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Cybernetic Control Processes and the Self-Regulation of Behavior

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes a set of ideas bearing on the self-regulation of action and emotion that has been given labels such as cybernetic and feedback control processes. The ideas have roots in many sources, including the concept of homeostasis and attempts to create mechanical devices to serve as governors for engines. With respect to motivation, these ideas yield a viewpoint in which goal-directed action is seen as reflecting a hierarchy of feedback control processes and the creation and reduction of affect are seen as reflecting another set of feedback processes. The portion of the model devoted to affect is of particular interest in that it generates two predictions that differ substantially from those deriving from other theories. The first is that both approach and avoidance can give rise to both positive and negative feelings; the second is that positive affect leads to coasting, reduction in effort regarding the goal under pursuit. The latter suggests a way in which positive affect is involved in priority management when many goals are in existence at the same time. Recent interest in dual-process models, which distinguish between top-down goal pursuit and reflexive responses to cues of the moment, has caused us to reexamine some of our previous assumptions and to consider the possibility that behavior is triggered in two distinct ways. The chapter closes with a brief consideration of how these ideas might be compatible with other viewpoints on motivation.

Keywords: cybernetic, feedback loop, control theory, affect

This chapter describes several aspects of a viewpoint on the guidance of behavior that we have used throughout our careers in psychology. This viewpoint has roots in several places. One of them is the broad conception of homeostatic mechanisms, mechanisms that regulate diverse aspects of the body's physiological functioning (Cannon, 1932). Another source is ideas about mechanical governors and computing machines (e.g., Ashby, 1940; Rosenblueth, Wiener, & Bigelow, 1943; Wiener, 1948). In the middle of the 20th century, Wiener (1948) coined the term cybernetic (from the Greek word meaning “steersman”) to characterize the overall functioning of this type of system. Cybernetic systems (whether mechanical, electronic, or living systems) regulate some current condition so as to stay “on course.” The idea that such systems underlie overt, intentional behavior as well as homeostatic self-regulation is the theme of this chapter. We amplify on this idea shortly, but first we'll provide a little more background.

Cybernetic ideas had a brief heyday in motivational psychology (broadly defined) in the 1950s through 1970s. Probably the best known example of this viewpoint was an engaging book by Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960). This book introduced into the psychological lexicon the acronym TOTE, which stands for test-operate-test-exit, a sequence of events that take place in a cybernetic control system. Miller et al. were not the only (p. 29) people to use cybernetic concepts during this period (ideas with a similar character were proposed, for example, by MacKay, 1956, 1966; for review see Miller et al., 1960), but Miller et al. received the most attention from psychologists. To some extent this may be attributable to the fact that the operation of a TOTE unit paralleled the operation of the basic element of a computer. Computers (which were fairly new at the time) were starting to influence people's thinking about the nature of cognition. Thus, Miller et al.'s book was very much in the spirit of its time.

Today when people use the word cybernetic, they generally are referring either to robotics or to the World Wide Web. It is also fairly common to associate the viewpoint we describe here with the discipline of engineering, partly because of its heritage in devices that govern engines and partly because of the usefulness of control theory in engineering applications. It's important, though, to keep in mind that these ideas have ties that extend well beyond engineering. As noted earlier, they pertain additionally to the homeostatic controllers of the body. They also pertain to diverse other complex systems in nature.

Thirteen years after Miller et al.'s (1960) intriguing volume came another book that had a particularly strong impact on our thinking. This book, written by William Powers (1973), was an extremely ambitious undertaking. Powers set out to portray how human behavior might reflect a hierarchy of cybernetic control processes. That is, he tried to account for how the nervous system creates the physical movements by which intentions and even abstract values are expressed in action. At center stage in his account was the feedback loop, the basic unit of cybernetic control. Powers set out to map several layers of postulated feedback processes to aspects of the nervous system. Perhaps even more than Miller et al. (1960), Powers made a compelling case for the idea that the feedback construct was up to the challenge of accounting for the complexity of behavior. He focused not on one single loop, but on an interwoven network of loops, dealing with regulation of diverse properties simultaneously.

We adopted the Powers (1973) model as a conceptual heuristic (Carver & Scheier, 1981). It helped us interpret a literature in personality and social psychology in which we were immersed at the time (see Carver & Scheier, 2112). And it provided a reference point for us for the next 30 years. Indeed, in some ways it serves as the conceptual backbone of this chapter.

Feedback Control

What are the elements of a cybernetic feedback control system? The term feedback control can seem quite forbidding. An easy point of entry into the logic behind it, however, is the goal concept, which is more intuitive. People have many goals, at varying levels of abstraction and importance. Goals energize and guide activities. Most goals can be reached in many ways, leading to the potential for vast complexity in the organization of action. This is a view that is easy and familiar for most people, and it is part of the conceptual landscape of contemporary psychology. From this view, the transition to thinking about cybernetic control is relatively straightforward.

