Because personal control is a central concept in many theories of human behavior and has generated extensive research, a considerable
number of different control constructs and types of control have been studied. This can be helpful to a health behavior researcher who has
a clear idea of what type of control is most relevant to a particular study, but can cause confusion for those who are less familiar with the
area. Here we identify six key distinctions among control constructs that are relevant to health behaviors.
Perceived Control and Components: Locus of Control and Self-Efficacy
Perceived control, the perception that one can take action to get desired outcomes, consists of two parts: locus of control and self-efficacy.
Locus of control refers to beliefs about the locus of reinforcements: whether or not people in general can get good outcomes and
avoid bad through their own actions (internal locus of control) or whether external factors control these outcomes (external locus of control).
Self-efficacy refers to the perception that the self has the skills/abilities to enact these effective responses. People have
a sense of perceived control when they believe that, in general, personal action controls outcomes (internal locus of control) and they
personally have the skills to enact those actions (self-efficacy). Thus perceived control can be decomposed into two elements ("there are
effective responses for people in general" and "I can enact them") or measured as composite belief ("I can take action to get what I want").
Perceptions of Control vs. Control Strategies
Personal control is both a belief that one
possesses the ability to act and get desired outcomes (perceived
control) and a behavioral orientation toward taking action
to solve problems or deal with stress (control strategy).
Most research has focused on perceived control, but there
are also measures of active or passive control-related strategies,
the self-reported tendency to take or not take action in the
face of a problematic situation (Wrosch,
Schulz, & Heckhausen, 2002).
General vs. Specific Control
The questions on general measures of perceived control are worded in broad terms and are intended to refer to an overall sense of personal
control. In contrast, specific measures refer to a particular event that the individual might want to achieve or avoid and ask about control
related to that situation.
Realistic vs. Unrealistic control
Another important distinction is between judgments of personal
control that are accurate assessments of actual control, as
opposed to overestimations of control. Realistic control
is based on taking action to protect oneself or to obtain
a desired goal; unrealistic control is not
tied to effective action (Zuckerman,
Knee, Kieffer, Rawsthorne, & Bruce, 1996). There is some evidence that an
inappropriately high sense of control over making health behavior
changes (e.g., smoking cessation) is associated with a lower
likelihood of actually making the changes (Haaga
& Stewart, 1992).
Desire for Control/Preference for Involvement
People also differ in the extent to which they want to have control, a concept termed desire for control. Independent of perceived
control, some people want to be involved in protecting their health or making decisions about medical care; others would prefer to leave these
issues to medical personnel or family members or to seek solutions that do not involve taking responsibility for one's own health.
Target of Control
A final distinction concerns the target of an individual's
control efforts, in particular perceiving control over the
external environment vs. perceiving control over one's self
& Tiffany, 1996). Self-control
or self-regulation is likely to be an important determinant
of the success of health protective changes, especially for
changes that require resistance to tempting alternative behaviors.