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Modern Control Theory looks at how systems work by breaking down the system to specific pieces and then looking at the links between these pieces. These systems can be individual human beings as well as society and are self-regulating. Interactions and relationships between the broken down specific pieces of a system are studied as well as the individual pieces themselves  (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.2).

The main idea of Control theory is that “people are constantly seeking feedback for their actions” (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p. 3). When individuals notice the feedback they are given, they set goals and change their behavior to achieve these goals. Klein (1989) described what he called a feedback loop to indicate what happens during this process when feedback is received and behavior is directed to achieve a goal. The feedback loop has four elements:

  1. Sensor (input function)
  2. Comparator
  3. Referent standard (goal)
  4. Effector (output behavior)

 PCT perception control theory.png

Control Theory has both cognitive and emotional aspects. The cognitive part of Control Theory involves how information is transferred and processed throughout the feedback loop. The emotional part of the theory is concerned with evaluating the feedback loop process  (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p. 4). 

 Case Study

Ryan is a newly promoted production supervisor at CWA Railroad's Memphis Locomotive Repair Shop. He was promoted due to his success as a locomotive diesel mechanic at the same company. Ryan's primary responsibility for his new position is to direct a gang of twenty craft employees consisting of diesel mechanics, electricians, and sheet metal workers. CWA has given him a goal of having his team repair four locomotives per shift. Ryan is confident heading into his new role and pursuing this goal with his team as his former gang consistently achieved their goal of repairing six locomotives per shift, an accomplishment he was proud of.

On his first day as a supervisor, Ryan finds it easy to assign work tasks to the diesel mechanics and sheet metal workers, but struggles to properly assign tasks to the electricians; as he is not as familiar with electricians' expertise and job capabilities. As a result, Ryan's gang is only able to repair two locomotives by the end of the shift.

Ryan is aware that the other two production gangs in the shop consistently meet their goals each shift. After his shift, Ryan meets with his supervisor. He explains that they did not meet the goal and that he believes this is a result from not properly assigning work to the electricians.Ryan is embarrassed, as he entered the position with high self esteem. He goes home feeling like he has failed his first day, determined to do something to rectify the situation.

The following day, Ryan goes into work early to review his locomotive line up and his plan with one of the senior production supervisors on the shop floor. He uses the advice from the senior supervisor to assign his workers to locomotives based on the scope of their work and the employee's expertise.

Ryan's gang is then able to repair four locomotives by the end of shift and meet the company's goal due to Ryan seeking new information and applying that to their work. Ryan's supervisor praises him for turning the team's work around. Ryan is then able to consistently use his new strategies to successfully assign work to the team each day, and they continue to meet their goal of repairing four locomotives daily. Ryan regains confidence in his abilities to lead and feels pride in his work once again.

controlsystem (1).jpg

Application of Control Theory

The word "control" derives from the Greek, meaning the "art of steering," often used to describe the system of government at the time. (PSU WC L9 p 2). Control theory essentially describes how a system works by breaking down the system into pieces and studying the links between them (PSU WC L9 P2). In the field of Psychology, the human and their social environment serve as the system. The assumption is that humans are self-regulating systems which try to reestablish and maintain equilibrium by setting and pursuing goals (PSU W L9 P2). Humans seek feedback on their actions, and use that feedback to set goals and change their actions to achieve said goals (PSU WC L9 P3).

In this case, Ryan is attempting to reach equilibrium by reaching and maintaining the goal of repairing four locomotives each shift. Feedback first comes at the end of shift when Ryan recognizes that the goal has not been reached and only two locomotives were repaired. Ryan than seeks out more feedback from both his supervisor and more experienced workers to help him adjust his leadership methods. As control theory states, when we receive feedback, we will redirect our behavior in a way that helps achieve goals, which is what Ryan does.

Process of Control Theory in Case Study

Control theory proposes the feedback loop, which consists of four processes: The sensor, comparator, referent standard and then effector (PSU WC, L.9, P.3). In the scenario described above, Ryan has received information from the CWA’s headquarters that his team’s goal is to repair four locomotives per shift. This goal of four is his referent standard, which is goal that he is to achieve. On the first day as production supervisor, Ryan realizes his team has only repaired two locomotives (sensor).  This sensor information then gets interpreted through his perceptual process and is then transferred into the comparator system. In the comparator system, the information is assessed by evaluating the information in contrast to the referent standard (PSU WC, L.9, P.3).  Ryan compares his team’s actual performance of two locomotives (comparator) to the goal of four (referent standard) set by CWA Railroad and to the performance of the other two production gangs who are currently able to reach their daily goal. If Ryan’s team were able to produce four locomotives, the feedback loop would have been closed, which is called retirement, or equilibrium due to attainment of the goal.

