The Role of Perceived Control
1. Control deprivation in animals
2. Learned helplessness in people
3. Reactions to physical illness
4. Controlling our thoughts
Prologue: What is perceived control?
An expected relation (or contingency) between responses/behaviours and outcomes.
“If you do X, you will achieve outcome Y”
Q: Is perceived control important?
Part 1: Control Deprivation in animals
Dogs in a shuttle-box at the University of Pennsylvania; a light comes on, and then 10 seconds later a shock it administered to the bottom of the box; the dog can escape the shock by jumping over the hurdle. When on the other side of the box, the process repeats.
It doesn’t take very for the first dog to realize the contingency between jumping, the light, and the outcome.
The second dog passively accepts the shock. This is because in the harness, the first dog learned it could move his head to stop the shock. The second dog had no contingency to avoid the shock, so when subsequently placed in the shuttle-box (which can be controlled) it didn’t do anything.
Prior exposure to uncontrollable shocks (in harness) Learned Helplessness
Learned Helplessness (LH) occurs in a wide variety of animals;
LH generalizes to new situations:
E.g., if dog learns it can’t control shocks in harness, it later has difficulty learning that it can control whether it gets food;
Animals can be “immunized” against LH by providing prior experiences with control (e.g., if control in harness, dog has difficulty learning it can’t control shocks in shuttle-box);
A helpless animal can be given “therapy” to eliminate helplessness *show that it has control over outcomes).
Part 2: Learned Helplessness in People
A. A typical study:
1st part: Prior experience with uncontrollable (or controllable) events; then
Observe their performance on new (controllable) task: Helplessness?
B. Typical results: weak and inconsistent;
Control deprivation sometimes inhibits subsequent performance (LH)
Sometimes facilitates performance
LH does not always generalize to new tasks.
C. A closer look at Learned Helplessness:
Uncontrollable Event Learned Helplessness
Generate “attributions” (causal explanations) for the uncontrollable event.
D. The Attributional Reformulation of Learned Helplessness
Whether we experience LH after uncontrollable event depends on the types of attributions we make.
Suppose two 1st year students are taking a math course and they failed their first math exam, even though they tried to pass the exam (there was no contingency between their responses and the outcome).
“I failed my first math exam”. Why?
Student 1: “I’m stupid”.
Implies three “causal dimensions”:
Internal (reflects dispositions);
Stable (will persist over time);
Global (generalizes to other areas).
Cause is Stable & Global, therefore no expectation of future control (gives up) Learned Helplessness
Cause is Internal, therefore low self-esteem
Pessimistic/Depressive Attributional Style.
Student 2: “The room was too hot”.
External (stems from environment);
Unstable (won’t persist over time);
Specific (won’t generalize to other areas of life).
Cause is Unstable & Specific No helplessness; person should expect future control.
Cause is External No loss in self-esteem.
Optimistic Explanatory Style.
Part 3: Perceived Control and Reactions to Physical Illness
Perceived Control facilitates coping with physical illness.
A. Correlational studies:
1) “Primary Control” (control over the illness):
Coronary heart disease, breast cancer, spinal cord injuries.
Better adjustment (low stress, anxiety and depression).
2) “Secondary Control” (control over consequences of illness, e.g., emotional reactions; symptoms; treatment):
Also leads to better adjustment.
B. Experimental studies (manipulate perceptions of control).
E.g. Perceived control in the elderly Langer & Rodin’s “nursing home” study: