Behavioral Research

Table of Contents
1 Description, Theoretical Background, and History

Components of Personal Control


The Role of Control in Health Behavior Theories


Measures and Measurements



6 Published Examples

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Other Constructs



Dispositional Optimism




Illness Representations

  Implementation Intentions
  Intention, Expectation, and Willingness
  Normative Beliefs
  Optimistic Bias
  Perceived Benefits
  Perceived Control
  Perceived Severity
  Perceived Vulnerability
  Self-Reported Behavior
  Social Influence
  Social Support

Perceived Control
Suzanne C. Thompson and Michèle M. Schlehofer

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Components of Personal Control

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 & 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.

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