Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Perceived control and emotion

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Perceived control and emotion:
How does perceived control influence emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The 18th century proverb ‘early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ displays how the connection between our decisions, behaviour and emotional well-being has been recognised for centuries. This proverb offers encouragement that with simple actions a person can control their emotions and the outcome of their lives. In reality, it is not that straight forward.

The concept of control involves both objective and perceived control. Objective control refers to how much actual control a person has in a situation (Nadelhoffer & Matveeva, 2009). Perceived control refers to a person’s belief that their behaviour is able to alter possible outcomes, and is not necessarily related to an actual level of control (Patrick et al., 1993). Interestingly, perceived control has been found to have a greater impact on a person’s interpretations, behaviours and emotional responses than objective control (Nadelhoffer & Matveeva, 2009).

Control within a person’s life is often acknowledged as important for both emotional well-being and as a motivator for behaviour (Martin & Gill, 2008). It has been suggested our innate need to perceive control over our environment may buffer the reality of the limited control we actually do have, resulting in a more positive dispositions and a greater level of comfort with our environment (Nadelhoffer & Matveeva, 2009; Skinner, 1995). This may explain why objective control impacts greatly on a person’s life though perception of control is more influential for both a person’s behaviour and emotional state (Patrick et al., 1993)[Rewrite to improve clarity].

People often attempt to gain and maintain control of their environment in an effort to facilitate effective engagement within different environments (Skinner, 1995)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Researchers have proposed that the role perception of control plays over actual control is as a protective mechanism as it leads us to believe we have more control than we do, which contributes to emotional well-being (Nadelhoffer & Matveeva, 2009). This mechanism could be seen as allowing us to feel that we have more control over our environment than we actually do to allow us to feel that our innate need for control and effective engagements with the environment are met, resulting in positive emotional states and general well-being.

Perceived control is associated with both positive and negative emotions. While a lack of control can elicit positive emotional responses and be alluring in some circumstances, such as gambling or knowing you’re getting a surprise present (Qan, Feng & Yang, 2011) it is generally considered that having control is preferred and that a lack of control can be distressing (Skinner, 1995). Although a lack of control is not always unpleasant, numerous studies have shown that a lack of perceived control is commonly associated with anxiety, fear, depression and withdrawal behaviours (Hogendoorn et al., 2012; Skinner, 1995).

While there appears to be general acceptance that perceived control affects emotions there is less understanding about how this comes about. This chapter will examine theories that attempt to answer the questions:

  • how does perceived control influence emotion?
  • how can perceived control be used to encourage positive emotional experiences

Emotions are a complex range of feelings resulting in change to physical and psychological states (Cherry, n.d.) and influencing thoughts, decisions, relationships behaviours and physical and mental health (Izard, 2010).

Perceived control

Perceived control is a person’s belief that there is a connection between their behaviour and specific possible outcomes, and as such the belief that they are capable of generating desired results and preventing undesired results (Patrick, Skinner & Connell, 1993) |- |colspan="2" align="center" style="background:#e6ffff; text-align:left; border-top:1px #000066 solid; padding:15px;" |

Test yourself

1 The idea that perception of control influences emotion is a relatively new concept.


2 Perception of control refers to:

a generalised belief that responses and outcomes are independent of each other.
a belief that your behaviours influence your outcomes.
how easily you can see the control button on your keyboard after a couple of drinks.


Locus of control[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. External Locus of Control[explain?].

The term Locus of Control was originally proposed by Rotter (1966) to refer to a person’s general predisposition to attribute control to internal or external causes across a variety of situations, or personal control expectancies (Bollini, Walker, Hamann, & Kestler, 2004). People with an internal LOC believe they control their lives, while people with an external LOC believe that their life outcomes are due to external factors, such as fate and luck (Skinner, 1995). LOC has been used to examine whether an internal or external style impacts on many factors of life, including emotions, education, work and the ability to deal with stressful situations (Wang, Bowling & Eschleman, 2010; Patrick et al., 1993).

