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In its most basic form, Control Theory has been around since the time of Plato, being evident in his ideas of self-governance (Barnabas). In a broad stroke, it seeks to describe the way a system operates by breaking down its individual pieces and determining how they are linked together. Over the years, the theory has been tested and refined in order to fortify the theory itself and also to allow it to apply to a wide variety of system types. Control Theory describes "predictions, goals, actions, feedback, and response in all types of systems" (PSU, Lesson 9). Aside from Plato’s self-governance, which dealt with human systems of order and rule, and its more recent use in the study of human biology (P. Iglesias & B. Ingalls (Eds.), 2010), Control Theory has mostly been applied to a wide variety of mechanical or technological systems. Though some efforts were made to apply Control Theory to systems of human behavior, it "was not fully accepted into the field of industrial and organizational psychology until the late 1980's when Klein (1989) synthesized the ideas of the theory itself and its application to organizations", there were attempts to integrate these ideas in the early 1980's (PSU, Lesson 9). This theory, in short, explains that feedback is sought by everyone for their actions. In the main Control Wiki, the Control Theory is made analogous to a thermostat. When it is too cold, the thermostat kicks on to the desired temperature using the device inside that compares the room temperature to the desired temperature that was input. This device would be considered the comparator. When the comparator has determined that the desired temperature has been met, it has achieved Retirement. This is a term used when "there is no discrepancy between the person's goals and their actual achievements" (PSU, Lesson 9). This input/output idea is called the Feedback Loop, as seen in the Control Wiki (figure 9.1). Below is an example of a student who is using the Feedback Loop to achieve an A in his class.

Case Overview

Haruki Tanaka is a foreign exchange student from Japan who has come to America for a year of studies and culture absorption.  Haruki's parents have stressed the importance of doing well in school in order to get a good job in the future.  They would like him to follow in their footsteps and become an engineer himself.  They want him to learn about the culture of America while he is here also, but they have made it clear to Haruki that grades come first.  Haruki has always been a straight A student, so when he got to his AP Calculus class and started to struggle, he was concerned.  Haruki made a D on his first exam.  This disappointed him, and he knew his parents would also be unhappy.  Haruki decided he needed to focus a little more on this class, so he stopped hanging out with his friends on Mondays and Wednesdays after school so he could put in some extra studying.  On the next exam, Haruki made a C.  He was very upset with this grade as well, and again knew his parents would not approve.  He decided he couldn't hang out with his friends everyday after school because he needed to study, and he found a classmate to tutor him a couple days a week.  Haruki made an A on his next exam, and he was satisfied that his extra studying and tutoring sessions had made that possible.  Haruki decided he needed to keep that routine, sacrificing some time from friends in order to focus more on his schoolwork.  By the end of the semester, Haruki had pulled his overall grade up to an A average, which made him very pleased.  He let his parents know, and they were happy too.  Haruki chose to continue this routine through the end of the school year and ended his AP Calculus class with an A average.


1) Breaking Down the Feedback Loop:
  • Sensor: Haruki's grades from the exams
  • Comparator: The comparisons Haruki makes between his grades or overall GPA and the goals or expectations of him
  • Referent Standard: In this case, high achievement or an A in the course.
  • Effector: The actions that are triggered when Haruki's sensor shows a discrepancy when compared to the referent standard. In this specific case, Haruki's decision to spend more hours studying and less time with his friends at increasing intervals until the comparator shows concordance between the sensor and the referent standard. At this point, Haruki's endeavors reach a state of retirement where he should continue this behavior for as long as he desires to achieve this goal.
2) Exploring an Alternative Scenario:

As beneficial as analyzing what appears to be a textbook case of Control Theory in action is, it is also prudent to explore what might have occurred had Haruki not met the referent standard. Given that this goal operates on a fixed timeline (e.g. the grades are calculated at the end of each exam and ultimately at the end of the semester), how would control theory account for an individual whose effectors were ultimately unable to get his sensors to match his referent standard during the comparator action? Would Haruki had adjusted his referent standard to what he felt were more realistic goals or would he have simply continued to take time away from non-study activities in hoping that study time would net a direct payoff in terms of exam performance? Detractors might point to the fact that instead of studying more like Haruki did in our example, many students eventually give up on classes that they struggle in and in turn, use this as a way to impugn the merit of the theory. However, it is entirely possible to state that a student who gives up doesn't necessarily go outside of the boundaries of Control Theory, but instead, that giving up or accepting a lower grade is nothing more than reforming the referent standard to a goal that is more realistic or easily attained.


Control Theory has often been compared to Goal Setting Theory as there are many similarities. Utilizing the example above with Haruki, one can learn some of the differences between these two theories to further understand the unique properties of each. 

In Goal-Setting Theory, the source of motivation  is the desire and intention to reach a goal (PSU, Lesson 6). With our example above, an example of goal-setting would have been if Haruki stated that he wanted to earn an A in his AP Calculus class on his first exam in America. If he had this goal at the beginning of the school year, he might have spent all of his time studying for the first exam. After he received his first exam grade, he could adjust his study and social habits accordingly to the feedback he received.

In Control Theory, Haruki needed feedback from the first exam (sensor) before he realized that he needed to study more to meet the expectations of his parents (comparator). Being new to the American school, Haruki had no prior feedback or sensors. Once he received his exam grade, he adjusted accordingly until he met the referent standard.

What does this all mean? While both theories are similar and may be a bit confusing, they can be looked at in simpler terms. Goal-Setting Theory tends to focus on an individual's drive to succeed at any given task such as good grades, high salary, high sales, etc. These things can typically be attributed to a "motivated" individual or the activity to meet a certain need or desire. Control Theory on the other hand does not necessarily require an individual to strive for anything in particular per se. This can be looked at from the perspective of a "less motivated" individual. In Control Theory, an input must first be received before an individual makes a change. If a person does not enjoy their job and is not motivated to perform at a high level, they may try to perform as little as possible. Only when they receive a sensor such as their boss demanding higher output as feedback to their performance, will they adjust their work habits. While they might not have the same performance goal as their boss, they will have a goal of keeping their job while still performing the minimum. They will continue to receive feedback from their boss if their performance is not adequate. Once they reach the performance level that their boss requires, they will continue performing at that level (retirement) to retain their job, exerting no more force than is needed to meet the minimum requirements.


The Pennsylvania State University. (2012). Lesson 9: Control theory: How do I regulate my behavior? Work Attitudes and Motivation. World Campus

The Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2012). Work Attitudes and Motivation. PSYCH 484: Lesson 6: Goal-Setting Theory: What am I trying to achieve in my work?

Barnabas, D. J. (n.d.). The cybernetics of society: The governance of self and civilization. Retrieved from

Preface. In (2010). P. Iglesias & B. Ingalls (Eds.), Control Theory and Systems Biology Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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