Feedback Processes

The basic unit of cybernetic control is the feedback loop. A feedback loop has four elements (MacKay, 1966; Miller et al., 1960; Powers, 1973; Wiener, 1948): an input function, a reference value, a comparison process, and an output. Think of the input function as perception. The input function brings in information of some sort about present circumstances. Think of the reference value as a goal. The perceived input is compared to this value, to determine whether a difference exists. A discrepancy that is detected by this comparison creates what is called an “error signal.” The output function is a response to any detected error (we treat the output here as equivalent to behavior, but sometimes the behavior is an internal signal rather than a physical movement).

If the comparison detects no discrepancy, the output remains as it was. If the comparison detects a discrepancy, the effect on output depends on what kind of loop it is. There are two kinds. In a discrepancy-reducing loop (also called negative, for negating), the output acts to reduce (or eliminate) the discrepancy. Homeostatic systems are examples of discrepancy-reducing systems. For example, if a person's internal temperature sensors detect that his body temperature is elevated above “normal,” processes are engaged that serve to reduce body temperature so that it returns to that reference value. Specifically, sweat would be released, which cools the body as it evaporates. If the sensors detect a deviation below normal, rather than above, the output would be shivering, which generates heat via muscle contractions.

Discrepancy-enlarging feedback loops also exist, in which the output serves not to counter a discrepancy but to enlarge it (these are also called positive feedback loops). One might think of the reference value (p. 30) in this kind of loop as an “anti-goal.” Discrepancy-enlarging loops are generally believed to be less common in living systems than discrepancy-reducing loops, because they are unstable. Unless overridden, they can enlarge discrepancies without end.

Some people believe that this kind of loop is always problematic and dysfunctional (Powers, 1973). Others believe that positive loops are an important part of complex systems (DeAngelis, Post, & Travis, 1986; Maruyama, 1963; McFarland, 1971), but that in living systems (and other cases in which positive feedback is adaptive), the effect of this loop is limited in some way or other. There may be a natural endpoint (e.g., sexual arousal prompts further increase in arousal to the point of orgasm, which ends the increase). Alternatively, the discrepancy-enlarging function may be constrained by a discrepancy-reducing function. To put it differently, avoidance of one reference point can give way to approach of another reference point.

Feedback Processes in Overt Behavior

A cybernetic approach to motivation generalizes these principles to behavioral goals, in which discrepancies are reduced by overt actions (Miller et al., 1960; Powers, 1973; Toates, 2006). Negative feedback processes, as applied to overt behavior, represent the engagement of effort to reach a valued goal, maintain a desired condition, or conform to some salient standard. Goal-directed behavior entails knowing (at some level) the desired end one wants to reach, knowing what the present condition is with respect to that desired end, and being able to decide whether the present condition does or does not match the desired end. It is also necessary, of course, to be able to create actions that will cause the present condition to change in appropriate ways. However, that ability would be of little help in itself if the other functions were not also operating.

In a way, this is the essence of what a cybernetic view brings to the motivational table: It forces the realization that all of those functions are necessary for successful goal pursuit, not just the capacity to act. It forces the realization that the action occurs in service to changing the input (Powers, 1973).

The principle of positive feedback can also be applied to overt behavior. What might be called “anti-goals” for behavior are conditions that one wants to avoid. An example would be a feared or disliked possible self (Carver, Lawrence, & Scheier, 1999; Markus & Nurius, 1986; Ogilvie, 1987), which one tries hard to not-be. Another example would be a scene of public humiliation, which most people will try to avoid.

As noted earlier, discrepancy-reducing and discrepancy-enlarging loops may work in concert, and it is fairly easy to point to such compound structures in behavior. An avoidance loop tries to distance from an anti-goal. But there may exist an approach goal that happens to be incompatible with the anti-goal. If the person adopts that approach goal, the tendency to avoid the anti-goal is joined by the tendency to move toward the approach goal. The approach loop pulls the behavior into its orbit. This pattern of dual influence describes what behavioral psychologists call active avoidance. In active avoidance an organism confronting a feared stimulus picks a relatively safe location to escape to and actively approaches that location.

Social and personality psychology also have good examples of discrepancy-enlarging loops being constrained by discrepancy-reducing loops. This pattern seems represented in Higgins's (1996) concept of the ought self (Carver et al., 1999) and in Ryan and Deci's (2000) concept of introjected values. In both of these constructs, the initial impetus to behavior is the desire to avoid social sanction of some sort. Thus, the starting point is an effort to create distance from an anti-goal. However, a good way to avoid social sanction is to locate a socially approved value that is different from (or even opposite to) the disapproved value, and move toward it. By homing in on the positive value, one simultaneously escapes the feared or disliked value. Thus, both ought selves and introjects represent positive values to conform to, but the motivational dynamic underlying them is more complex than the dynamic underlying other positive values.

Further Issues

At least a couple more issues should be noted before we move on. One of them concerns a common misconception about the nature of feedback processes. The other concerns a somewhat disconcerting reality about the nature of feedback processes.

