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The Benefits of Feeling in Control as We Age

Physical activity mediates the link between cognition and perceived control.

Recent research by Robinson and Lachman of Brandeis University shows that higher perception of control results in greater cognitive performance, and that this is mediated through physical activity.1

Source: stevepb/Pixabay

Perceived control

Perceived control refers to an individual’s perception of her ability to bring about desired outcomes and prevent undesirable ones.

For example, an employee who believes that working hard would soon result in recognition and advancement, has high perceived control; if, on the other hand, she believes that despite working hard she might get fired any day and that as a result she will be unemployed for a very long time, she has a comparably lower sense of control.

High perceived control is associated better health, wealth, wisdom, life satisfaction, optimism, cognitive performance (e.g., better memory or ability to pursue goals), and lower levels of depression and less functional limitations; people with lower income and those in lower social positions typically have a lower sense of control over their lives, though ones who nevertheless maintain high levels of perceived control appear to have similar health status as individuals with higher income.2

The relationship between perceived control and various outcomes, however, appears to be reciprocal and cyclic.1

For instance, an employee who believes that she may get fired any day, is more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and memory problems. These mental and emotional difficulties would then affect her efforts, motivation, and her use of strategies at work. And given that she is feeling less motivated and puts in less effort, there is a higher chance that she will face disciplinary action, and as a result perhaps feel even less in control at work.

But the same cycle can also start from a different point, such as with health problems.

Take health problems and aging. A large portion of older people have health or memory difficulties and thus potentially feel less in control of their lives.

But these control related beliefs can also influence their work life, such that they begin to feel less capable and effective at work, which of course results in anxiety, depression, and putting in less effort at work....

The present research

In the present study, Robinson and Lachman were interested to find whether changes in perceived control could predict changes in cognitive performance, and if so, via what mechanisms.

The researchers used data from a nationally representative sample of adults (middle-aged or older) from the Midlife in United States study (MIDUS); MIDUS was conducted in three waves (1995-1996; 2004-2005; and 2013-2014), and gathered data from several thousand Americans on numerous psychological and behavioral health-related factors.

Source: werner22brigitte/Pixabay

The results showed that individual differences in perceived control, at the first wave, were predictive of physical activity both 10 and 20 years later. Individual differences were also predictive of changes in episodic memory (i.e., memory of specific events) and executive functioning (i.e., mental processes involved in planning and goal-related behaviors).

In summary, people who had a higher sense of perceived control over their lives and engaged in more physical activity were not as likely to experience problems with executive functioning and episodic memory 20 years later.

Potential takeaways

Having a sense of control is important to our well-being at any age. As we get older, especially starting midlife, our sense of control over our lives is likely to decline.

But perceived control is related to cognitive processes such as our ability to remember important events, to plan for future, and to pursue personally valued goals. Thus, lower perceived control is associated with lower cognitive function; and a lower cognitive performance might in a cyclic manner further reinforce one’s sense of losing control.

As the authors of the present study note, (given that exercise has been shown to improve cognition)3 one potential reason why control is related to cognition is that people who feel that they have greater control over their lives are more likely to exercise.

However, only a small portions of older adults exercise on a regular basis; furthermore, training intended to increase physical activity is unlikely to result in sustained physical activity unless it can also improve the person’s perceived control; therefore, finding ways to improve older adults’ perceived control increases the probability that they engage in regular physical activity and thus experience improved cognitive function (Robinson, S. A. and Lachman, M. E., personal communication, July 16, 2018).


1. Robinson, S. A., & Lachman, M. E. (in press). Perceived control and cognition in adulthood: The mediating role of physical activity. Psychology and Aging. doi:10.1037/pag0000273

2. Lachman, M. E. (2006). Perceived Control Over Aging-Related Declines. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 282–286.

3. Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., and Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 9, 58–65.