Affect Control Theory

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at the affect control theory developed by Dr. David R. Heise and how it can be used to predict people's change in perception given a critical event.

Affect Control Theory

When someone close to you dies, your favorite sports team wins a championship or a natural disaster strikes, how do you react? These are all critical life events. They cause a certain reaction in most of the people who live in a specific culture, no matter who they are. Affect control theory (ACT) seeks to quantify, or make predictions about, those reactions.


During hurricane Katrina, many people in New Orleans lost their homes, a lifetime of mementos, and even their loved ones, which caused them to react in certain ways. The same was true for victims of the 2004 tsunami in Asia that left thousands homeless and approximately 250,000 dead. These events are extremes, but how people react during extremely stressful situations such as these can be quantified.

Affect control theory is a mathematical model that looks at an event through the prism of culture. Every person grows to accept the reality of the world around them and the people who occupy it based on cultural norms. We thus expected that people within a culture would act similarly, but before the advent of ACT social psychologists had difficulty making accurate predictions about this behavior. The computer models developed out of ACT, such as Interact which was created at the University of Indiana in 1971, describe how people's beliefs about themselves and others will change during an event.


The basic premise of the theory is that people react to events based on what cultural norms they were taught, both directly and indirectly. These events can be a simple as a traffic jam or as complex as losing everything during a natural disaster. The question asked by the theory's progenitor, Dr. David R. Heise, was whether he could use math to predict how a person's perceptions would change when faced with a certain situation.

During a fire, an individual hears a baby crying in the blaze. How will they react and does that reaction change based on where, and by whom, they were raised? Will someone who has been taught that self-preservation is a crucial value jump into the blaze and save the child? Is this something that changes across cultures? Also, how will this event change the individual going forward? Dr. Heise's model is able to accurately predict an individual's reaction and how that person will continue to change based on cultural markers.

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