Fluctuating sense of control linked to cognitive ability in older adults

April, 2012

A small study has found that, in older adults, their sense of control fluctuates over the course of a day, and this affects their cognitive abilities.

Previous research has pointed to a typical decline in our sense of control as we get older. Maintaining a sense of control, however, appears to be a key factor in successful aging. Unsurprisingly, in view of the evidence that self-belief and metacognitive understanding are important for cognitive performance, a stronger sense of control is associated with better cognitive performance. (By metacognitive understanding I mean the knowledge that cognitive performance is malleable, not fixed, and strategies and training are effective in improving cognition.)

In an intriguing new study, 36 older adults (aged 61-87, average age 74) had their cognitive performance and their sense of control assessed every 12 hours for 60 days. Participants were asked questions about whether they felt in control of their lives and whether they felt able to achieve goals they set for themselves.

The reason I say this is intriguing is that it’s generally assumed that a person’s sense of control — how much they feel in control of their lives — is reasonably stable. While, as I said, it can change over the course of a lifetime, until recently we didn’t think that it could fluctuate significantly in the course of a single day — which is what this study found.

Moreover, those who normally reported having a low sense of control performed much better on inductive reasoning tests during periods when they reported feeling a higher sense of control. Similarly, those who normally reported feeling a high sense of control scored higher on memory tests when feeling more in control than usual.

Although we can’t be sure (since this wasn’t directly investigated), the analysis suggests that the improved cognitive functioning stems from the feeling of improved control, not vice versa.

The study builds on an earlier study that found weekly variability in older adults’ locus of control and competency beliefs.

Assessment was carried out in the form of a daily workbook, containing a number of measures, which participants completed twice daily. Each assessment took around 30-45 minutes to complete. The measures included three cognitive tests (14 alternate forms of each of these were used, to minimize test familiarity):

  • Letter series test: 30 items in which the next letter in a series had to be identified. [Inductive reasoning]
  • Number comparison: 48 items in which two number strings were presented beside each other, and participants had to identify where there was any mismatch. [Perceptual speed]
  • Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Task: participants have to study a list of 15 unrelated words for one minute, then on another page recall as many of the words as they could. [Memory]

Sense of control over the previous 12 hours was assessed by 8 questions, to which participants indicated their agreement/disagreement on a 6-point scale. Half the questions related to ‘locus of control’ and half to ‘perceived competence’.

While, unsurprisingly, compliance wasn’t perfect (it’s quite an arduous regime), participants completed on average 115 of 120 workbooks. Of the possible 4,320 results (36 x 120), only 166 were missing.

One of the things that often annoys me is the subsuming of all within-individual variability in cognitive scores into averages. Of course averages are vital, but so is variability, and this too often is glossed over. This study is, of course, all about variability, so I was very pleased to see people’s cognitive variability spelled out.

Most of the variance in locus of control was of course between people (86%), but 14% was within-individual. Similarly, the figures for perceived competence were 88% and 12%. (While locus of control and perceived competence are related, only 26% of the variability in within-person locus of control was associated with competence, meaning that they are largely independent.)

By comparison, within-individual variability was much greater for the cognitive measures: for the letter series (inductive reasoning), 32% was within-individual and 68% between-individual; for the number matching (perceptual speed), 21% was within-individual and 79% between-individual; for the memory test, an astounding 44% was within-individual and 56% between-individual.

Some of this within-individual variability in cognitive performance comes down to practice effects, which were significant for all cognitive measures. For the memory test, time of day was also significant, with performance being better in the morning. For the letter and number series tests, previous performance also had a small effect on perceived competence. For the number matching, increase in competence subsequent to increased performance was greatest for those with lower scores. However, lagged analyses indicated that beliefs preceded performance to a greater extent than performance preceding beliefs.

While it wasn’t an aspect of this study, it should also be noted that a person’s sense of control may well vary according to domain (e.g., cognition, social interaction, health) and context. In this regard, it’s interesting to note the present findings that sense of control affected inductive reasoning for low-control individuals, but memory for high-control individuals, suggesting that the cognitive domain also matters.

Now this small study was a preliminary one and there are several limitations that need to be tightened up in subsequent research, but I think it’s important for three reasons:

  • as a demonstration that cognitive performance is not a fixed attribute;
  • as a demonstration of the various factors that can affect older adults’ cognitive performance;
  • as a demonstration that your beliefs about yourself are a factor in your cognitive performance.


[2794] Neupert SD, Allaire JC. I think I can, I think I can: Examining the within-person coupling of control beliefs and cognition in older adults. Psychology and Aging. 2012 :No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

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