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as the sensory stimulus determines

the movement’ (Dewey, 1896; p.363).
A perceptual control I The mechanism of control is not
understood. Psychologists are aware
that it is important to study control
revolution? (e.g. locus of control, attentional
control, affect control, mental control,
loss of control). However, there is
Warren Mansell and Timothy A. Carey introduce a theory dating back to the 1950s little work in psychology on how
that is increasingly touted as revitalising the behavioural sciences control works.

Marken proposes that when one

William T. Powers’ perceptual n 2009 a paper in the Review of General combines these flaws, we are left with a
control theory claims to offer
principles applicable to the
behaviour of all living things, yet it
I Psychology threw down the gauntlet to
researchers in the behavioural sciences
(Marken, 2009). According to the author,
century of research that tells us very little.
Marken claims that perceptual control
theory (PCT) provides the antidote.
has received only modest attention the ‘cognitive revolution’ was not a Could PCT really provide a scientific
from the behavioural sciences. revolution at all. Marken claims that our revolution, or are we witnessing an
Moreover, the theory describes discipline requires a genuine revolution attempt to build a cult-like allegiance to
the architecture required to model to save it from a range of shortcomings: a radical, but ultimately hollow, idea?
purposeful behaviour with I The denial of purpose. The study of
mathematical models and robotic the inherent purposiveness of humans
systems. How can a single theory and other animals is typically seen as A brief history
be applied to diverse fields such unscientific. Marken’s proposed approach has its
as human performance, robotics, I Poor specification of behaviour. The origins in a simple process – homeostasis.
neuroscience, animal behaviour, denial of purpose leads researchers to Building on early work in the 19th
sociology and mental health? Why focus on observable behaviour. But century by Claude Bernard, Walter
does it pose a challenge to existing there is no consensus on what counts Cannon described a model of how
approaches? Can the search for as behaviour. Take the example of important physiological variables in the
‘causes’ of behaviour across these opening a door. Is it defined in terms body (e.g. temperature, blood sugar
domains be replaced by a single, of the muscle contractions involved? levels) are kept at optimum levels. The
universal property of organisms: The movement of the door? Or the optimum level is set inside the organism,
action as the control of sensory person’s judgement of it being ‘open’? as a reference value. A process known as
input? And would the door opening due to negative feedback keeps the actual levels
a gust of wind count? All of these from deviating too far from an optimum
questions seem to be relevant but level specified by the organism itself. So,
What evidence is there to support the rarely are they all considered. It is for example, as blood glucose levels go

central premise of PCT – that ‘behaviour also accepted that behaviour is below the optimum level, an error signal
is the control of perception’? perplexingly variable and hard to is generated by a comparator function.
predict, which suggests that our This leads to the conversion of more
Can PCT revolutionise the way that current models are failing (Bell, glucose from glycogen stores to raise the
research is conducted? 2014). level back to the optimum. This process
What would this ‘revolution’ look like? I Behaviour is not an endpoint. Even continues dynamically rather than in a
when a reliable aspect of behaviour step-like sequence. This means that the
can be measured, the idea that it error signal is being changed by the follows a ‘stimulus’ or ‘trigger’ in the glucose levels at the same time as the
resources environment predominates. Yet, glucose levels are being changed by the
behaviour is part of a two-way error signal; that is, all variables are process. This insight was known in changing simultaneously. The result is the 19th century, but appears to have that the error signal ‘brings itself’ to zero
been lost – ‘the motor response and maintains the physiological variable
determines the stimulus just as truly at the reference value. This principle is at

