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The Control Theory has been around since the days of Plato, however, modern aspects of the theory originated with Norbet Winer’s 1948 Cybernetics and while it was initially focused on mechanical systems, the theory has been increasing focus in human behavioral applications.  In order for the control theory to be applicable to humans, similarities between the mechanical and human systems must be established.  In addition, the theory connects many disciplines and therefore one must be able to breakdown how the applicable disciplines connect to form a holistic control system:




Mechanical Control Theory Application                                           Human Control Theory Application


Mechanical Illustration Open Loop                                                       Human Illustration – Olympic hopeful Athlete, Closed Loop                     

Core Components of the Control Theory

Notwithstanding the complexities associated with the Control Theory and well documented objectives by Locke, Latham and Bandura (PSU WC L.9, 2015, p.6) in associating the theory to humans, the core components of the theory, as it applies to humans, center around the concept that individuals seek feedback of their performance and set goals based on the feedback. 


Feedback Loop: According to Ashford and Cummings (1983) (as cited in PSU, Wiki, Control Theory), “feedback is data attained from the performance behavior, and indicates if the goal was met”. Feedback, positive or negative, is an enabling agent to modify our performance and set new goals if the objective is not met.  We may also respond or perceive feedback consciously or unconsciously.

Sensor:  Activates feedback.  Upon observing or “sensing” our performance, feedback is given.

Referent Standard:  The goal or benchmark for the goal we are trying to achieve.

Comparator: The mechanism employed to compare performance to the Referent Standard.

Effector: Action taken to reduce the discrepancy between Feedback and Referent Standard in the most effective manner.

Retirement: Results achieve desired goal or Referent Standard.  The Retirement state suggests sustained performance.

Control Systems of the Control Theory 

Open Loop: Controlling action is independent of the output of the system, in other words, no feedback is received, and input starts all over again.  One example is an On/Off switch; a lightbulb is either on or off.

Closed Loop:  Self-adjusting, dependent of output, feedback is present, dependent of all core components of the Control Theory.  One example is an athlete preparing for the Olympics with a goal to win a gold medal in a figure skating competition. 


Control Theory Strengths and Weaknesses 


  1. Control Theory is a simple framework while encompassing multiple theories, constructs and perspectives.
  2. Focuses attention on the cognitive processes underlying motivation
  3. Focuses attention on the self-regulation of behavior
  4. The outlined needs of control theory apply to almost everyone, so it makes the theory applicable to most everyone


  1. Looking for feedback can be viewed as a weakness because negative feedback may be discouraging. Negative feedback can have a directly influence on motivation and productivity and cause them to decrease.
  2. Not all cultures will embrace control theory equally because their culture may not put the same emphasis on the outlined needs
  3. The theory is based on mechanics and humans are not mechanical objects
  4. The theory doesn’t ask WHY employees behave certain ways

Goal Setting versus Control Theory

goal is the aim of an action or what a person consciously desires to attain (Locke & Latham, 2002). Goal setting is the process of determining specific levels of performance for individuals to achieve. The basic idea is that behavior is motivated by internal intentions or objectives, and the emphasis is on the direction of behavior. The theory assumes that people behave rationally and consciously decide which goals are acceptable as well as which behaviors are necessary in order to reach their goals (PSU WC slide 2).

In contrast it is argued that the control theory has no room for free will. This is said because according to the theory, human self-motivation requires feedforward control as well as feedback control. In other words, the information that someone receives after the feedback is what motivates individuals. In feedfoward control, people shape their own futures by choosing which standards they want to live up to (PSU WC slide 4). The control theory does allow for goal-oriented behavior by having the past experiences shape your goals.

According to our case study Dorothy Hamill dedicated much of her childhood practicing, this is something that she chose to do (feedforward). And she had help from her coaches who would give her the necessary feedback in order to achieve her goals and be the best that she could be.  

