Sense of Personal Control and Physical Well-Being: A Cross-national Study

Researchers have hypothesized that older adults who have a strong sense of personal control may likely live healthier and longer lives. More specifically, older adults who feel they can determine the outcome of their own life—in contrast to those who feel their life is pre-determined or out of their control—may be healthier in mind and body. Studies in the United States have supported the hypothesis that a greater sense of personal control is predictive of fewer health problems, but it is unclear if: a) this is the case in other cultures, and b) if there are other factors that influence the relationship between sense of personal control and health. A recent study suggests that a strong sense of personal control is a more important value to older adults from the United States than to older adults from England, and that the value of a high sense of control can vary across cultures and individuals.

A recent article (Clarke and Smith, 2011) published in The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological and Social Sciences compares the relationship between sense of personal control and physical function in older adults from both the United States and England. It is a useful comparison because, despite many similarities, older adults from both countries report very different ideas of personal control. In the United States, a vast majority of individuals report a high sense of personal control, whereas older adults in England seem to interpret life events as results of broader, overall change or larger social forces.

The article compares two national studies—the Health and Retirement Study (United States) and the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing (England). Both studies included information regarding disability and sense of personal control. The researchers compared the two countries by highlighting the prevalence of disability and how it varies with a greater or lesser sense of personal control. In addition, the researchers used an objective measure of physical function (a timed, eight-foot walk) and compared this to how many physical disabilities the individual reported, which was based on how many “everyday” activities the individual had difficulty completing. Sense of personal control was measured by the answers to one question in each study. In the United States, participants were asked to agree/disagree with the following statement: “What happens in my life is often beyond my control.” In the English study, participants were asked to agree/disagree with the following statement: “I feel that what happens in life is often determined by factors beyond my control.”

The findings supported earlier results that indicated there were large differences in the perceptions of sense of personal control—72 percent of Americans reported a high sense of personal control while only 16.3 percent of English respondents reported it. It is notable that disability was slightly more prevalent among older Americans. The two countries also showed differences when the relationship between sense of personal control, physical performance, and disability were compared. In the sample from England, sense of personal control had no effect on the relationship between physical performance and disability. In the sample from the United States, a sense of personal control was associated with a decreased number of disabilities for those with average or above-average physical functioning, but a higher number of disabilities for Americans with below-average physical functioning. The researchers suggest that this indicates that, in the United States, a stronger sense of personal control is beneficial among healthy individuals but counterproductive individuals with physical impairments.

The article cites a few limitations, however. Two major examples: responses regarding disability were all self-reported; and sense of personal control was measured by only one factor, which was slightly different in the two samples. It is unclear if older adults in the United States and England interpret the two statements presented to them in the same way or if further differences exist regarding how individuals in each country discuss or understand sense of personal control. However, this study does hint at some important cultural and individual differences in the relationship between psychology and physical health.


Clarke, P. and Smith, J. (2011). “Aging in a Cultural Context: Cross-national Differences in Disability and the Moderating Role of Personal Control among Older Adults in the United States and England.” The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological and Social Sciences, 66B(4): 457-467.

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

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