Research has focused on how people attribute and perceive control for over four decades[when?] and has found that people have a natural tendency to attribute causes for outcomes either internally or externally (Wang et al., 2010). People who have an internal attribution style (internal LOC) perceive that they have control over their lives. While people who have an external attribution style (external LOC) have a lower perception of control as they see outside influences, such as other people, fate, luck, as controlling their lives (Wang et al., 2010)[grammar?]. LOC has been thoroughly researched in an effort to understand how it impacts on people’s behaviours and emotional states within different environments.

Figure 2. Internal Locus of Control[explain?]

Wang et al. (2010) found that a person’s LOC impacted on their perception in the workplace, and as such their attitudes, enjoyment and their propensity for withdrawal behaviours. People with an internal style, who felt they had control of the environment, were found to perceive their work environments more positively than those with an external LOC belief (Wang et al., 2010). In contrast, people with an external LOC reported more negative emotions and withdrawal behaviours, such as calling in sick (Wang et al., 2010).

Patrick, Skinner & Connell’s (1993) research also identified external and internal LOC was related to emotional states in children within the school system. It was found that children presenting positive emotional states and active engagement with their education reported high levels of perceived control and autonomy (internal LOC) (Patrick et al., 1993). Results also showed distressed or anxious children had a low perception of control over outcomes, attributing success or failure to luck and believing that they lack the strategies to succeed or avoid failure in school (external LOC) (Patrick et al., 1993)[grammar?]. These results suggest a child’s perception of internal or external control contributed to their belief in their ability to change their educational outcomes, and influence their emotional state in the school environment[grammar?].

Wang et al. (2010) and Patrick et al.’s (1993) research highlight how LOC style influences a person’s emotional experience across a variety of age groups and experiences. People with an internal LOC appear to often experience more positive emotional experiences which may be due to their more proactive tendencies which may be based on their perception they are able to control and alter an environment (Wang et al., 2010). In contrast, people with an external LOC are more susceptible to negative emotions, which may be due to their lack of perceived control in changing their environments and outcomes (Patrick et al., 1993).

Locus of control and physiological responses[edit | edit source]

LOC and its effect on emotion has also been examined from a physiological perspective. Bollini, Walker, Harmann & Kestler’s (2004) research focused on whether LOC played any role in mediating the effect of perceived control on cortisol levels. Cortisol is released by the body when a person perceives an event as stressful (Bollini et al., 2004). While previous research has been inconclusive in establishing a relationship between perceived control and cortisol Bollini et al.’s (2004) study found that people with an internal LOC had lower levels of cortisol. This result was consistent across situations including situations where they perceived control over the stressful stimuli and also in situations where they had no control. This suggests a person’s LOC, or their predisposition to perceive control over situations, influences the amount of cortisol released and the level of stress they experience (Bollini et al., 2004). Given past studies has been inconclusive further research is needed though this study indicates that a person’s LOC, or perception of control over their environment, may influence their emotions at a physiological level.

LOC has been used to explain how people’s predisposition to perceive control as either internal or external influences the emotions they experience. People with an internal LOC have confidence in their ability to alter their environment, and as such show more proactive behaviours as well as less stress, anxiety and depression (Sahoo, 2002; Wang et al., 2010). People with an external LOC perceive a lack of control in their environment, and such experience a range of emotions including increased stress, anxiety and apathy (Patrick et al., 1993; Wang et al., 2010). Studies have yet to conclusively connect physiological reactions, such as cortisol levels, to LOC though Bollini et al.’s (2004) study indicates there may be a connection and further research is necessary.

Case study
Mary and Beth attend university together. Mary is upset by her results as she believes the lecturer has marked her results more harshly than other students. Beth is not distressed by her results and notes she may need to work harder next semester to improve her grade. The following semester both receive higher grades. Mary is pleased, saying she is grateful she got a ‘soft’ lecturer this semester. Beth says she is pleased her hard work paid off.

Mary has an external LOC, believing her grades rely on luck. Her grades upset her as she believes they are due to external causes, resulting in her perception that she is unable to change them herself.