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Case Study

Dorothy Hamill, known as America’s Sweetheart, with a characteristic hairstyle and competitive determination to compete and win in the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, dedicated much of her childhood practicing from early morning until late nights, with support from coaches who helped achieve her goals.  To meet and exceed expectations of the judges in the Olympics, Dorothy invented a signature move called the “Hamill camel.”

“After winning the novice ladies title at the 1969 US World Championships she began to compete internationally and was taken under the wing of renowned coach Carlo Fassi, who guided John Curry to Olympic gold the same year.

His first act was to order his short-sighted protégé to start wearing large-framed spectacles – which would later become a stylistic trademark of Hamill’s, copied by fans the world over. The new partnership paid off, and Hamill went on to win the US Championships from 1974 to 1976.

She had to settle for silver in the World Championships in 1974 – after an emotional outburst on the ice – and again came second in 1975 to Dutch skater Dianne de Leeuw. As the XII Winter Games approached, she was a long way from being favorite to win the gold, not least because she had suffered a huge blow when Fassi left her to focus on Curry.

However, the pair was reunited in Austria, and Hamill overcame crippling pre-competition nerves to prove her doubters wrong. She led the competition after the compulsory figures short programme, leaving her ideally placed to cut loose in the longer freestyle routine” (, Innsbruck 1976).

Applying Control Theory

The basic concept of control theory is that people seek feedback on their actions, this feedback is utilized to set goals, which leads a person to adjust their behavior to accommodate any discrepancies in order to close the feedback loop and achieve the desired goals (PSU WC 2015, L. 9, p. 3). Once the discrepancy is eliminated the end-point of the behavior is to accomplish a state of retirement (PSU WC, PSYCH484 Wiki). The feedback loop is divided into four basic elements. It starts with information coming into the sensor, which is the feedback that Dorothy receives from her coach after her performance in a routine. Once this conversation takes place, the input received by the coach activates Dorothy’s feedback system and according to her perception of the situation it is moved to the comparator system through a “perceptual signal” (PSU WC 2015, L. 9, p. 3). She then compares her performance to other figure skating athletes, which are used as a referent standard. From this point two things can happen:

  1. Dorothy does not find any discrepancy between her performance and other’s athletes performance. All the information matches up, and the feedback loop is closed. She finds her self in a state of equilibrium and achieves retirement. She demonstrates mastery of the routine, goes on to win a medal in the Olympics and is invited back to represent the U.S
  2. After comparison, Dorothy finds her performance below the average and her achievements lower that the the goal set by other athletes. The discrepancy found by Dorothy triggers action of more hours of training and coaching in order to create an innovative routine and win the U.S medal. Each day Dorothy will repeat this behavior until the discrepancy found between her and the others athletes’ standard and her are eliminated.



An interesting observation of the Dorothy Hamill case, is how losing the support of her coach Carlo Fassi, undermined her performance and motivation.  Klein’s (1989) Integrated Theory touches upon this core component, specifically, the Individual and Situational Characteristics; these are said to influence goal attainment.  Personal experiences can certainly influence outcomes, even when retirement has occurred.  This case provides support to Klein’s expanded Integrated Theory as a vehicle to further explore the complexities in the Control Theory (as cited in PSU, Wiki, Control Theory). 


Designing Great Feedback Loops – Smashing Magazine. (2013, February 14). Retrieved October 24, 2015, from, Innsbruck 1976, Dorothy Hamill.  Retrieved October 22, 2015, from:

PSU, 2015, PSYCH484, Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I regulate my behavior? Retrieved from:

PSU, 2015, Retrieved from Work Attitudes and Job Motivation, Brian Redmond Wiki:

ST Electronics, 2015, Retrieved October 22, 2015 from:

YouTube Video, Dec 9,2013, Control System Open Loop Close Loop, Retrieved October 22, 2015, from: 

What Does It Mean To Be Competitive | Demosphere. (2015, July 28). Retrieved October 24, 2015, from





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