As was described earlier, homeostasis is a common illustration of the feedback principle, because it is so easily understood. Another common illustration is the room thermostat, which senses deviations from a set point and engages devices that counter the deviations. Because of the common use of these illustrations, some people incorrectly infer that feedback loops can act only to create and maintain steady states. Some reference values (and goals) are indeed static end states or stable preferred conditions (e.g., to own one's home, to arrive at the end of the month with a balance above zero in one's checking (p. 31) account). But other reference values are dynamic and evolving (e.g., experiencing the pleasures of a month's vacation, raising children to become good citizens). In such cases, the goal for action regulation is the process of traversing the changing trajectory of the activity, not just the arrival at the endpoint. Feedback processes apply perfectly well to such moving targets (Beer, 1995).

Although the feedback loop is an abstract concept, it is not too hard to portray its elements conceptually. In some specific instances of feedback control (e.g., in artificial electronic systems), it is also easy to point to the physical existence of each element. In other instances, however, doing this is harder. In particular, some feedback loops have no explicit representation of a reference value. The system regulates around a value, but the value is not represented anywhere as a goal (Berridge, 2004; Carver & Scheier, 1999b, 2002).

Levels of Abstraction

Let us return, though, to cases with explicit reference points or goals, inasmuch as these cases are the focus of most of what we have to say. Goals vary quite considerably in how concrete or abstract they are. You can have the goal of being a good citizen, but you can also have the goal of recycling—a narrower goal that contributes to being a good citizen. To recycle entails other, more-concrete goals: placing newspapers or bottles and cans into containers and moving them to a pickup location. The fact that goals have subgoals leads to the idea that goals form a hierarchy (Powers, 1973; Toates, 2006; Vallacher & Wegner, 1987). Abstract goals are attained by the very process of attaining concrete goals that help define the abstract ones (Carver & Scheier, 1998, 1999a, 1999b, 2003).

Goals at different levels of abstraction have different kinds of characterizations. Some kinds of relatively low-level goals are defined by brief sequences of action: for example, picking up a pen or walking across the room. Such sequences (Powers, 1973) are fairly simple (though each can also be broken down further into subcomponents of motor control (e.g., Rosenbaum, Meulenbroek, Vaughan, & Jansen, 2001). Sequences have something of a self-contained quality about them, and they require little monitoring once they are triggered.

Such sequences can be organized into more elaborate strings of actions, which Powers (1973) called programs. These strings of action are more planful. They often require choices to be made at various points along the way, which depend on conditions that are encountered at those points. Programs are the level of the Powers hierarchy that most closely resembles Miller et al.'s TOTE construct, because of the sequencing of steps and subroutines that programs contain. There is some blurring between levels, however. Programs can become quite familiar, as a result of repetition. If they become familiar enough that they are executed all at a piece without much monitoring, they probably are no longer programs but instead have become sequences.

Programs are sometimes enacted in the service of broader guiding principles. Principles are more abstract qualities. They can provide a basis for making decisions at choice points within programs, and they can suggest that particular programs be undertaken or be refrained from. The term principle refers to the sorts of qualities that social psychologists often call values (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1990; Schwartz & Rubel, 2005). What defines a principle as such is its abstractness and broad applicability to diverse behaviors. Being a principle does not in itself imply anything about what behavior results. For example, one principle leads people to support affirmative action, whereas a different principle leads people to oppose it (Reyna, Henry, Korfmacher, & Tucker, 2006).

Even individual values are not the end of potential complexity and abstraction, though. Patterns of values coalesce to form the essence of a person's sense of desired (and undesired) self or a person's sense of desired (and undesired) community. These properties are very broad points of reference (goals).

Hierarchy of Processes in Action

Powers (1973) argued that, in a hierarchical organization, high-level control loops “behave” by setting and changing reference values for loops at the next lower level of control. Those loops, in turn act by setting reference values for lower levels, and so on (Fig. 3.1). At the very lowest level, the output is changes in muscle tensions. Thus, for a person to act in a way that is intended to exemplify a particular principle also requires the simultaneous involvement of all layers of control lower than the principle level.

 Cybernetic Control Processes and the Self-Regulation of Behavior

Fig. 3.1. Three-level hierarchy of feedback loops. The output from the comparison in a given loop is the reference value for the next lower level, and so on. The final (motoric) output creates a change in input that is (at varying levels of abstraction) relevant to all levels involved.

In his statement about hierarchical organization of feedback processes, Powers (1973) devoted most of his attention to levels of abstraction that are even more basic than sequences. As personality-social psychologists, we have not found those lower levels of much direct interest. On the other hand, the argument that control of behavior relies on a single principle instantiated at multiple levels of (p. 32) abstraction is a very interesting one, because it has a high degree of parsimony.

Knowledge of the nervous system has progressed enormously since 1973, of course, and parts of the picture that Powers created are doubtlessly contradicted by later evidence. However, the viability of the core idea that action reflects feedback processes engaged simultaneously at multiple levels of abstraction need not depend entirely on specific details.