Bandura, A. & Locke, E.A. (2003). Carey, T.A. (2006). Method of levels. architecture of trauma. The Lancet unifying theory. Psychopathology
Negative self-efficacy and goal Hayward, CA: Living Control Systems Psychiatry, 1, 316–318. Review, 2, 129–153.
effects revisited. Journal of Applied Publishing. Carey, T.A., Tai, S.J. & Stiles, W.M. (2013). Marken, R.S. (1986). Perceptual
Psychology, 88, 87–99. Carey, T.A., Mansell, W. & Tai, S.J. Effective and efficient. Professional organisation of behavior. Journal of
Barrett, L. (2011). Beyond the brain. (2014a). A biopsychosocial model Psychology: Research and Practice, 44, Experimental Psychology: Human
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University based on negative feedback and 405–414. Perception and Performance, 2,
Press. control. Frontiers in Human Dewey, J. (1896). The reflex arc concept in 267–276.
Bell, H.C. (2014). Behavioral variability in Neuroscience, 8, 94. psychology. Psychological Review, 3, Marken, R.S. (2005). Optical trajectories
the service of constancy. International Carey, T.A., Mansell, W., Tai, S.J. & 357. and the informational basis of fly ball
Journal of Comparative Psychology, 27, Turkington, D. (2014b). Conflicted Mansell, W., Carey, T.A. & Tai, S.J. (2015). catching. Journal of Experimental
338–360. control systems: The neural Classification of psychopathology and Psychology, 31, 330–634.

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perceptual control theory

odds with the traditional approach of in the glass. Powers realised that in order a wealth of perceptual variables through
stimulus and response. If a person ingests to maintain this consistency, an organism its actions, and the concept of a ‘stimulus’
a sugary meal, this is not a ‘stimulus’ that would need the ability to perceive the loses its meaning. There are only aspects
causes the ‘response’ of glucose reduction results of its actions and compare them to of the environment that help people to
or production, but a disturbance to the a reference value in a continuous, control their perceptions, or those that
variable controlled by homeostasis ongoing manner. disturb that capacity; the causal flow
(glucose level). comes from within the organism, not from
William T. Powers, a control engineer, outside it.
had worked closely with negative The closed loop
feedback devices during and after World The core component of PCT is the closed
War II. During the 1940s a movement loop (see Figure 1). It describes a series of Predictions and evidence
known as cybernetics used principles of connected functions that are designed to PCT generates key predictions:
negative feedback to understand the maintain important perceptual variables Hypothesis 1: If perceptual input can be
behaviour of living organisms. However, within the organism close to their controlled at a fixed value through
on reading their work, Powers realised reference values. A simple perceptual dynamic action then, in contrast to
that he needed to apply the ideas in variable might be light intensity. This the stimulus–compute–response
a different way to account for the is analogous to a physiological variable model, there will be no reliable
observation that behaviour is part of a controlled by homeostasis, except of statistical relationship between input
process of control (Powers et al., 1960a, course the actions of the organism impact and output.
b; Powers, 1973). People experience on the outside environment. Key features Hypothesis 2: Which perceptual variable is
consistent outcomes – e.g., they open of the environment become the means – being controlled can be discovered by
a jar or a have a sip of beer – in the face the feedback functions – through which disturbing the perceptual input in
of unpredictable (and often undetectable) each individual maintains desired various ways and observing which
and varying environmental disturbances – reference values. When anything from the actions are produced (test of the
such as the varying tightness of different environment disturbs the desired state(s), controlled variable).
jar covers or the varying amount of beer the individual strives to counteract these Hypothesis 3: Computer models based on
effects. Also, perceptual PCT can be constructed that match
variables, such as light the behaviour of a particular
intensity, are controlled by individual engaging in a real-world

V\VWHPV V\VWHPV varying actions, not by a task.
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iris muscles control light could turn around the way that
intensity, but we can use
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a range of other behaviours
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to control light intensity – Powers first published studies using
turning our eyes away, a tracking task in Psychological Review
turning our heads, moving
(Powers, 1978). Participants used a
S .L4L 4R .RH into the shade, or wearing joystick to keep a cursor in a desired
&21752//,1*6<67(0 designer sunglasses! All perceptual state (e.g. to keep the cursor
(19,5210(17 serve the same purpose, as location constant; to move it at a certain
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well as potentially serving speed) on the screen, while the computer
a range of other purposes
applied random disturbances to the
(e.g. to stay cool; to ‘look
cursor that disrupt its movement.
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cool’!). This example shows Participants clearly had a goal, yet it was
',6785%$1&( L I R G
3K\VLFDOYDULDEOHWKDW that it is more reliable to inferred by the computer through the
PD\EHPXOWLSOH study the perceptual following correlations. First, in support
outcomes of behaviour, in of Hypothesis 1, and contrary to the
this case light intensity, than stimulus–compute–response model, there
Figure 1. A model of negative feedback as described it is to study behaviour was typically little correlation between
in PCT; definitions of key components are included itself. This ultimately entails participants’ input (i.e. cursor position)
within the diagram that the individual controls and output (i.e. joystick movements).

