Perceived Control: A Review and Evaluation of Therapeutic Implications
Robert J. Gatchel Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
In this chapter, evidence is reviewed that indicates that individuals react differently to stressful events that they perceive can be personally controlled than to those perceived not in their control. A rapidly growing literature has shown that perceived controllability/uncontrollability significantly affects self-report, overt motor, and physiological components of behavior elicited by a stressor. In the present discussion of this concept, perceived control is defined simply as the subject's perception of a contingency between the performance of some behavior and the ability to avoid or escape a stressful, unpleasant event. Perceived uncontrollability, in contrast, is the perception of no contingency between one's responding and avoidance/escape outcomes. After a review of the evidence of the important impact that this concept of perceived controllability/uncontrollability has on behavior, it is shown how this factor appears to be an active ingredient in behavior therapy techniques directed at the treatment of fear and anxiety.
Through the years, there has been anecdotal material reported in the literature to suggest that the lack of control over aversive events can lead to some rather dramatic negative consequences. For example, Bettelheim ( 1943) described the Muselmaner, or walking corpses, in Nazi concentration camps, who -- due to an apparent sense of helplessness and lack of control over their aversive life situation -- developed apathy and withdrawal, which many times culminated in death due to no known organic cause. Richter ( 1957), in an