Beth has an internal LOC. She feels that her outcomes are under her control, and is happy that changing her behaviour was effective in changing her grades

Test yourself

1 Attributing outcomes as due to fate or luck is what style of LOC?


2 Lower cortisol levels are associated with internal LOC.


Learned helplessness[edit | edit source]

Learned Helplessness has received significant research attention since the 1960s (Martin & Gill, 2008). It is characterised by an expectation that outcomes are uncontrollable and is associated with a number of negative emotional responses (Sahoo, 2002). While helplessness research initially focused on animals it extended to humans to try to explain why some individuals experience a perceived lack of control over outcomes, with some forming a generalised belief that their behaviours will have little or no impact on outcomes, after exposure to uncontrollable situations (Morgan, 2013; Sahoo, 2002).

The opposite of control is helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when a person perceives they have no control over the outcomes in their life:[grammar?] (Patrick et al., 1993), and as such perception of control has been found to be a core construct underlying Learned Helplessness (Sahoo, 2002). When an organism (animal or human) is exposed to unpleasant stimuli their reaction is generally to escape and to avoid the stimuli in future (Seligman and Maier, 1967). In some cases when the organism is repeatedly exposed to the stimuli and escape is prevented they learn their behaviour has no impact on the outcome and they cease trying to escape or avoid the stimuli (Seligman & Maier, 1967). For some, this experience results in learned helplessness, a belief that their behaviour does not impact on outcomes (Seligman & Maier, 1967). This belief can result in a failure to be proactive in life as well as increased negative emotions such as stress, [grammar?]depression and anxiety (Morgan, 2013; Sahoo, 2002).

Identification of the learned helplessness response first arose through a study aimed at conditioning a dog’s response to an electric shock with a bell (Martin & Gill, 2008). The results showed that after a period of unavoidable shocks the dogs no longer attempted to escape the discomfort, instead sitting passively and enduring the discomfort (Martin & Gill, 2008). Seligman and Maier recognised this result differed from the normal conditioning response and began researching the phenomenon (Martin & Gill, 2008). They conducted an experiment that consisted of three groups of dogs: group one were placed in a harness (without any further procedures). Groups two and three dogs were harnessed together with the dogs in group two being exposed to an electric shock that ceased when the dog pressed a lever. The dogs in group three were connected to the same electrical circuit as the dogs in group two, and as such were also exposed to the same electric shock, though they could not control the shock with a lever. The shock appeared uncontrollable for the dogs in group three, as they could not terminate it and were unaware that the dogs in group two were stopping it. The second part of the experiment involved moving each group of dogs into a box with a partition over which they jump to escape the electric shock. Results from the second stage showed that while the dogs from the first and second groups soon learned to jump the petition to escape the shock when the dogs from the third group received the shock they lay down whining. Seligman and Maier proposed this was due to the dogs learning that they had no control over the shock as their behaviour and the shock appeared to be independent of each other. The term ‘Learned Helplessness’ was coined by Seligman who suggested the condition was a response to the emotional stress experienced when trauma is considered uncontrollable (Margin & Gill, 2008).

More recent research has focused on learned helplessness as a response to traumatic situations (Bargai, Ben-Shakhar, & Shalev, 2007). Studies has[grammar?] shown that Learned Helplessness is a common response for female victims of domestic who believe they are powerless to change their situation and perceive a total lack of control (Bargai, et al., 2007; Palker-Correll & Marcus, 2004). Bargai et al.’s (2007) study focused on the incidence of depression (characterised by feelings of sadness, worthlessness and despair) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (an anxiety disorder often resulting in feelings of numbness and often accompanied by depression) in female victims of severe, prolonged domestic violence. Bargai et al. (2007) found that while abuse does not necessarily result in learned helplessness, the women were significantly more likely to experience PTSD or depression if they suffered from learned helplessness. This could suggest that learned helplessness, or a perceived lack of control over one's outcomes may increase a person’s chance of depression and PTSD, and the significant negative emotional consequences they involve.

