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Control Theory is organized by a simple feedback loop consisting of a sensor (input), referent standard, comparator, and effector (output) (Klein, 1989).  Information about the current condition (input) is identified by the sensor and put through the comparator, where it is compared with the referent standard.   The referent standard can be looked at as a goal that is trying to be attained.  If the input matches the referent standard, a state of retirement is reached.  Simply put, if the goal has been achieved no further action is required.  If an error (a discrepancy between the referent standard and input) is detected, the effector will come into play to try and resolve the discrepancy.  Another path to understanding this is the effector (output) is a change in behavior, acted upon in an attempt to increase the probability of attaining the goal.  Once the effector has been activated the process follows the loop once more, the sensor detecting the new input and again comparing it to the referent standard.  The loop will continue until the goal has been achieved.  Take a look at Figure 1 to see how the loop operates.

Figure 1, Adapted from Klein (1989)

The basic idea of Control Theory is that people are constantly seeking feedback on their actions (PSU World Camps 2011). Individuals use this feedback as a template for a change in behavior and as a stepping stone to increase the chance of attaining or reaching the goal. The result of the goal attainment is the closure of the feedback loop and a sense of achievement.  Control theory lacks an explanation of what motivates individuals to keep up this behavior once the goal is reached and retirement is achieved and what processes lead to a change in goal if an error is detected.

Organizational behavior literature describes work motivations as, "the set of psychological processes that cause the initiation, direction, intensity, and persistence of behavior" (Klein, 1989). Based on this knowledge, Klein developed a model of work motivation that uses control theory as a basic framework. Both theories call for the utilization of feedback in an effort to attain goals. Feedback within control theory allows the subject the understanding of where it is they stand in attaining a specific goal. If the feedback is often, motivation exists in order to keep on the same path or make a new path, either of which will be used for goal achievement. If feedback is lacking and/or not constructive, motivation also lacks. In an event that feedback is lacking, an error is detected and the subject must find a way to correct the error, motivation exists here to find the error.  

Let’s take a look at a specific scenario involving a college student named Mary.  Mary is an above average student approaching a new semester with a specific goal in mind.  We’ll follow her progress for the first several weeks and apply and explain Klein’s theory of work motivation based on control theory to understand how she approaches each situation.

Case Study

We're going to look at how integrated control theory helps to explain the behaviors of a college student named Mary. Mary is in her third year of study working towards a psychology degree. She is excited to begin taking more advanced classes and in anticipation of the semester beginning set a goal for herself. She wants to achieve and maintain a "B" average in all of her classes. According to the Control Theory, in this situation maintaining a "B” would be an example of the goal (Klein, 1989).

As the semester begins she goes about her work in the same manner as always. She spends approximately four to six hours a week studying for each of her three courses. In this situation, the effector or initial behavior (Klein, 1989), is the six hours a week spent studying. Each of her courses requires her to complete a short essay in response to several questions relevant to the material each week. Mary starts to receive her grades midway through the second week of the semester. In her first class she receives a "B+" on her first essay. She determines that her current level of studying is adequate and carries out the same procedure for the following week. The grade that Mary received for the essay acted as the feedback (1989), in this situation and was compared to her initial goal or standard (receiving at least a “B”).  Since the comparators matched no error was detected leading Mary to continue her previous behavior (1989). Mary carried out the actions highlighted in Figure 2 below, based upon Klein’s (1989) theory of work motivation based on control theory.

Figure 2, Adapted from Klein (1989)

In her second class Mary receives a "C" on her essay with limited feedback. She notices that this class does not offer her an explanation of the grading criteria for essay (a situation she's encountered before) so she emails the professor for clarification.  When Mary realized that her comparators did not match in this case (her feedback being a grade of “C” and her goal being at least a “B”) she identified an error.  She then carries out the unconscious scripted response, a response she automatically goes to due to prior experience, of contacting the professor for clarification. Mary carried out the actions highlighted in Figure 3 below, based upon Klein’s (1989) theory of work motivation based on control theory.

Figure 3, Adapted from Klein (1989)

In her third class she receives a "C+" on her essay. For this course a grading rubric was provided so she attributes her grade to not spending enough time learning the material and increases her study time for that particular course. In this particular case the comparators again do not match and Mary identifies an error.  She carries out an attributional search (Klein,1989) to determine what circumstance or event kept her from attaining her goal.  She determines she did not spend enough time reviewing the material before writing her essay.  Her subjective expected utility of goal attainment is still high because she still deems her goal of achieving a “B” as attractive and still holds the expectancy that she is able to achieve the goal (1989).  This leads to a behavioral change of spending more time reviewing the material. Mary carried out the actions highlighted in Figure 4 below, based upon Klein’s (1989) theory of work motivation based on control theory.

