario in lower SES circumstances. Various efforts (e.g. Chippefield, et. al. 1999; Lachman, 1993) have been made to document the utility of the primary-secondary distinction; but little is currently known about how the distinction bears on either SES or health.

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Other constructs related to personal control include powerlessness (Seeman, 1995; 2001), self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977; 2001), sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1984; 1993; Julkenen and Ahlstrom, 2006); and "learned helplessness" (Peterson, 1993) Powerlessness is conceptualized in terms of an individual's general perceptions of a lack of power (vs. "control"), encompassing elements of lack of autonomy, fatalism, and inefficacy (Seeman, 1991). The self-efficacy construct also differs from personal control in that self-efficacy beliefs or expectations focus on evaluations of one's ability to accomplish certain behaviors or achieve certain outcomes (Bandura, 1997) whereas personal control expectancies relate to judgments about whether actions can produce a given outcome (i.e., the extent to which a given outcome is controllable). Bandura differentiates self-efficacy from personal control, suggesting that whereas personal control beliefs focus on the question of whether one can control an outcome, self-efficacy beliefs focus on the evaluation of one's ability to effectively perform the behaviors necessary to realize that outcome (Bandura, 1977). Sense of coherence has been defined as "a global orientation that expresses the extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic feeling of confidence that one's internal and external environments are predictable and that there is a high probability that things will work out as well as can reasonably be expected" (Antonovsky, 1979, 123) and, differs from personal control in that "the crucial issue is not whether power to determine such outcomes lies in our own hands or elsewhere. What is important is that the location of power is where it is legitimately supposed to be." (Antonovsky, 1979, p. 128; for a recent review of work on SOC, see Erikson and Lindstrom, 2006, and for recent empirical work of SOC and health, see Lindfors, et. al, 2006). Seligman's idea of "learned helplessness" derived from experimental animal studies based on the learning of low control and applied to the genesis of depression in human subjects.


A variety of instruments have been developed to measure personal control beliefs, including (a) global assessments (e.g., the original Rotter I-E scale and Pearlin's Personal Mastery scale; see Lefcourt, 1991 for details), (b) factorial measures that provide separate measures of beliefs regarding "personal control," "powerful others," and "chance" (e.g., Internality, Powerful Others, and Chance Scales or Spheres of Control; see Lefcourt, 1991 for review of measures); and (c) domain specific measures—e.g., "Health Locus of Control" (Wallston et al, 1978), Marital Locus of Control (Miller et al, 1983]) or control in the academic-education environment (Olifors, and Nadersson, 2007; see Lefcourt, (1991); and Seeman (1991) for more complete review of available scales). Distinctions have also been made regarding control with respect to good vs. bad outcomes (Ross and Mirowsky, 2002); and efforts have been made to examine the utility of these measures in a cross-cultural context (e.g., O'Connor and Shimizu, 2002).

Pearlin & Schooler's "Personal Mastery Scale" has become perhaps the most widely used measure in health research. It consists of 7 items which are answered on a 4-point (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) scale and has been shown to exhibit reasonable internal reliability (Seeman, 1991) and good construct validity (see Pearlin et al, 1981). More extensive assessments are provided through measures such as Levenson's Internality, Powerful Others, and Chance Scales, essentially three subscales, each comprised of eight items in a seven-point Likert format. These measures also exhibit good reliability and validity (Levenson, 1981). [See Lefcourt, 1991 and Seeman, 1991 for additional information on other measures of control and their psychometric properties.] Important work in this domain has also been done from the standpoint of "attribution theory" in psychology—in particular, the work of Weiner (1995) who elaborates the distinctions that apply with respect to judgments of causation in behavior.

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Self-efficacy beliefs have also been a focus of considerable health-related research. Measures of self-efficacy beliefs are largely targeted at beliefs about specific domains of behavior (e.g., exercise efficacy, memory performance and the like: McAuley et al, 1993, Berry et al, 1989; Bandura, 2001). However, a more general 9-item scale was developed by Rodin and colleagues for use in older populations (Rodin & McAvay, 1992). Their items ask about perceived self-efficacy in the nine domains deemed most important to older adults and are answered, like the Pearlin scale, in terms of a 4-point (agree - disagree) format. Data from the MacArthur Successful Aging Study indicate reasonable internal reliability and suggest that two subscales can be derived, one measuring perceptions of interpersonal self-efficacy and the other measuring instrumental self-efficacy (Seeman, Rodin, Albert, 1993; see also, Mendes de Leon et al. 1996, and Shaw and Krause, 2001).

