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In the 1950's and 60's problems were emerging in the field of engineering and economics that were not covered in any existing theories (Kalman, 2015.) Eventually these other theories were adjusted and the new idea of the control theory emerged.  The basis for control theory has always existed and emanates from the use of water mills in ancient Greece dating back as early as the third century and continuing through to present day where it is currently used in the wind mills in California.  Control theory is not just used in engineering, it also relates to business by learning ways to streamline or optimize processes.  While control theory is based in mathematics, it can be applied to organizations by using surveys or determining when performance-relevant information registers the sensor determining the control (Sanderlands, Glynn, Larson, 1991.)  When the information is processed and checked against what memory has stored, the decision receptors adjust the goal based on the information gathered.  Evidence of control theory can be observed since life existed, but was more recently given a name and an an equation to make determinations on behaviors in the environment.

 Modern Control Theory originated with Norbert Wiener's 1948 Cybernetics, but has been around since at least the days of Plato. In fact, the word originates from the ancient Greeks and means: "the art of steering" (PSU WC 2015). The Theory's main concept implies people are always seeking some form of feedback and that a person who receives feedback will alter his or her actions to achieve a specified goal. Control Theory is similar to Goal-Setting Theory, which implies that people's motivations at work are derived from the desire to achieve or exceed a specified goal or standard. However, as Goal Theory concentrates on creating motivating goals, Control Theory focuses on a persons response to feedback and the reaction that directs personal behavior toward goal attainment. Control theory has been beneficial at explaining how different systems work together in some setting and motivation and feedback in others but is not always a favored theory. It's important as we move through the case study to recognize that goals shape human motivation, and humans engage in self-regulation of their behavior based on those goals (PSU WC 2015). 



Control Theory assumes several things, the first is that human beings are a system in and of themselves, and the second is that society is also a system. From those assumptions, the systems can be broken down into their smaller components and the relationship between those components can be understood as individual pieces, but also in relation to one another, and as an entire system. The next major assumption is that systems are self-regulating; meaning that people and the organizations that they belong to, will behave in ways that aim to reestablish an equilibrium in the system when change occurs (PSU WC 2015). People behave according to their basic needs, and when the needs of an employee align with organizational demands/standards, the desired behavior is achieved (Luria 2008).


Elements of Control Theory


Feedback LoopThe Control Theory process that provides a system of feedback to direct and adjust individual behavior toward achieving a goal. See Figure 1.0 Adapted from (Klein 1989)

  • Referent Standard - a known goal or established standard
  • Sensor - An individual's perception of input information that is used in the comparator phase
  • Comparator - Information provided by the sensor is evaluated and compared to the referent standard
  • Effector - The reaction to a mismatch between the referent standard and actual performance that modifies behavior toward goal attainment

Retirement - Occurs when individuals are satisfied that the feedback loop indicates that the goal has been achieved and the loop closes



Control theory is cognitive and emotional, cognition is utilized during the transmission of information and processing from parts of the feed back loop. Emotional aspects involve evaluation of progress through the feedback loop(PSU WC 2015). 


 Figure 1.0 Adapted from Klein (1989)



Keep this loop system in mind as you consider the case study below. See how these mechanisms influence behavior to ultimately achieve the goal. 


Case Study  


Chillcon Manufacturing Company has been experiencing rising costs associated with the production of air conditioners. This resulted in a price increase to the consumer, which ultimately lowered sales volume and affected profit. If manufacturing costs are not reduced, the company may be forced to furlough many employees. A Team was assembled to identify the root causes and implement a cost reduction strategy.