From the point of view of personality-social psychology, goals from the ideal self down through sequences can be thought of as common starting points for self-regulation. All of them serve as classes of values to try to approximate or to deviate from. Any of them might be taken as the focal point for a given behavior (that is, the person could try to self-regulate at any of these levels). Once that value is adopted, lower levels are engaged automatically by the engagement of that one. Thus, it is easy to imagine cases in which a person is behaving according to a principle (e.g., a moral or ethical value), and it is easy to imagine cases in which the person is behaving according to a plan or program. It is also easy, however, to imagine cases in which the person is acting impulsively and spontaneously, without regard to either principle or plan. In all of these cases, the physical movements involved are being managed by systems automatically engaged by whichever level of control is in charge. Later in the chapter we reexamine this idea and consider some potentially important differences among these various levels of abstraction.

Approach and Avoidance

In some ways, the dual concepts of discrepancy-reducing and discrepancy-enlarging loops map nicely onto the general form of approach and avoidance processes. Incentives are approached by systems that close discrepancies between present conditions and the incentives. Threats are avoided by systems that enlarge discrepancies between present conditions and the threats. The logic of feedback processes thus provides a way to think about this fundamental dichotomy among motivations, a dichotomy that plays a key role in many other ideas about motivation.

Feedback Processes and Affect

Motivation is partly about how people move from one place to another. However, it is also partly about the degree of urgency behind the action. A sense of urgency or intensity implies the involvement of affect, feelings that occur in the course of experience.

What is affect? Where does it come from? Affect is positive or negative feelings. Affect is the core of the experience of emotion, though the term emotion often incorporates connotations of physiological changes that frequently accompany hedonic experiences. A truism is that affect pertains to whether one's desires are being met (Clore, 1994; Frijda, 1986, 1988; Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). But what is the internal mechanism by which feelings arise?


Many different kinds of answers to this question have been offered, ranging from neurobiological (e.g., Davidson, 1992) to cognitive (Ortony et al., 1988). We have proposed an answer that focused on what appear to be some of the functional properties of affect (Carver & Scheier, 1990, 1998, 1999a, 1999b). In suggesting this answer, we used feedback control as an organizing principle. Now, however, the control bears on a different quality.

We suggested that feelings arise as a consequence of a feedback loop that operates simultaneously with the behavior-guiding loop and in parallel to it. We regard its operation as automatic. The easiest (p. 33) characterization of what this second process is doing is that it is checking on how well the first process (the behavior loop) is doing. The input for this second loop thus is the rate of discrepancy reduction in the action system over time. (We focus first on discrepancy-reducing loops, then consider enlarging loops.)

Consider a physical analogy. Action implies change between states. Difference between states is distance. The action loop thus controls the psychological analog of distance. If the affect loop assesses the action loop's progress, then the affect loop is dealing with the psychological analog of velocity, the first derivative of distance over time. To the degree that this analogy is meaningful, the input to the affect loop should be the first derivative over time of the input used by the action loop.

Input (how well you are doing) does not by itself create affect; a given rate of progress has different affective consequences in different contexts. We argued that this input is compared to a reference value (cf. Frijda, 1986, 1988), just as in other feedback loops. In this case, the value is an acceptable or expected rate of behavioral discrepancy reduction. As in other feedback loops, the comparison checks for deviation from the standard. If there is a discrepancy, the error signal causes a change in the output function.

We think the error signal in this loop is manifest subjectively as affect, a sense of positive or negative valence. A rate of progress below the criterion yields negative affect. A rate high enough to exceed the criterion yields positive affect. If the rate is not distinguishable from the criterion, there is no valence. In essence, the argument is that feelings with positive valence mean you are doing better at something than you need to, and feelings with negative valence mean you are doing worse than you need to (for detail see Carver & Scheier, 1998, Chapters 8 and 9). The absence of affect means being neither ahead nor behind.

A couple of clarifications about what we do not mean to say here: We are not arguing for a deliberative thinking through of whether rate conforms to the criterion rate. We assume that the testing is continuous and automatic. Nor are we arguing for a deliberative thinking about what the affective valence means. We assume that the meaning (i.e., being ahead versus behind) is intrinsic to the affect's valence, which itself arises automatically.

One implication of this line of argument is that the affects that might potentially exist regarding any given action should fall on a bipolar dimension. That is, it should be the case that affect can be positive, neutral, or negative for any given goal-directed action, depending on how well or poorly the action seems to be attaining the goal.

Reference Criterion

What determines the criterion? There doubtlessly are many influences. Furthermore, the orientation that a person takes to an action can induce a different framing that may change the criterion (Brendl & Higgins, 1996). What is used as a criterion is probably quite flexible when the activity is unfamiliar. If the activity is very familiar, the criterion is likely to reflect the person's accumulated experience, in the form of an expected rate (the more experience you have, the more you know what is reasonable to expect). Whether “desired,” “expected,” or “needed” is most accurate as a depiction of the criterion rate may depend greatly on the context.