Marken, R.S. (2009). You say you had a Marken, R.S. & Carey, T.A. (in press). of perception. Perceptual and Motor Caan, CT: Benchmark Publications.
revolution: Methodological Understanding the change process Skills, 117, 236–247. Powers, W.T., Clark, R.K. & McFarland,
foundations of closed-loop involved in solving psychological McClelland, K. (2014). Cycles of conflict. R.L. (1960a). A general feedback
psychology. Review of General problems. Clinical Psychology & Sociological Theory, 32, 100–127. theory of human behaviour. Part I.
Psychology, 13, 137–145. Psychotherapy. Powers, W.T. (1973). Behavior: The control Perceptual and Motor Skills, 11, 71–88.
Marken, R.S. (2013). Taking purpose into Marken, R.S. & Mansell, W. (2013). of perception. New York: Hawthorne. Powers, W.T., Clark, R.K. & McFarland,
account in experimental psychology. Perceptual control as a unifying Powers, W.T. (1978) Quantitative analysis R.L. (1960b). A general feedback
Psychological reports, 112, 184–201. concept in psychology. Review of of purposive systems. Psychological theory of human behaviour. Part II.
Marken, R.S. (2014). Doing research on General Psychology, 17, 190–195. Review, 85, 417–435. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 11,
purpose. Chapel Hill, NC: New View Marken, R.S., Mansell, W. & Khatib, Z. Powers, W.T. (2008). Living control 309–323.
Publications. (2013). Motor control as the control systems III: The fact of control. New Robertson, R.J., Goldstein, D.M.,