Evidence Linking SES and Perceived Control

Many studies have shown a positive association between SES and locus of control beliefs: higher SES (e.g., higher income and/or education) being associated with more internal beliefs (Mirowsky & Ross, 1986; Downey & Moen, 1987; Cicirelli, 1980; Pincus & Callahan, 1994, 1995; Levenson, 1981; Marmot et al, 1997; Laaksonen, 2005). Similar patterns of association are seen for related constructs such as personal mastery (Pearlin et al, 1981; Gecas, 1989; Lachman & Weaver, 1998; Pudrovska, et. al, 2005) and self-efficacy (Gecas, 1989). And, lower SES has been associated with greater powerlessness and anomie (Blauner, 1964; Mirowsky & Ross, 1986). For an analysis of the differential significance of various indicators of socio-economic status in relation to health issues, see Laheima, et. al. (2004); and for recent further work on the relevance of both race and class, see Jang, et. al (2003); Lincoln, et. al. (2003); and Mizell (1999).

A concern in the conceptualization of control issues is the distinction between perceived control and the objective conditions of control in a given situation. Important research in this regard was conducted by Kohn and his colleagues (Kohn & Schooler, 1983), Their work, focusing on the impact of working conditions on cognition and psychological health, also points to the important and significant ways in which work environment characteristics—in particular the objective conditions that allow for the workers' exercise of independent judgment in complex matters—affect both the development and the persistence of personal control beliefs and the development of cognitive flexibility. Work setting characteristics such as environmental complexity and contingency (i.e., control over the process of one's work) were found to promote the development and persistence of stronger personal agency/control beliefs and to result in enhancing intellectual functioning more generally (Kohn & Schooler, 1983). These effects have been demonstrated in various work settings and in various cross-cultural studies (Kohn, 2006; see also Bobak et. al, 2000).

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Studies of the effects of downward mobility with respect to employment status also highlight the negative impact of such experiences on personal control and efficacy beliefs (Pearlin et al, 1981; Gecas 1989). Data such as these suggest that social class differences in personal control beliefs are in all likelihood importantly influenced by differences in the class-differentiated characteristics of work (and other environmental) settings inhabited by those of different social classes. On the whole, however, the connection between objective social conditions and subjectively perceived control remains a relatively unexplored domain, despite the fact that social class indicators have often been explored in connection with control-related constructs.

Control Beliefs and Health

The evidence linking control beliefs to health is mixed, with support for both positive and negative health outcomes being associated with stronger perceptions of personal control. There is considerable evidence linking sense of control to better psychological health (Rodin, 1986; Rodin, Timko, Harris, 1985; Haidt & Rodin, 1995; Ruedal and Perez-Garcia, 2006), though cautions have also been expressed regarding the cross-cultural validity of the emphasis on individual personal control in relation to health (e.g., O'Connor and Shimizu, 2002; Steptoe, et. al, 2007; and Hayashi, et. al, 1999). There is also considerable evidence of links to better physical health outcomes, including lower incidence of CHD (Karasek et al, 1982, Marmot et al, 1997), better self-rated health and functional status (Seeman & Seeman, 1983; Seeman & Lewis, 1995; Rodin & Langer, 1977' Schulz, et. al, 1994), better maintenance of cognitive function (Seeman et al, 1993) and lower mortality risk (Seeman & Lewis, 1995; Rodin & Langer, 1977). However, there is also evidence suggesting that stronger control beliefs can be associated with poorer health outcomes under certain circumstances (Rodin, 1986; Seeman, 1991; Thompson et al, 1988). A thorough review of the concept of "positive health" and the implication of mastery involved in that concept can be found in Ryff and Singer (1998).

