Conceptualization and Operationalization
of Perceived Control
Kenneth A. Wallston
Personal control is being increasingly recognized as a central concept in the understanding of the relationships between stressful experience, behaviours and health. Experimental investigations indicate that control over aversive stimulation has profound effects on autonomic, endocrine and immunological responses, and may influence the pathological processes implicated in the development of cardiovascular disease, tumour rejection and proliferation, and the acquisition of gastrointestinal lesions. Clinically, control and lack of control have been identified as relevant to the experience of pain, anxiety and depression. In the field of psychosocial epidemiology, interesting observations are emerging that relate health to control over job parameters and other aspects of people's lives. (Steptoe & Appels, 1989, p. ix)
The construct of personal (or perceived) control plays an important, central role in health psychology. As exemplified by the previous quotation, it is relevant to stress-related situations and contributes to health-related behavior in individuals who are not experiencing stress. What is less clear is the way the construct of perceived control should be conceptualized and operationalized in health psychology research. This chapter first defines the construct conceptually. After pointing out a number of issues in the study of perceived control, the various ways in which health psychologists have operationalized the construct in their research are reviewed. The final section covers moderators of perceived control, thus illustrating the complex nature of the mechanisms by which perceived control operates to influence health behavior and health status.
Thompson (1981) defined personal control as “the belief that one has at one's disposal a response that can influence the aversiveness of an event” (p. 89). Perceived control (used synonymously in this chapter with personal control) has been defined as “the belief that one can determine one's own internal states and behavior, influence one's environment, and/or bring about desired outcomes” (K. A. Wallston, B. S. Wallston, S. Smith, & Dobbins, 1987, p. 5). “Most authors … view control as a belief or cognition, reflecting the extent to which people think they can influence the situation, either by altering it, by changing its meaning or by regulating their own behavioral or emotional reactions” (Ormel & Sanderman, 1992, p. 196).
The fact that perceived control is a belief is critical. The perception may, or may not, be based on reality (Averill, 1973). When perceived control is based on reality, it is referred to as veridical or actual control; when it is patently not based on reality, it is sometimes referred to as illusory control (see Langer, 1975; Taylor, 1989). In most instances, the truth lies somewhere in between. Veridicality is not necessary or sufficient to bring about the perception of control, although the perception of control, however illusory, may have a profound effect on the individual.