The Team worked for a 3 days gathering data:

                                            Standard / Budget                 Actual

No. of Employees                          20                                   20

Established output               200 units/month              150 units/month

Production Cost                          $100                                $150  


Using the data, the Team determined production had to increase to  200 units per month (referent standard). They communicated this to the employees and then offered a pay bonus for meeting the desired goal. The Team developed a chart to track their daily unit production. The chart was posted in the middle of the production floor and updated at the end of each day. Employees' habits were unchanged as the first week passed, and the output remained unchanged at 5 per day (sensor). Employees gathered at the chart and compared actual output (comparator) to the goal set by the Cost Reduction Team (referent standard). The employees realized they were not on track and decided to forgo one break period (effector) to increase the production pace. Output increased immediately and was consistent. At the end of the month, the total output reached 204 units(retirement) and the employees received a bonus.                                                                    


Applying Control Theory


Control Theory assumes feedback is utilized to set goals, which causes a person to modify their current behavior for the sake of achieving the desired goal. This feedback loop remains open until the referent standard is achieved. In the comparator stage the input and referent standard are compared. If both match, it is said to be in a state of equilibrium or homeostasis; The feedback loop closes and is in retirement (PSU WC 2015).

The employees, through a cognitive process of understanding the goal, were able to learn from their current behavior versus a preferred outcome and as a result, modified their habits in order to achieve said goal. Management communicated that the employees would be paid a bonus should they be able to increase production to 200 units. Receiving the bonus pay was a driving factor for the employees. To help the employees track their goal, a tracking mechanism was developed and monitored daily. This chart allowed them to visually compare if there was an actual increase or not in the production. In doing so, they were able to realize that they were not going to meet the goal at the current pace in which they were working at. The employees learned that if they forgo one break a day, the desired goal can be attainable by increasing their productivity. With this new found knowledge, it motivated them to change their original "process of thinking" by altering their daily routine in order to achieve the specific goal.  

Strengths and Weaknesses of Control Theory:

 Control Theory categorizes these six internal needs:










  • These needs apply to everyone. They point out glaring similarities rather than stark differences (Glasser, 1999.) 
  • Allows for positive or negative feedback. Positive feedback might result in more favorable results going forward with regard to productivity and attitudes.


  • Control Theory is based in math and mechanics. People are not robots and this theory is relatively concrete.
  • Negative Feedback might yield negative results, or undesired results.
  • Since this theory is based in mechanics, the results are black and white and not somewhere in between.  There is not any room for discussion.
  • This theory does not allow for the internal needs discussed above to be a factor.



As we have previously stated, control theory is based on the assumption of several things; Mainly that humans and society function as a system. Control theory holds many similarities to goal setting theory but control theory tends to be less accepted in psychology because of its mechanical layout. Control theory states that feedback is constantly being sought thus the feedback loop explains the process in four elements (PSU WC Lesson 9). With regards to our case study, the original standards being set by the employers was not being met, so the employees sought to create an equilibrium by increasing their output and reaching a state of retirement.


  Additional Research

 Abstract #1

This research developed and tested a model of the psychological processes involved in the motivation of individuals operating within groups. In line with control theory, the model suggested that individual group members compare the group's referent standard to the group's performance feedback information and a decision is made about whether a discrepancy exists between the two. Group members were hypothesized to undergo a social comparison process aimed at determining the degree of their individual responsibility for the group's performance outcome. These perceptions were expected to influence the individual's choice of attributional source (i.e., attributions to self, group, task difficulty, or luck). The locus of causality of the attributional source chosen was hypothesized to influence the affective reactions (satisfaction with self performance, satisfaction with the group) of the group member, and the stability of the source was expected to influence the future commitment of the individual to the group's referent standard. Finally, the commitment of the group member was expected to relate to the future performance of the group member.

This model was tested in a sample of nineteen college intramural basketball teams. One hundred and forty four individuals completed questionnaires at each of three basketball games. Individual performance in the games served as the performance measure.