The criterion can also change, sometimes readily, sometimes less so. The less experience the person has in a domain, the easier it is to substitute one criterion for another. We believe, however, that change in rate criterion in a relatively familiar domain occurs relatively slowly. Continuing overshoots result automatically in an upward drift of the criterion; continuing undershoots result in a downward drift (see Carver & Scheier, 2000). Thus, the system recalibrates over repeated events. A (somewhat ironic) consequence of such recalibration would be to keep the balance of a person's affective experiences (positive to negative, across a span of time) relatively similar, even if the rate criterion changes considerably.

Two Kinds of Action Loops, Two Dimensions of Affect

So far we have addressed only approach loops. The view just outlined was that positive feeling exists when a behavioral system is making more than adequate progress doing what it is organized to do. The systems addressed so far are organized to reduce discrepancies. Yet there seems no obvious reason why the principle should not apply to systems that enlarge discrepancies. If such a system is making rapid enough progress attaining its ends, there should be positive affect. If it is doing poorly, there should be negative affect.

That affects of both valences are possible seems applicable to both approach and avoidance. That is, both approach and avoidance have the potential to induce positive feelings (by doing well), and both have the potential to induce negative feelings (by doing poorly). But doing well at approaching an incentive is not quite the same experience as (p. 34) doing well at moving away from a threat. Thus, there may be differences between the two positives, and between the two negatives.

Drawing on the work of Higgins (e.g., 1987, 1996), we have argued for two bipolar dimensions of affect, one bearing on approach, the other on avoidance (Carver, 2001; Carver & Scheier, 1998). Approach-related affect includes such positive affects as elation, eagerness, and excitement, and also such negative affects as frustration, anger, and sadness (Carver, 2004; Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009). Avoidance-related affect includes such positive affects as relief, serenity, and contentment (Carver, 2009) and such negative affects as fear, guilt, and anxiety.

Affect and Action: Two Facets of One Event in Time

This two-layered viewpoint implies a natural connection between affect and action. That is, if the input function of the affect loop is a sensed rate of progress in action, the output function of the affect loop must be a change in the rate of progress in that action. Thus, the affect loop has a direct influence on what occurs in the action loop.

Some changes in rate output are straightforward. If you are lagging behind, you try harder. Some changes are less straightforward. The rates of many “behaviors” are defined not by pace of physical action but in terms of choices among potential actions, or entire programs of action. For example, increasing your rate of progress on a project at work may mean choosing to spend a weekend working rather than playing with family and friends. Increasing your rate of being kind means choosing to do an act that reflects kindness, when an opportunity arises. Thus, change in rate must often be translated into other terms, such as concentration or allocation of time and effort.

The idea of two feedback systems functioning jointly is something we stumbled into. It turns out, however, that this idea is quite common in control engineering (e.g., Clark, 1996). Engineers have long recognized that having two systems functioning together—one controlling position, one controlling velocity—permits the device they control to respond in a way that is both quick and stable, without overshoots and oscillations.

The combination of quickness and stability in responding is desirable in many of the devices engineers deal with. It is also desirable in human beings. A person with very reactive emotions is prone to overreact and oscillate behaviorally. A person who is emotionally unreactive is slow to respond even to urgent events. A person whose reactions are between those extremes responds quickly but without behavioral overreaction and oscillation.

For biological entities, being able to respond quickly yet accurately confers a clear adaptive advantage. We believe this combination of quick and stable responding is a consequence of having both behavior-managing and affect-managing control systems. Affect causes people's responses to be quicker (because this system is time sensitive); as long as the affective system is not overresponsive, the responses are also stable.

Our focus here is on how affects influence behavior, emphasizing the extent to which they are interwoven. However, note that the behavioral responses that are linked to the affects also lead to reduction of the intensity of the affects, returning them to the set point. We thus would suggest that the affect system is, in a very basic sense, self-regulating (cf. Campos, Frankel, & Camras, 2004). It is undeniable that people also engage in voluntary efforts to regulate their emotions (e.g., Gross, 2007; Ochsner & Gross, 2008), but the affect system does a good deal of that self-regulation on its own.

Affect Issues

This view of affect differs from most other theories bearing on emotion in at least two ways. One difference concerns the idea of dimensional structure underlying affect (Carver, 2001).

Two Underlying Bipolar Dimensions

In some theories (though not all) affects are seen as having underlying dimensionality (e.g., Watson, Wiese, Vaidya, & Tellegen, 1999). Our view has this character. It holds that affect generated through approach has the potential to range from positive (joy) through neutral to negative (anger, sadness); affect generated through avoidance also has the potential to range from positive (relief) through neutral to negative (fear, anxiety). Most dimensional models, however, are quite different from this one. They are unipolar. They ascribe affects with positive valence to an approach system and ascribe affects with negative valence to an avoidance system (e.g., Cacioppo, Gardner, & Berntson, 1999; Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1990; Watson et al., 1999).