Since retirement was not reached in this case, an “error signal” was created to motivate Ryan to rectify the situation. This discrepancy triggered Ryan to seek advice from his supervisor, which is the effector. An effector is defined as an output behavior or action that is aimed at reducing the discrepancy between the actual situation and the referent standard (PSU WC, L.9, P.3).  Ryan is able to meet with other supervisors to discover ways that will help increase his gang’s production and reach their goal. The feedback loop process then started over, in which the output, or the advice he was given, goes back into the sensor and then to the comparator.  Ryan was able to use the advice that his supervisors suggested and his team was able to produce the goal production, producing the set goal of four locomotives. Once the goal was attained, Ryan’s feedback loop closed to a state of retirement. There were no more discrepancies between the CWA’s goals and Ryan’s team production. This process would continue until another goal is given. In that case Ryan would have to adjust behaviors to ensure that any new goals are met, if no retirement is reached during the first process.  

Emotional aspects of the Control Theory

 Most individuals want to be able to reach goals in their career, especially when they feel that they are qualified and capable. In the case with Ryan, he was very confident in his abilities due to his previous position as a locomotive diesel mechanic. The first day at his new position made him feel embarrassment, as he was not able to reach his goal. On the other hand, once he was able to reach his goal, he was able to feel confidence and pride again. The emotions he felt were motivating factors in both situations. When Ryan felt embarrassment, he was motivated to get feedback from his supervisors to help improve the situation. When he felt confidence for reaching the goal, he was then motivated to be a great leader for his workers. This motivation will be key to him reaching future goals and adjusting this process to ensure that unmet goals can be attained.

Weaknesses of Control Theory

As we have learned Control Theory has been widely used to describe system interactions in the fields of physics, engineering, and other sciences. However, it has only recently been applied to the social sciences. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.2) Even so, Control Theory has not received much in the way of research support from psychology. The resistance from the psychological community towards studying the theory is due to its highly mechanical rather than humanistic language. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7) 

 Proponents of Goal Setting theory are in the number of those resistant to Control Theory. They point to the fact that humans are not the same as machines. A human’s natural state is motion, not rest, as is proposed by Control Theory. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7) We don’t always need an external stimulus to direct behavior, as a machine might need electricity to operate. 

 For instance, Locke and Latham (1990, as cited in PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7) claim that Control Theory is basically a reformulation of behaviorism. They state that Control Theory only adds a description of the internal processes. It still relies heavily on the observable behaviors of the stimulus-response process and leaves no room for free will. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7) 

 Bandura (1989, as cited in PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7) believes that the process of motivation is more complicated than Control Theory suggests. He states that human self-motivation requires feedforward control as well as feedback control. 

 In feedback, the information comes in after a behavior. This is similar to reinforcements and punishments from behaviorism. The feedback either increases desired behavior or reduces undesired behavior. This concept can be seen in the feedback loop part of the theory. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7)

Feedforward  control says that people shape their own futures by choosing which standards they want to adhere to. In Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, for example, people not only pick the people they want to model their behavior after, but the specific behaviors as well. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7) This means that free will also has a part to play in motivating behaviors. If a person judges these behaviors to be useful then they will emulate those behaviors.

Weaknesses Applied to the Case Study

 Ryan’s case shows that Control Theory can be applied to an organizational setting. However, the case also leaves some doubt as to whether Control Theory explains all of Ryan’s behavior. As we have seen, Bandura proposed the idea of feedforward control. This concept states that people are free to pick not only who they want to model their behaviors after, but also the specific behaviors of the person. These choices can shape their future behaviors. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.7)

 In the case we saw that Ryan went to the senior supervisor of the department and sought his advice on directing the efforts of the group. He was given advice that he followed to great success. This leads one to wonder whether Ryan’s choice to follow the advice influenced his continued behavior rather than just the actual outcome.

Control Theory would expect that the outcome of meeting their quota would influence the continuation of following the supervisor’s advice (feedback control). Bandura’s concepts would state that Ryan’s choice to use the supervisor’s methods and the outcome influenced the continuation of the successful behaviors (feedforward control).


 While Control Theory might explain Ryan’s case, the usefulness of Control Theory in explaining work motivation is questionable at this time. The idea that people are part of a social system has been around for many years, and the validity of the theory exists in areas like engineering and physics. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.8) However, there has been a huge resistance to the theory from those in the science of motivation. These scientists have set a pattern of resistance to the theory among the community of motivation researchers. This does not mean that the theory has no merit, but until scientists design more experiments to test the theory and collect evidence we will never know if the theory is applicable to motivation. (PSU WC L.9, 2014, p.8)



Bandura, A. (1989). Self-regulation of motivation and action through internal standards and goal systems. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Goals concepts in personality and social psychology (pp. 19-85). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.   

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[PCT Approach, Illustration]. Retrieved October 25, 2014, from

 Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014). PSYCH 484 Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I regulate my behavior? Retrieved from

The Control of Perception [Flow chart]. (2004). Retrieved October 25, 2014, from donclark/pct/pct.html

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