The results provided general support for the model. The individual team member's perception of his performance level influenced his perception of responsibility for the group's performance outcome. In addition, this perception of felt responsibility influenced the attributional source chosen by the individual. The locus of causality of the attributional source influenced the individual's satisfaction with self performance, however there was no support for the hypothesis that the locus of causality of attributions would predict satisfaction with the group. There was mixed support for the prediction that the stability of attributions would influence commitment to the group's standard on the next performance trial. Although there was no support for the hypothesis that commitment to the group's standard would be positively related to individual performance, there was a positive relationship between individual commitment to the group's standard and group performance (O'Leary 1990).

Abstract #2

This research proposed a model of training motivation which was based on control theory, and then tested some of the relationships hypothesized by the model. A sample of 205 undergraduate introductory psychology students participated in a three-hour training session on how to use a word processing program on a microcomputer. Pretraining measures of trainees' knowledge of the training content and experience with similar skills, as well as their self-efficacy for learning the training, perceptions of their environments' favorability for using the skill, their motivation level for learning and their learning goals revealed significant correlations between self-efficacy and pretraining knowledge, experience, and motivational level, as well as between motivation level and environmental favorability and learning goals. Furthermore, discrepancies between learning goals and actual learning were found to be positively correlated with subsequent changes in trainees' self-efficacy, particularly for subjects who do not habitually attend to internal cognitive processes. Finally, while changes in motivation level were significantly related to changes in goals, no support was found for the hypothesized relationships between motivation level changes and changes in self-efficacy and perceptions of environmental favorability. Limitations of the study, particularly related to unreliability in the measures used, are discussed, as well as suggestions for future research (McKellin 1994). 

Abstract #3

Control theory has been used to explain how individuals respond to performance feedback (e.g., Campion & Lord, 1984; Carver & Scheier, 1981). These theories postulate that an individual compares performance feedback to goals, or standards of performance. A performance discrepancy results when standards of performance or goals are set and an individual perceives that his or her performance is failing to meet or is exceeding those standards. This performance discrepancy influences individual responses such as increased effort or decreased goals. However, the performance discrepancy in control theory alone might not determine how an individual will respond to performance feedback. Individual difference factors may influence how different individuals respond to the same performance discrepancy information. Factors such as achievement need, self-esteem, and locus of control may influence individual responses. Klein (1989) offered a control theory model of motivation that suggests mechanisms through which the performance discrepancy may influence performance. The current study used these mechanisms to integrate individual difference factors into Klein's (1989) model. Furthermore, this study used Lisrel to examine the complex relationships among these variables.


Performance data from an anagrams task was collected on 143 subjects. Nested models were then tested in Lisrel to determine: (1) the factor structure of individual difference and attribution factors; and, (2) the appropriate relationship of individual difference factors to Klein's (1989) model. Results revealed that the individual differences loaded on the separate factors of achievement need, locus of control, and self-esteem, while attribution ratings loaded on six distinct attribution factors. Klein's basic control theory model fit the sample data well. Specifically, the performance discrepancy interacted with attribution ratings to influence subjective expected utility, which then influenced personal goal level, which then influenced performance. However, no individual difference factor effects were found (Eyring 1994).


Eyring, J. D. (1994). A control theory approach to motivation: Integrating individual difference factors. Retrieved from

Glasser, W., (1999). Choice theory:  A new psychology of personal freedom.  New York: Harper Collins.

Kaulman, R (2015) Control Theory: Mathematics  Encyclopedia Britannica WEB Retrieved from

Klein, H. J. (1989).  An integrated control theory model of work motivation. The Academy of Management Review, 14 (2), 150-172.

Luria, G. (2008). Controlling for Quality: Climate, Leadership, and Behavior. The Quality Management Journal, 15, 27-41.

McKellin, D. B. (1994). A control theory perspective on training motivation. Retrieved from

O'Leary, A. M. (1990). Motivation in groups: A control theory model. Retrieved from

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2015). PSYCH 484 Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I Regulate My Behavior? Retrieved from

Sandelands, L., Glynn, M. A., & Larson, J. R. (1991). Control theory and social behavior in the workplace. Human Relations,44 (10), 1107-1130.


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