Figure 4, Adapted from Klein (1989)


As the third week of classes progresses Mary anxiously awaits her grades. In her first class she receives an "A-"on her second essay. She again decides that her current level of studying is adequate and carries out the same procedure for the following week. Again, the comparators (feedback and goal) match, no error was detected and Mary continues to carry out this behavior (Klein, 1989). This week Mary felt more confident about her essay submission for her second class after receiving clarification from her professor about the grading criteria and feedback that guided her to concentrate more closely on specific aspects of her writing to improve her grade. She receives a "B" on her second essay and decides that her current level of studying is adequate and caries out the same procedure for the following week. Here Mary's grade provided feedback, the comparators again match, and no error was detected so the previous behavior are continued.  In the preceding two cases, Mary carried out the actions highlighted in Figure 1 above, based upon Klein’s (1989) theory of work motivation based on control theory.

In her third class she spent an additional two hours reviewing the material in the hopes that her increased study time would lead to a higher grade. She receives a "C-" on her second essay. Although Mary has spent additional time studying, the grade providing her feedback still does not match the goal and an error is once again recognized (Klein, 1989). Mary has never experienced this type of problem before. She begins to look for reasons why she is unable to attain a "B" on her essay for this course even though she has enacted a course of action that previously resulted in success.                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Mary contacts her professor to ask for clarification about the grading process since she believed that her essay fulfilled all the requirements according to the grading rubric provided. Mary began an attributional search in hopes of being provided the feedback necessary for her to reach her goal and obtain the "B" average for this course. Her professor's response is unclear as to why she received the lower grade on the second assignment. The professor goes on to suggest that it's not the grade that's important but her ability to apply the concepts in a real-world setting farther down the road. Mary must now decide if she still believes that her goal is attainable and if she should implement a new behavior or change the goal to improve the chances of goal attainment. What would you do in her situation?

How Selective Expected Utility (SEU) Affects Choice

If the resulting SEU of goal attainment is high, continued effort toward that goal should result (Klein, 1989). In this case, Mary is very determined to reach her "B" average for her third class and decided to take a different approach. On the next assignment instead of Mary simply asking for what she did wrong once the assignment was graded and instead of studying more she took action. Mary decided to complete the assignment early, turn it in to the professor prior to it being due and get feedback in advance. After doing this Mary is neutral about her next grade for her next paper. Here Mary's force toward her goal is not as strong as it was, and this change is evident in the commitment she demonstrates toward the goal (1989).  She hopes to receive the "B" but at this point if she do not reach her goal she plans on aiming for a "C" since it appears to be what she continues to get. In this situation Mary's force has lowered causing her to abandon her original goal and replace it with a different one (1989).  Grades are finally back and she is ecstatic that she has not received a "B" but she exceeded her goal and received an "A".


As you can see, Klein’s (1989) theory of work motivation better explains Mary’s case than control theory alone.  For example, when Mary receives a "C" on her essay in the second class with limited feedback, the theory of work motivation based on control theory walks us through the process she follows to choose a behavior to correct the error.  The control theory explains only the recognition of an error and a change in behavior, not how Mary came to decide on how to change the behavior. 

Furthermore, the theory of work motivation based on control theory takes into consideration individual and situational characteristics that may affect the expectancy of reaching the goal as well as behaviors and attributions (Klein, 1989).  For example, if in previous situations Mary has been able to alter her behavior to ensure the attainment of higher grades she is more likely to maintain a high level of expectancy due to previous successes, as well as be more sure of what behaviors to adopt and what to attribute her lack of success to.  In one of our scenarios Mary is not receiving adequate feedback, a situational characteristic that may lead to a lowered expectancy if in previous situations she has relied on feedback to guide her change in behavior to reach a goal.  Without the added benefit of adequate feedback Mary may begin to question the probability of attaining her goal, causing a change in the goal rather than a change in behavior.  It is difficult to explain the more human elements of decision making utilizing control theory alone.


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 (2011). PSYCH 484 Lesson 9: Control Theory: How do I regulate my behavior?. Retrieved on October 21, 2011 from

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