There is at least some support for our view. There is evidence, albeit limited, that positive feelings of calmness and relief (as situationally relevant) relate to avoidance motivation (Carver, 2009; Higgins, Shah, & Friedman, 1997). There is far more evidence linking sadness to failure of approach (for reviews, (p. 35) see Carver, 2004; Higgins, 1996). There is also a good deal of evidence linking the approach system to the negative affect of anger (Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009). Although it is clear that diverse negative feeling qualities coalesce with one another in mood states (Watson, 2009), the evidence does not make that case with regard to situation-specific affective responses.

This issue is important, because it has implications for any attempt to identify a conceptual mechanism underlying creation of affect. Theories positing two unipolar dimensions assume that greater activation of a system translates to more affect of that valence (or more potential for affect of that valence). If the approach system relates both to positive and to negative feelings, however, this direct transformation of system activation to affect is not tenable. A conceptual mechanism is needed that naturally addresses both valences within the approach function (and, separately, the avoidance function). The mechanism described here does so.

Counterintuitive Effect of Positive Affect

A second issue also differentiates this model from most other views (Carver, 2003; Carver & Scheier, 2009). Recall our argument that affect reflects the error signal from a comparison in a feedback loop. If this is so, affect is a signal to adjust rate of progress. This would be true whether the rate is above the mark or below it—that is, whether affect is positive or negative. For negative feelings, this is fairly intuitive. The first response to negative feelings about something is usually to try harder. If the person tries harder—and if more effort (or better effort) increases progress—the negative affect diminishes or ceases.

For positive feelings, prediction is counterintuitive. In this model, positive feelings arise when things are going better than they need to. But the feelings still reflect a discrepancy (albeit a positive one), and the function of a negative feedback loop is to keep discrepancies small. Such a system is organized in such a way that it “wants” to see neither negative nor positive affect. Either quality (deviation from the standard in either direction) would represent an “error” and lead to change in output that would eventually reduce it. This view argues that people who exceed the criterion rate of progress (and who thus have positive feelings) will automatically tend to reduce subsequent effort in this domain. They will “coast” a little—ease back. This prediction derives from a consideration of feedback principles, but a similar argument has been made on other grounds by Izard (1977, p. 257; Izard & Ackerman, 2000, p. 258).

Expending greater effort to catch up when behind, and coasting when ahead, are both presumed to be specific to the goal domain to which the affect is attached, usually the goal from which the affect arises in the first place. We do not argue that positive affect creates a tendency to coast in general, but with respect to the activity producing the positive feelings. We should also be clear that we are talking about the current, ongoing episode of action. We are not arguing that positive affect makes people less likely to do the behavior later on.

Does positive affect lead to coasting? There is not a great deal of evidence on this question, but there is some. To test the idea requires generating positive affect (or creating the perception of being ahead of one's reference point) with respect to one behavioral domain and then measuring behavior in the same domain. Many studies have created positive affect in one context and assessed its influence on another task or in another context (e.g., Isen, 1987, 2000; Schwarz & Bohner, 1996). However, that does not test this question.

We know of three sources of evidence. One study found that professional basketball teams were more likely to lose after a playoff victory than after a defeat (Mizruchi, 1991). Although this is consistent with coasting after winning, it is also highly ambiguous. It is impossible to tell whether the pattern reflects coasting after success or renewed effort after failure or both. Less ambiguously, a series of three studies by Louro, Pieters, and Zeelenberg (2007) found consistent evidence that positive affect induces coasting, but only when goal attainment was imminent.

A more recent experience-sampling study had participants make a set of ratings pertaining to each of three goals, three times a day, for 21 days (Fulford, Johnson, Llabre, & Carver, 2010). The ratings included reports of effort toward the goal during the previous time block, perceived progress toward it during the previous time block, and expected progress in the forthcoming time block. Multilevel modeling revealed that instances of progress exceeding expectation were followed by reduction in effort toward that goal in the next time period.

Skepticism about the idea that positive affect (or getting ahead) leads to coasting stems in part from the fact that it is hard to see why a process would be built into the organism that limits positive feelings—indeed, dampens them. We see at least two bases for such an arrangement. The first lies in a basic biological principle: It is adaptive not to spend energy needlessly. Coasting prevents this. Indeed, Brehm built (p. 36) a motivational theory around the argument that people engage only as much effort as is needed to accomplish a given task—and no more (e.g., Brehm & Self, 1989; Wright & Kirby, 2001).

A second basis for such an arrangement stems from the fact that people have multiple simultaneous concerns. Given multiple concerns, people do not optimize their outcome on any one of them but “satisfice” (Simon, 1953)—that is, they do a good enough job on each concern to deal with it satisfactorily. This permits them to handle the many concerns adequately, rather than just any one of them. Coasting facilitates satisficing. A tendency to coast with respect to some goal virtually defines satisficing regarding that particular goal. A tendency to coast also fosters satisficing for a broader set of goals, by allowing easy shift to other domains at little or no cost (see Carver, 2003, for detail).

Affects and Priority Management

This line of argument brings up a broad function that deserves further attention: the shifting from one goal to another as focal in behavior (Dreisbach & Goschke, 2004; Shallice, 1978). This basic and very important phenomenon is often overlooked. People typically have many goals under pursuit simultaneously, but only one has top priority at a given moment. People need to shield and maintain intentions that are being pursued (cf. Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002), but they also need to be able to shift flexibly among goals (Shin & Rosenbaum, 2002).

