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What Is 'Perceptual Control Theory'?

Perceptual Control Theory is a theory of human behavior that says we act to keep our perception of the world within acceptable boundaries. For example, we wear a coat not because of the weather, but because we'll feel cold and we don't want to feel cold.

Once a certain action brings the perception under control, the system stops acting until the system is once again out of control.

The Environment dictates which actions are possible to bring the perception under control. Control is not about planning, it's about adjusting to environmental changes as they happen.

By understanding that people act to control their perceptions, you'll be better equipped to influence them.

Josh Kaufman Explains 'Perceptual Control Theory'

In the hallowed halls of businesses (and business schools) around the world, B.F. Skinner is the hidden king.

Skinner was one of the major intellectual forces behind the Behaviorist movement in psychology-the idea that biological systems always respond a certain way to certain stimuli. Control the stimuli, and you can control the behavior. "Condition" the organism with rewards and punishments, and the organism will learn exactly how to behave.

Over the decades, behaviorism has fallen out of vogue in psychology-research has made it clear that there's far more to behavior than the carrot and the stick. Unfortunately, that hasn't extended to business practice-in corporations and business school classrooms around the world, the search continues for the magic incentive that will make people do exactly what they want.

In reality, human behavior is much more like a thermostat.

A thermostat is a very simple system: all it consists of is a sensor, a set point, and a switch. The sensor measures the temperature of the surrounding environment. When the temperature is within a given range, the thermostat does nothing. When the temperature is below the set point, the switch turns the heater on. Once the temperature is above the set point, the switch turns the heater off.

This relationship is called Perceptual Control-the thermostat controls the temperature of the room by comparing the perceived temperature against the set point, then taking an action if and only if that perception is "out of control." Once the action brings the perception under control, the system stops acting until the set point is violated once again.

Living organisms-including human beings-are essentially perceptual control systems: we act in ways to keep our perceptions of the world within acceptable boundaries.

We don't put on a coat because cold weather forces us to-we put on a cold because we feel cold and we don't want to feel cold.

If the light entering our eyes is too bright, we find shade, pull down the blinds on the windows, or put on sunglasses-the action controls the perception, and the action we ultimately take depends on the Environment we find ourselves in at the time.

In Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control, William T. Powers explains how control systems account for the wide range of behaviors human beings exhibit using the following example: imagine a ship in the middle of an ocean during a wild storm. The ship is rising and falling randomly, pitching back and forth as it's buffeted by the waves.

A rock on the deck of the ship is not a control system. The rock doesn't want anything, so it has nothing to control-it just tumbles wherever the forces of physics take it.

A human being on the deck of the ship, however, wants to stay upright, and will therefore take many actions to continue to stay standing: changing balance, moving, and holding on handrails, etc. If the human stumbles and falls, they'll take whatever actions they can to get back on their feet once more.

The Environment dictates which actions are possible to bring the perception under control. Control is not planning-it's adjusting to changes in the environment as they actually happen.

The human in the storm doesn't have the capability to pre-determine what action's they'll take to stay on their feet-as the environment changes, their actions will change in response, depending on the resources and options available at the moment.

Perceptual Control explains why the same stimulus often produces different responses.

A good example of why the stimulus/response model doesn't paint the whole picture is the classic incentive of many employers: paid overtime. If you want your hourly employees to work more, you should pay more overtime, right?

Not necessarily.

Workers who are controlling for income (i.e. they don't have enough, and want more) will probably work more overtime, but what about workers who already feel they're making enough money? A few of those workers will work exactly the same amount of time, and some will actually work less-they're controlling for a certain amount of income, then spending their time doing other things that are important to them, like being with their family or pursuing a side project. Raising overtime pay will allow them to reach that point more quickly, so they'll spend less time at work.

The overtime incentive produces three different results, two of which are complete opposites-working more and working less. So much for behaviorism.

Perceptual Control represents a fundamental shift in understanding why people do the things they do. Once you understand that people act to control their perceptions, you'll be better equipped to influence how they act.

Questions About 'Perceptual Control Theory'


"The behavior of an organism is the output of control systems, and is performed with the purpose of controlling perceptions at desired reference values. Behavior is the control of perception."

William T. Powers, control systems theorist and author of Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control


From Chapter 6:

The Human Mind


https://personalmba.com/perceptual-control/



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The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an acclaimed business, learning, and skill acquisition expert. He is the author of two international bestsellers: The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours. Josh's research and writing have helped millions of people worldwide learn the fundamentals of modern business.

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