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perceptual control theory

Second, supporting Hypothesis 2, the self-efficacy. PCT predicts that the frame-by-frame and showed that the
perceptual variable that participants were efficient correction of errors is essential ‘dodger’ animal maintained a minimum
controlling could be identified by the for control. Therefore, enhanced self- distance from the robber – the controlled
high correlation between a disturbance efficacy could lead to poorer performance perception – using dynamic variations in
(i.e. the computer moving the cursor) and if it entails people being less attentive to behaviour. They constructed a computer
their actions against it. In short, Powers their errors. In a prospective study in simulation of animal ‘agents’ based on
had found a way to work out a person’s which self-efficacy was manipulated, this PCT that replicated the same pattern of
goals through an experimental method. effect on performance at an analytic game observations (Bell, 2014). Furthermore,
Marken replicated these findings with was observed, and has been replicated a diverse range of animal behaviours fit
different perceptual variables such as two- (e.g. Vancouver et al., 2002, 2014). the same account (Barrett, 2011).
dimensional location and relative distance A wholly new perspective should also The neurophysiological
(e.g. Marken, 1986). Moreover, Marken shed light on earlier findings. One classic underpinnings of perceptual control are
also constructed computer models that example is the ‘extinction burst’ in also being explored. Following years of
showed extremely high correlations with learning studies, whereby animals research on the function of the basal
participants’ behaviour – supporting increase their responses for rewards as ganglia, Henry Yin at Duke University
Hypothesis 3. Indeed, a further step soon as the rewards are removed, which is presented a model based on PCT (Yin,
shows that the computer models work in not predicted by behavioural theories that 2014). The model proposes that the
the real world – by producing robots that propose that rewards reinforce behaviour. basal ganglia control the rate of change
manage simple skills (see Yet, PCT does predict this effect because in kinaesthetic perceptual variables, such the greater error between actual and as movement velocity.
One criticism of these studies is that expected reward drives greater action(s) PCT has also formed the basis of two
they might not be relevant to everyday to try to maintain the previous rate of influential theories in sociology – affect
behaviour. Therefore, Marken applied the reward. control theory and identity control theory.
theory more widely. For example, he Within experimental psychology, Kent McClelland at Grinnell College,
constructed a model based on PCT to Marken (2013) used ‘control theory Iowa, is using PCT to build working
simulate how baseball fielders move on glasses’ to re-examine a familiar models of social systems that replicate
the pitch so as to be in the correct laboratory experiment: measuring how well-known sociological observations.
location to catch flyballs (Marken, 2005). long it took participants to discriminate These model the conditions and obstacles
The model controlled two perceptions – the colour of a perceptual stimulus. The to collective control – where individuals
the lateral displacement of the ball on the PCT model simulated the task as the work together to try to achieve the same
retina from a central point, and the participant purposively used the perceptions. One recent example
velocity of the ball on the retina as it movement of a cursor as one method to produced a detailed simulation of violent
moved (see The apply the perceptual rule of whether the conflict escalation in social groups
model worked despite having no internal colour was perceived as present or absent. (McClelland, 2014).
model of the physics of ball movement, The PCT model showed a better fit with
and it made no predictions about the participant data than a
likely path of the ball. Marken has also stimulus–compute–response model when What about ‘complex’
applied the methodology to work out a disturbance was applied to the cursor. psychological processes?
a person’s intentions (a key element of Powers et al. (1960a, 1960b) produced
judging theory of mind), and also to a working architecture for PCT in which
estimating errors in medical prescribing. Multidisciplinary research the negative feedback loop is just a simple
A truly revolutionary theory should If PCT genuinely provides a revolutionary building block. The loops are organised in
also question longstanding scientific take on behaviour, it should also apply to a hierarchy in which each reference value
findings. Jeffrey Vancouver at Ohio a wide range of disciplines that involve comes from the outputs of a control unit
University applied PCT to challenge the models of behaviour (Carey et al., 2014a; that is ‘above’ it, which in turn receives
established view that self-efficacy leads Marken & Mansell, 2013). its reference value from the level above it.
to improved performance (Bandura & At the University of Lethbridge, Sergio In this way, more complex perceptions
Locke, 2003). Vancouver found a number Pellis and Heather Bell studied animals’ (e.g. ‘to win a tennis match’) are achieved
of issues with earlier studies including attempts to rob food from other animals – not directly through action – but by
that they were often cross-sectional and (the ‘dodgers’) in two very different setting the various perceptions to be
so the reverse effect could be occurring: species – rats and cockroaches. They experienced by the next level down (e.g.
good performance leading to enhanced coded videos of the animals’ movement ‘to keep the ball in the court’, ‘to direct

Mermel, M. & Musgrave, M. (1999). Vancouver, J.B. (2005). The depth of Vancouver, J.B., Thompson, C.M.,
Testing the self as a control system. history and explanation as benefit Tischner, E.C. & Putka, D.J. (2002).
International Journal of Human- and bane for psychological control Two studies examining the negative
Computer Studies, 50, 571–580. theories. Journal of Applied effect of self-efficacy on
Runkel, P.J. (1990). Casting nets and Psychology, 90, 38–52. performance. Journal of Applied
testing specimens: Two grand methods Vancouver, J.B., Gullekson, N.L., Morse, Psychology, 87, 506–516.
of psychology. New York: Praeger. B.J. & Warren, M.A. (2014). Finding a Yin, H.H. (2014). Action, time and the
Taylor, M.M. (1999). Editorial: Perceptual between-person negative effect of basal ganglia. Philosophical
control theory and its application. self-efficacy on performance: Not Transactions of the Royal Society B:
International Journal of Human just a within-person effect anymore. Biological Sciences, 369(1637),
Computer Studies, 50, 433–444. Human Performance, 27, 243–261. 20120473.