While learned helplessness has been linked to cases of abuse research has shown that not all people who suffer abuse will develop learned helplessness (Palker-Correll & Marcus, 2004). Palker-Corell & Marcus’ (2004) study of domestic violence victims reported that while victims of domestic violence showed no increased rate of learned helplessness they did have higher rates of external attribution styles. They found that victims who had an external-control belief (seeing the outcomes of their life being controlled by sources other than themselves) were more likely to develop higher levels of distress, suggesting that while they may not be more susceptible to learned helplessness, they are more likely to perceive the outcomes of their life as out of their control (Palker-Correll & Marcus, 2004).

Learned helplessness, characterised by an individual’s belief that their outcomes are totally out of their control, highlights how strong an influence perception of control is over emotions. These studies all show someone whose perception is one of having no control over outcomes are more likely to experience apathy, sadness, depression. This suggests that perceived control has a strong influence over emotion and could be worked on with people suffering Learned Helplessness to encourage a perception of control within their lives.

Test yourself

1 People experiencing learned helplessness have:

a generalised belief that their responses and outcomes are independent of each other.
a belief that other people should make their decisions for them.
high levels of perceived control in some situations

2 Learned helplessness causes PTSD and depression:


Attribution theory[edit | edit source]

Weiner’s attribution theory expands on Locus of Control by also using stability and global to interpret attributions (Weiner, 1986). Therefore, this theory suggests that attributing causation involves a combination of a person’s tendency to assess whether the cause is internal or external combined with their belief over whether outcomes are stable or unstable, or whether they will change (Weiner, 1985). It also involves whether the person belief of whether the outcome is the same in all situations, or differs (Weiner, 1985). Weiner (1985) suggested that all three of these attributions impact on a person’s emotional responses.

One of the earlier studies of attribution theory focused on how students attribute the cause of success or failure, and emotions tied to these attributions (McFarland & Ross, 1982). One study involved a social accuracy test being completed by college students, with each student then receiving feedback indicating failure or success on the test. Each student was prompted to attribute their result as due to skill or task difficulty (McFarland & Ross, 1982). Responses were analysed and showed that when success was attributed to ability (an internal attribution) the result was an increase in positive emotions and self-esteem, and a reduction in negative emotions (McFarland & Ross, 1982). The results suggest that emotional responses are influenced by attributions with a perception that internal (perceived control) eliciting more positive emotions than externally attributed results.

Attribution theory has also been used to explain emotional reactions to other’s feedback (Hareli, 2014). Research found that when teachers attribute student’s[grammar?] success to ability or hard work (internal and controllable) there is an increase in positive emotion[who?] (Hareli, 2014). It[what?] also appeared to act as a buffer for negative emotional responses to failure when feedback indicated failure was due to external and unstable causes (Hareli, 2014). It could be suggested that this indicates that feedback that either increases or decreases a perception of control and/or controllability can affect emotional responses.

Other studies have looked to attribution theory as an explanation and treatment for depression. Research has shown that people are more prone to depression if their attributional style is internal and stable and global (Harvey & Weary, 1984). It has been suggested that internal attributions (or a perceiving control) for failure can result in decreasing self-esteem, while stable and global attributional styles (a belief that outcomes are the same over time, across all situations) can result in a reduced motivation and depression (Harvey & Weary, 1984). This information was used to develop treatments for people with depression by encouraging them to attribute failures to unstable, external causes and successes to internal, stable causes (Metalsky, Laird, Heck, & Joiner, 1995). Given that depression is characterised by attribution style it would seem reasonable to assume efforts to change this would decrease symptoms of depression, though research appears to be inconclusive as to whether attribution style is changeable.

Case study

Emily participates in the school’s maths competition. When her results come in she discovers she received 68%, while her friend Beth received a grade of 93%. Emily believes that the grade is due to her teacher’s harsh marking style (uncontrollable), and comments that she always does poorly in exams (stable) because she is not smart enough (internal). Mary however, reminds Emily that she studied the night prior (controllable), that she is naturally gifted in maths (internal) and that she does well in maths but not English exams (unstable).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There has been a long history[when?] of people attempting to understand ‘why’ things happen in their lives, and how that impacts their behaviour and emotions (Weiner, 1985). This chapter described some of those theories[which?], though there are many more. In particular, it looks at how the different theories relate to a person’s perception of control, and how this influences the emotions elicited from an experience.

