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Perceived Behavioral Control: Definition and Relation to Stress

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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Perceived control describes the amount of control people believe they have over a situation. This phenomenon has stress-reduction and mental health benefits. Explore perceived control's definition and its relation to stress and health. Updated: 09/14/2021

What Is Perceived Control?

Imagine that you have a really important test coming up in a few days. You're trying to study, but the topic seems really hard, and the ideas that you felt like you understood in class are suddenly really confusing. In the midst of all of this, your professor makes a mean comment to you, and you begin to wonder if he may have it out for you.

There are several things in that scenario that might cause you stress: the test, your confusion, your professor's comment. What if I told you that you could choose whether you took a challenging version of the test or an easier one? What if you knew that studying an extra thirty minutes a day would completely clear up your confusion?

Social psychologists have found a difference between the amount of control a person has over events and the amount of control they believe they have. The extent to which you believe you control the outcome of an event is called perceived control.

Think of it this way: Maybe studying an extra half hour a day will clear up your confusion, and maybe it won't. Whether your extra studying will make things clear to you is your actual control of the situation. This might be very low; you might not get any benefit out of the extra half hour of studying. But, if you believe that it will help you understand better, then your perceived control is high.

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Perceived Control & Stress

Believe it or not, social psychologists have found that perceived control is more important than actual control in reducing stress. Think about the situation above: You were stressed because of the upcoming test, your confusion over the subject area, and your professor's comments. If you felt that the extra study time each day would clarify the concepts from class but that nothing you could do would change your professor's grudge against you, which would be more stressful for you?

Let's say that talking to your professor could easily clear up any frustration he has with you. In reality, you have more control over your professor's feelings towards you than over whether you understand the information on the test. But, if you believe that you have more control over the content of the test than over your professor's reaction to you, you'll feel less stressed about the test.

One important study on the effects of perceived control and stress looked at breast cancer patients. The patients who felt that their disease was controllable with medication and other treatments showed far less stress and better psychological adjustment than those who felt that their treatment did nothing to help control their disease.

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