Negative health outcomes have been hypothesized to be more likely to occur when there is incongruity between personal control beliefs and actual situational/environmental "control conditions" (Watson & Baumal, 1967; Thompson et al, 1988; Rothbaum et al, 1982; Evans et al, 1993). Stronger control beliefs would thus be predicted to result in poorer outcomes when there is a mis-match between beliefs and environmental contingencies. Support for this prediction can be found in research from both animal and human studies of physiologic reactivity to environmental control conditions where the greatest reactivity (e.g., increase in cardiovascular or neuroendocrine activity or reduction in immune function) is seen when there is incongruity reflecting a combination of general expectancies for control and actual situational "uncontrollability" or difficulty in controlling outcomes (DeGood, 1975; Houston, 1972; Hokanson et al, 1971; Manuck et al, 1978; Sieber et al, 1992); but for a counter argument expressing the view that "positive illusions" can be helpful, see Taylor and Brown, 1994. Data from a study undertaken by the MacArthur Successful Aging Study provide further evidence of such effects, showing that men with strong personal control beliefs who perceive that they were NOT "in control" in a driving simulation challenge exhibited the greatest physiological reactivity. By contrast, individuals with similarly strong personal control beliefs who perceive themselves to be "in control" during the challenge situation exhibited the least reactivity (T. Seeman, unpublished data). Data such as these suggest that having strong internal control beliefs in situations which do not allow for such personal causation will tend to be detrimental in terms of physiologic activation and, if such a "person-environment" mis-match is relatively chronic, may actually result in increased pathophysiology. Known links between the Type A Behavior Pattern and increased risks for heart disease may be an example of such links. Type A's have been shown to have a strong need for control (Strickland, 1978; Miller et al, 1985), to persist in attempts for control in laboratory situations (Miller et al, 1985; Strube & Werner, 1985) and to exhibit greater physiologic reactivity in the face of uncontrollable situations (Krantz, Glass & Snyder, 1974). Such persistence, in the face of external realities that limit or prevent actual control over outcomes, along with its accompanying physiologic reactivity may contribute to Type A's increased risk for CHD. Personal control beliefs, however, may also contribute to CHD risk, independent of Type A behavior. The presence of stronger personal mastery beliefs, for example, has been found to be associated with greater coronary atherosclerosis independent of other known risk factors (Seeman, 1991). To the extent that such strong mastery beliefs may tend to promote unrealistic expectations for control, they may be associated with patterns of physiological arousal that promote the development of atherosclerosis.

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The complexity of relationships between personal control beliefs and health is also indicated by recent evidence indicating significant SES differences in the patterns of association between such control beliefs and health outcomes. Using data from three national samples, Lachman & Weaver (1998) have demonstrated significant interactions of control beliefs with both education and income in relation to health and well-being. The basic pattern of associations indicated that while control beliefs were associated with more positive health outcomes in all SES groups, the differences in health outcomes associated with stronger versus weaker control beliefs were greater at lower levels of education and income. Indeed, among those with less education or income, those with strong control beliefs reported health outcomes comparable to those seen in higher SES groups for self-rated health, acute physical symptoms, depressive symptoms and life satisfaction.

There is also the complication introduced by the evidence regarding significant associations between older age and the sense of control. As Wolinsky, et al (2003) note, there is "compelling evidence" for substantively significant associations between age and the sense of control and for changes in the sense of control over time. Similar conclusions are presented by Mirowsky (1995) with evidence based on two large random sample surveys showing high stable mean levels of personal control until age 50 with successive steps downward in progressively older age groups—with physical impairment and low education accounting for much of the loss in sense of control for older respondents (see also, Kraus, 2007).


Though considerable work has been done on the relation between the sense of control and indicators of specific health outcomes, this has largely been done in terms of main effects and the dynamics of the mediation process is still not well understood (for a considered treatment of mediation, see Legander and Kroft, 2003). As indicated by both laboratory and survey data, there are surely important SES differences in the impact of control beliefs on health status, as well as possible differences in the patterns of association between personal control and physiological reactivity, depending on environmental contingencies.

A further limitation in the literature lies in the scarcity of evidence regarding the sources (rather than the consequences) of differential control expectancies, and the relative paucity of experimental evidence regarding changes in control perspectives. As noted earlier, the evidence is also weak regarding the connection between objective indices of control and the subjective sense of control—and the significance of such discrepancies between the two.

Network Usage

Measures of control are included in several databases currently being used for various network projects, including the MacArthur Successful Aging Study, MacArthur Mid-Life Survey, Whitehall, and studies of immune function (Cohen et al).


Control beliefs are related positively to both SES and health and thus should remain a variable of considerable interest within the Network's model of SES and health. Within our model, control beliefs seem likely to serve as mediators and/or moderators of SES effects on health outcomes. The most commonly used general measure of control beliefs in recent health-related research is Pearlin's Personal Mastery Scale. However, as indicated above, there are a number of other scales that provide assessments of various aspects of control, including beliefs about 'chance' versus 'powerful others' as sources of control. It may be important in future Network research to consider using such multi-dimensional measures in order to more fully evaluate possible SES differences in control beliefs and the role of such beliefs in mediating or moderating SES effects on health.

Among the remaining questions relating to control beliefs are:

  1. Do these beliefs serve as mediators and/or moderators of SES effects on health? To date, research has largely examined only mediation effects, if that.
  2. Do different dimensions or types of control beliefs relate differentially to SES and/or health?
  3. Are there subgroup differences in these effects (e.g., gender and/or ethnic differences)?

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