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It’s said that Control Theory has been around since the days of Plato. However, it’s also said that it originated in 1948 by Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics (L9, p. 2). Control theory is defined as “That branch of Mathematics and Engineering which deals with the design, identification and analysis of systems with a view towards controlling them, i.e., to make them perform specific tasks or make them behave in a desired way” ( Control theory is a motivational theory, it focuses on a person ability to handle their current position and lead themselves in the right path to reach a specific goal. Control theory is closely related to the goal-setting theory and in many cases work hand in hand. A major aspect individuals seek is feedback on the actions they commit when they are working towards a goal. Feedback can be considered a trigger event leading to an individual next step towards the goal that they set. The feedback loop breaks down into four parts: feedback, goals, comparator, and individual behavior (L9, p. 3). When it comes to comparing the goal-setting theory and the control theory, Bandura (1989) thinks that “self-motivation requires feedforward control as well as feedback control” (L9, p. 4). When receiving feedforward control a person then decides how to form the path to their future by picking which principles they want to live up to. The following case is about a man name Mike who is given a goal with a time frame, from his corporation to meet. Mike uses the feedback loop to approach and achieve this goal as well as the feed forward control.

Analysis of The Situation

Mike works for a company that works off of cold calling clients and is required to meet a quota each month. Mike has just been informed by his corporation that he must gain at least 100 new clients over the course of the next three months (sensor). Mike now thinks back to the past six months he has been with the company and realizes that he has obtained three hundred customers in that time frame (comparator). Mike now realizes that he is on par with his goal if he keeps up the rate at which he obtains clients because in a three month period he actually gained 150. Mike has now reached a state of retirement as he can observe all he needs to do is continue at his current pace.

Control Theory Overview

Control theory is basically a mechanistic approach to how we respond to feedback on a particular task. According to Carver, “control theory provides a model of self-regulation that is useful in the analysis of human behavior” (Carver et al., 1982). This theory is almost intuitive in its design and typically has a high rate of accuracy in application. When a person first receives feedback there is a stage called sensor where that person simply acknowledges the feedback they are receiving. The feedback is than in turn interpreted by the individual through what is known as a perceptual signal. After the feedback has been interpreted it is than compared to a referent standard in order to determine the next step in the process. If there is no inconsistency among the referent standard and the feedback being received, the individual goes into a state of retirement or equilibrium, continuing the process (Carver et al, 1984). However, if any inconsistency exists than the effecter is triggered to correct it. This mechanistic approach is basically a continued loop with the goal of homeostatic regulation. This theory also improves on goal setting theory. Where in goal setting theory a clear goal is established and followed through with, control theory deals with the entire process of receiving feedback, evaluating it, and eventually acting upon it in order to achieve a goal.

Application of Control Theory

In this case study Mike’s job requires him to cold call clients and try to get them to join with his company. He is told by the corporation that within the next three months he must gain a minimum of at least 100 new clients. The first process in the control theory is the sensor stage, where the person acknowledges whatever feedback they are receiving (L9, p. 3). In this case Mike acknowledges that he is being told to gain at least 100 new clients over the next three months. He then interprets the feedback that he just received which is then sent to the comparator system by a perceptual signal (L9, p. 3). Mike then compares his sales from the previous three months to the new goal set by his managers, known as the referent standard. In his last six months with the company he has gained 300 new employees, which then averages out to 150 employees in three months. In this case Mike is bringing in more clients than the goal of the corporation; therefore the feedback loop closes as retirement has been reached. If Mike would have been gaining significantly less clients over a three month period than the goal of the corporation, the effecter would be triggered to fix the problem. If the problem does not get fixed the feedback loop continues until the problem gets fixed. The feedback loop is important because it presents meaningful information to managers in real-time, allowing them to modify tactics and behaviors to better align corporate interests and strategic goals (Cooper, 2000).


As demonstrated in the case study above, it involved Mike who works for a company that concentrates on cold calling clients; Mike was given the challenge of obtaining a minimum of 100 clients with a three month time frame. Following the steps of the Control Theory, Mike interprets feedback, compares the goal to his previous work successes, then realizes the goal that was set to him by his managers wasn’t as much as a challenge as he first thought.

“Control Theory theorists (Carver & Scheier, 1981; 1990; Klein, 1989) counter that Control Theory does allow for goal-directed behavior in that past experiences help shape and modify the referent/goal standard as new information comes in, but the core goal stays relatively stable as a lot of information and data has gone into creating that goal” (L9, p. 4). That is what Mike did when he received news about the goal. Mike knew he would be able to do it and achieve the goal because of his past performances.


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.

Carver, C. S., & Schreier, M. F. (1981).  Attention and self-regulation: A control theory approach to human behavior.  New York: Springer-Verlag.

Carver, C. S.; Scheier, M. F. (1982). Control theory: A useful conceptual framework for personality--social, clinical, and health psychology. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 92

      (1), 111-135. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.92.1.111.

Carver, C.S., & Scheier, M. F. (1990). Principles of self-regulation: Action and emotion. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition:

       Foundations of social behavior (Vol. 2, pp. 3-52). New York: Guilford Press.

Cooper, Todd. (2000). The power of feedback loops: Attaining and sustaining a healthy ERM program. Waltham, MA: Wolters Kluwer Financial Services. Retrieved from (2011, September 20). Control theory: A new explaination of how we control our lives. Retrieved from

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

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2012). PSYCH 484 Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I regulate my behavior? Retrieved from


Louis Albanese, Melissa Cuetsa, Jeremie Thompson, and Matthew Witmyer contributed to the publication of this page