The research just reviewed primarily examined control-related beliefs such as the belief that control is in one’s own hands or in the hands of others. However, a number of theoretical approaches and empirical work have examined control-related strategies. For example, Brandtstadter (1999) proposes that the preservation and stabilization of a positive view of the self and personal development in later life involve three interdependent processes. First, people engage in assimilative activities that prevent or alleviate losses in domains that are personally relevant for self-esteem and identity. For example, people may use memory aids more if having a good memory is an important aspect of self-esteem and identity. Second, people make accommodations and readjust their goals and aspirations as a way to lessen or neutralize the effects of negative self-evaluations in key domains. For instance, if a person notices that the time it takes to walk a mile at a brisk pace has increased, then the target time can be increased to help lessen the impact of feelings of failure. Third, people use immunizing mechanisms that alter the effects of self-discrepant evidence. In this case, a person who is confronted with evidence that his or her memory performance has declined can look for alternative explanations or simply deny the evidence.
Taking a similar approach, Heckhausen and Schulz (1999; Schulz et al., 2003) view control as a motivational system that regulates human behavior over the life span, in other words, individuals’ abilities to control important outcomes. These researchers define control-related strategies in terms of primary control and secondary control. Much like Brandstadter’s assimilative activities, primary control involves bringing the environment into line with one’s desires and goals. Action is directed toward changing the external world. Much like Brandstadter’s accommodative activities, secondary control involves bringing oneself in line with the environment. It typically involves cognitive activities directed at the self. So, for example, if you lost your job, and thus your income, primary control strategies would entail an active search for another job (changing the environment so you once again have a steady income). Secondary control strategies could involve appraising the situation in terms of how you really did not enjoy that particular job.
An important part of this theoretical perspective is that primary control has functional primacy over secondary control. In other words, primary control lets people shape their environment to fit their goals and developmental potential. Thus primary control has more adaptive value to the individual. The major function of secondary control is to minimize losses or expand levels of primary control.
Heckhausen and Schulz (1999) believe this has important implications for aging. They find that in childhood much development is directed at expanding the child’s primary control potential, and they predict stability in primary control striving through most of adult life. However, as we enter old age, the maintenance of primary control increasingly depends on secondary control processes. This is due to threats to primary control as a function of biological decline that occurs as we grow older. Thus secondary control will increase with age. Research shows that secondary control does indeed increase with age (Grob et al., 1999; Heckhausen & Schulz, 1999).
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