The Locus of Control theory suggests [grammar?] people’s general attributional styles are either internal or external. People with an internal attributional style perceive a level of control over their outcomes, which is often associated with more positive emotions. People with an external style see outcomes as uncontrollable. This style has been associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Learned Helplessness is another theory that uses a perception of control in an effort to explain people’s behaviours and emotional states. This theory suggests that some people learn, often after exposure to trauma, that they have absolutely no control over the outcomes in their lives. This results in numerous negative consequences including sadness, apathy and anxiety, as well as increased susceptibility to depression and PTSD.

These theories provide insights into how perceived control influences a person’s emotional state. They highlight how a lack of perceived control can result in depression and anxiety, while perceptions of control can increase positive emotional experiences. It[what?] also acts as a buffer against the harsh reality that objective control is often fairly low.

There is significant evidence about how perceived control can influence emotional states across many situations. This information could be utilised to increase people’s awareness about how they perceive control over their lives as well as to modify educational and work environments to encourage a perception of control in employees and students to increase positive emotional experiences. It is also something we can all be aware of throughout life. This awareness may be particularly useful in times of distress where a focus on what you are in control of, or changes in an environment to increase your perceived control, may decrease your distress and increase your emotional experience.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bollini, A. M., Walker, E. F., Hamann, S., & Kestler, L., (2004). The influence of perceived control and locus of control on the cortisol and subjective responses to stress. Biological Psychology, 67(3), 245-260.

Cherry, K. (n.d.). Theories of emotion: Major theories of emotion. About Education. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from

Hareli, S. (2014). Making sense of the social word and influencing it by using a naïve attribution theory of emotions. Emotion Review, 6, 336-343.

Harvey, J. H., & Weary, G. (1984). Current issues in attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 35, 427-459.

Hogendoorn, S. M., Vervoort, L., Wolters, L. H., Prins, P. J. M., de Haan, E., Hartman, C. A., Nauta, M. H., & Boer, F. (2012). Perceived control in clinically anxious and non-anxious children indirectly measured with the Implicit Association Procedure (IAP). Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology, 43, 915-921.

Izard, C. E. (2010). The many meanings/aspects of emotion: Definitions, functions, activation and regulation. Emotion Review, 4(2), 363-370.

Martin, J. M., & Gill, J. K. (2008). Learned Helplessness. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Retrieved October 21, 2014, from

Metalsky, G. I, Laird, R. S., Heck, P., M., & Joiner, T., E. (1995). Attribution theory: Clinical applications. In O’Donohue, W. T., & Krasner, L. (Eds.). Theories of behaviour therapy: Exploring behaviour change. (pp. 385-413). Washington DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Morgan, T. A. (2013). Learned Helplessness. In Gellman, M. D., & Turner, R. J. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine (pp. 1171). New York, NY: Springer

Nadelhoffer, T., & Matveeva, T., (2009). Positive illusions, perceived control and the free will debate. Mind and Language, 24(5), 495-522.

Palker-Corell, A., & Marcus, D. K. (2004). Partner abuse, learned helplessness and trauma symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(4), 445-462.

Patrick, B. C., Skinner, E. A., & Connell, J. P. (1993). What motivates children’s behaviour and emotion? Joint effects of perceived control and autonomy in the academic domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(4), 781-791.

Sahoo, F. M. (2002). Dynamics of Human Helplessness. Mohan Garden, New Delhi: Concept Publishing.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1-9.

Skinner, E. A. (1995). Perceived control, motivation and coping (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Wang, Q., Bowling, N. A., & Eschleman, K. J. (2010). A meta-analytic examination of work and general Locus of Control. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(4), 761-768.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573.

External links[edit | edit source]