The issue of priority management was addressed very creatively many years ago by Simon (1967). He proposed that emotions are calls for reprioritization. He suggested that emotion arising with respect to a goal that is out of awareness eventually induces people to interrupt their behavior and give that goal a higher priority than it had. The stronger the emotion, the stronger is the claim that the unattended goal should have higher priority than the goal that is presently focal.

Simon's discussion focused on cases in which a nonfocal goal demands a higher priority and intrudes on awareness. By strong implication, his discussion dealt only with negative affect. However, there is another way for priority ordering to shift: The focal goal can relinquish its place. Perhaps positive feelings also pertain to reprioritization, but rather than a call for higher priority, they reflect reduction in priority. Positive affect regarding avoidance (relief or tranquility) indicates that a threat has dissipated, no longer requires so much attention, and can assume a lower priority. Positive feelings regarding approach (happiness, joy) indicate that an incentive is being attained and could temporarily be put on hold because you are doing so well; thus, this goal can assume a lower priority (see Carver, 2003).

Priority Management and Feelings of Depression

One more aspect of priority management must be addressed, concerning the idea that some goals are best abandoned. We have long held that sufficient doubt about goal attainment yields a tendency to disengage from effort, and even to disengage from the goal itself. This is certainly a kind of priority shift, in that the abandoned goal now has an even lower priority than it had before. But how does this case fit the ideas described thus far?

This case seems at first to contradict Simon's (1967) view that negative affect is a call for higher priority. But there is an important difference between two classes of negative affect related to approach (Carver, 2003, 2004; in this discussion we disregard avoidance). Some of these affects coalesce around frustration and anger. Others coalesce around sadness, depression, and dejection. The former relate to an increase in priority, the latter to a decrease.

Earlier in this section we characterized our view as implying that approach-related affects fall on a bipolar dimension. However, the dimension is not a simple straight line. Progress below the criterion creates negative affect, as the incentive slips away. Inadequate movement gives rise to frustration, irritation, and anger, prompting more effort to overcome obstacles and reverse the inadequate current progress. But efforts sometimes do not change the situation. Indeed, a loss precludes movement forward. In this case, the feelings are sadness, depression, despondency, and hopelessness. Behaviors also differ in this case. The person tends to disengage from—give up on—further effort.

In the first case, feelings of frustration and anger are a call for an upgrade in priority, an increase in effort, a struggle to gain the incentive despite setbacks. In the second case, feelings of sadness and depression accompany reduction of effort and a downgrade in priority. As described earlier, both the upgrade and the downgrade have adaptive functions in the appropriate situations.

Shifts in the Theoretical Landscape: Two Modes of Functioning

We now turn to an entirely different issue. During the last two decades, changes have occurred (p. 37) in how people view cognition and action. The implicit assumption that behavior is generally managed in a top-down, directive way has been challenged. Questions have been raised about the role of consciousness in many kinds of action. Interest has arisen in the idea that the mind has both explicit and implicit representations. These various issues have also influenced how we think about ideas we have been using.

Two-Mode Models

Several literatures have developed around the idea that there are two somewhat distinct modes of functioning (Carver, Johnson, & Joormann, 2008). In personality, Epstein (e.g., 1973, 1994) has long advocated such a view. He argues that people experience reality through two systems. What he calls a rational system operates mostly consciously, uses logical rules, is verbal and deliberative, and thus is fairly slow. In contrast, the experiential system is intuitive and associative in nature. It provides a quick and dirty way of assessing and reacting to reality. It relies on salient information and uses shortcuts and heuristics. It functions automatically and quickly. It is considered to be emotional (or at least very responsive to emotions) and nonverbal.

The experiential system is presumably older and more primitive neurobiologically. It dominates when speed is needed (as when the situation is emotionally charged). The rational system evolved later, providing a more cautious, analytic, planful way of proceeding. Operating in that way has important advantages, provided there is sufficient time and freedom from pressure to think things through. Both systems are presumed to be always at work, jointly determining behavior, though the extent of each one's influence can vary by situation and disposition.

A model in many ways similar to this was proposed by Metcalfe and Mischel (1999). Drawing on decades of work on delay of gratification, Metcalfe and Mischel (1999) proposed that two systems influence self-restraint. One they called a “hot” system: emotional, impulsive, and reflexive. The other they called a “cool” system: strategic, flexible, slower, and unemotional. How people respond to difficult situations depends on which system is in charge.