898 vol 28 no 11 november 2015

perceptual control theory

individuals during a conversation, and

the preferred distance from a feared
animal in a ‘virtual corridor’. Future work
could explore the control of ‘higher-order‘
perceptions, such as self-concept
(Robertson et al., 1999).
This work requires an experimental
set-up where: (a) the environment
contains elements that are relevant to
the purposes of the participants; (b) the
environment can be constrained
sufficiently to manipulate disturbances
or quantify natural disturbances, and
(c) quantitative measures can be taken
relatively implicitly so that the
Sergio Pellis and Heather Bell studied rats’ and cockroaches’ attempts to rob food from measurement process does not become
other animals a disturbance itself.
This approach would provide the
a shot away from the opponent’). Such expectation and mental imagery. Thus, basis for developing and testing
a hierarchical organisation provides the PCT includes a means to simulate future increasingly sophisticated computer
potential for sophisticated control. Recent perceptual outcomes even though this is models and robotic devices that control
work has supported this model by not the fundamental nature of its the same perceptual variables. Further
showing that the delays found in complex architecture. advances would identify the components
motor behaviour can be accounted for by Powers used his architecture to of the PCT architecture, such as
the fact that more complex perceptions explain psychopathology (Powers et al., examining how each layer of the
(e.g. detecting a change in transition from 1960a, 1960b) by proposing that perceptual hierarchy constructs
objects getting larger to getting smaller) unresolved conflict is the cause of the perceptions from the level below. Finally,
take longer to control, even when they loss of control that is experienced during given the unifying nature of PCT, the
are indicated by the same motor response psychological distress. Therapy should approach would genuinely embrace
(Marken et al., 2013). therefore involve helping the client to interdisciplinary working.
With such a complex network of shift and sustain their awareness on the
perceptual goals, there is the potential higher-level control systems driving the
for conflict – that is, two or more goals conflict, so that reorganisation can restore Conclusion
may compete with one another to control (Marken & Carey, in press). Despite emphasising ‘purpose’, PCT
pull perceptions in opposite directions. Powers developed a questioning specifies its components to allow
A classic example might be a child’s technique to achieve this, which has quantitative modelling. This paradox of
distance from their source of safety (goal become known as the ‘method of levels’ purposiveness combined with mechanism
1: stay safe) as they move around their (MOL: Carey, 2006). MOL can be applied has attracted significant objections
environment (goal 2: explore). Recall that in the same way to a wide range of (e.g. Bandura & Locke, 2003), which
control units receive their reference problems – that is, it is ‘transdiagnostic’. have largely been addressed elsewhere
values from a superordinate system. So, Its flexibility also means that it can be (e.g. Taylor, 1999; Vancouver, 2005). The
the higher-level system needs to change more efficient (i.e. greater effect size per recent upsurge in high-quality research
the way that it regulates the subordinate session) than equivalent therapies (Carey and applications involving PCT indicates
conflicted systems. This is thought to et al., 2013). In a recent article Carey et that Marken may have been right in
occur through a process known as al. (2014b) explained how unresolved suggesting that PCT will usher in a
reorganisation (Powers et al., 1960a, perceptual conflict could mediate the psychology revolution that is long
1960b) - that operates through a specific effects of trauma on psychosis and other overdue. Only time will tell whether the
search algorithm (Powers, 2008). severe mental health problems, and how potential is fully exploited, and the
Reorganisation alters the functions of the it could be addressed using MOL. ‘tipping point’ occurs.
higher-level system in a trial-and-error
way until control is restored; it also
accounts for how control systems are A ‘control revolution’? Warren Mansell
‘tuned’ to control effectively. In the PCT is unique, it has empirical support, is Reader in Clinical
example above then, the child might and it has the potential to unify diverse Psychology, University
strike a balance between safety and fields of science through a ‘control of Manchester
exploration. Another feature of the revolution’ (considered in more detail warren.mansell@
architecture is that past perceptions are elsewhere, e.g. Mansell et al., in press;
stored locally as memories within each Marken, 2014; Runkel, 1990). Uniquely,
control unit. Therefore, they can be used the revolution would involve
either as references for current action, or characterising living organisms by their Timothy A. Carey
in the absence of an opportunity in the control of perceptual variables. Rather is Professor and Director
environment, they can be rerouted than attempting to predict behaviour, the of the Centre for Remote
internally ‘as if’ that perception is new science would attempt to identify Health, a Joint Centre of
occurring – known as the ‘imagination controlled variables. For example, we are Flinders University and
mode’. This enables the internal control using the methodology to infer the Charles Darwin University
of perception – that is, planning, preferred interpersonal distances of two

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