How Much Control Do You Have over Your Cognitive Functioning?
As you progress through college, you are concerned with your grade-point average, how much you will learn relative to your profession of choice, and your performance on exams. The more control you perceive that you have over the situation, the more confident you feel. There are two types of control attributions you can make. You can make an "entity" attribution about your performance in school. This
means you attribute control to your innate ability to perform.
Or you can hold a "skill" perspective. You now attribute control over your performance in terms of how much effort you exert, such as how much you study for an exam.
Are there age differences in these control beliefs? To find out, talk to students at your university ranging from first-year students to seniors and also ranging in
age. There are a lot of older students coming back to school, for example. Find out what they believe is the major cause of the successes and failures in school. Bring your results to class and pool them. See if there are college-level differences and/or age differences in perceptions of control over academic performance. Compare your findings to age differences reported in the text.
A particularly important question is how control strategies and beliefs affect emotional well-being. A growing number of studies suggest that control beliefs are important contributors to both positive and negative well-being. For example, if someone perceives he or she has control over desirable outcomes, this control is associated with high emotional well-being (Kunzmann et al., 2002). However, how adaptive control beliefs relate to well-being varies with life stage. For young and middle-aged adults, a strong sense of control relates to how we compensate for failure, for example, “We can overcome this momentary failure.” Older adults focus a sense of control on how to master everyday demands (Lang & Heckhausen, 2001). Finally, for all age groups, planning for the future enhances one’s sense of perceived control, and this in turn relates to high life satisfaction (Lachman et al., 2009).
Some Criticisms Regarding Primary Control
The notion of increases in accommodative strategies (Brandtstadter, 1999) and secondary strategies
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(Heckhausen & Schulz, 1999) in older age is not without its criticisms. For example, Carstensen and Freund (1994) question whether losses people experience, though real, actually threaten the self. In addition, these authors argue that age-related changes in goals could also be the result of natural movement through the life cycle, not simply of coping with blocked goals.
Criticisms also can be launched against these approaches to control by considering the globalization of so many aspects of our functioning. From a sociocultural perspective (e. g., cross-cultural research), there is much criticism regarding a bias toward Western cultures in the development of theories such as primary and secondary control, and in particular, the primacy of primary control over secondary control. In a fascinating rebuttal of the Heckhausen and Schulz theory, Stephen J. Gould (1999) suggests that in collectivist societies such as those found in Asia, the emphasis is not on individualistic strategies such as those found in primary control. Instead, the goal is to establish interdependence with others, to be connected to them and bound to a larger social institution. He
cites studies that show that throughout adulthood, Asian cultures exceed Western cultures in levels of secondary control and emotion-focused coping (Gould, 1999; Seginer et al., 1993).
Thus one’s sense of personal control is a complex, multidimensional aspect of personality. Consequently, general normative age-related trends might not be found. Rather, changes in personal control may well depend on one’s experiences in different domains and the culture one grows up in, and may differ widely from one domain to another.
1. What control strategies are related to preserving a positive perspective?
2. How do control beliefs and strategies affect older adults’ emotional well-being?