There are also several two-mode theories in social psychology (Chaiken & Trope, 1999). The essence of such a view has existed for a long time in the literature of persuasion. Strack and Deutsch (2004) have recently extended this reasoning more broadly into the range of behavioral phenomena of interest to social psychologists. They proposed a model in which overt social behavior is a joint output of two simultaneously operating systems that they termed reflective and impulsive. Again, differences in the systems’ operating characteristics lead to differences in behavior. The reflective system anticipates the future, makes decisions on the basis of those anticipations, and forms intentions. It is planful and wide ranging in its search for relevant information. It is restrained and deliberative. The impulsive system acts spontaneously when its schemas or production systems are sufficiently activated. It acts without consideration for the future or for broader implications or consequences of the action. This depiction is very similar in some ways to the ideas of Epstein (1973, 1994) and Metcalfe and Mischel (1999).

Two-mode thinking has also been very influential in developmental psychology. Rothbart and her colleagues have argued for the existence of three temperament systems: two for reactive approach and reactive avoidance, and a third termed effortful control (e.g., Derryberry & Rothbart, 1997; Rothbart, Ahadi, & Evans, 2000; Rothbart & Posner, 1985; see also Nigg, 2000). Effortful control concerns (in part) the ability to suppress approach when it is situationally inappropriate. Effortful control is superordinate to approach and avoidance temperaments. The label effortful conveys the sense that this is an executive, planful activity, entailing the use of cognitive resources beyond those needed to react impulsively. This view of effortful control has substantial resemblance to depictions of the deliberative mode of the other two-mode models outlined earlier.

Hierarchicality Reexamined

Thus, several sources of theory suggest that the mind functions in two modes (indeed, the ones described earlier are far from an exhaustive list). All promote the view that a deliberative mode of functioning uses symbolic and sequential processing and thus is relatively slow; all suggest that a more impulsive or reactive mode of functioning uses associationist processing and is relatively fast. Many of the theories suggest that the two modes are semiautonomous in their functioning, competing with each other to influence actions. Indeed, many point to situational variables that influence which mode dominates at a given time.

These kinds of ideas have influenced how we think about the hierarchy of control that was proposed by Powers (1973). We said earlier that programs of action entail decisions. They seem to be managed (p. 38) top-down, using effortful processing. Planfulness, an element of programs, is also a common characterization of behavior managed by the reflective system. It seems reasonable to map program-level control onto the deliberative, reflective mode of functioning.

In contrast to this deliberative quality, well-learned sequences occur in a relatively automatic stream once they are triggered. Sequences (along with lower levels of control) are necessarily called up during the execution of programs. However, perhaps sequences can also be triggered more autonomously, without being specified by efforts toward a higher goal. Sequences may be triggered by the activation of strong associations in memory. In such cases, the operating characteristics would seem akin to those of the reactive mode of functioning.

In the past we have often noted that the level of control that is functionally superordinate can vary by situations and persons (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1998, 1999a). As we said earlier, it is easy to imagine cases in which a person is behaving according to a principle (e.g., a moral or ethical value), and it is easy to imagine cases in which the person is behaving according to a plan or program. It is also easy, however, to imagine cases in which the person is acting impulsively and spontaneously, without regard to either principle or plan.

In making this case in the past, our emphasis generally focused simply on how sequences and programs differed. Now we are inclined to wonder if this particular differentiation is not perhaps more important than we had realized. Perhaps we have underappreciated the extent to which lower levels of self-regulatory structures can be triggered autonomously and their outputs enter the stream of ongoing action, without oversight from higher levels, and potentially even in conflict with values at higher levels. This seems an important question for further exploration.

Self-Control: Impulse and Restraint

The idea that conflicts exist between longer term and shorter term goals is also part of a literature on self-control and self-control failure (e.g., Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). This literature focuses on cases in which a person is both motivated to act and motivated to restrain that action. This is essentially the same case as examined by work on children's effortful control, and it is also the same logical structure as is in the delay of gratification paradigm. A difference is that in the self-control literature the intent often is to delay indefinitely rather than temporarily.

Although the self-control situation is often portrayed as pitting longer and shorter term goals against each other, a somewhat different view also seems plausible. The self-control situation may pit the two modes of processing against each other. This would be consistent with the literature on self-control failure, which tends to portray such failures as involving a relatively automatic tendency to act in one way, being opposed by a planful effort to restrain that act. The action being inhibited is often characterized as an impulse, a desire that is automatically translated into action unless it is controlled (often because the action is habitual). The restraint is presumed to be effortful and to depend on limited resources. If the planful part of the mind is able to attend adequately to the conflict, the person can resist the impulse. If not, the impulse is more likely to be expressed. This portrayal seems quite consonant with the two-mode models of functioning.

The How Versus the What of Motivation

The cybernetic approach to motivational issues is primarily about the structure and dynamics of behavior rather than the content of behavior. It is a depiction of relations among processes that occur as people negotiate the psychological and behavioral space of their lives. We think these principles are informative both about adaptive functioning and about problems in functioning. We also believe the ideas described in this chapter represent a viewpoint that is compatible with many other theories that are described in this book, standing alongside them rather than in place of them. In that sense, these ideas may be less a “theory” than a “meta-theory,” a very general way of conceptualizing interwoven functions, a declaration of belief about how complex systems work.

However, this is a viewpoint that is primarily about the how of motivated behavior rather than the what. It bears on control of actions that are selfish as well as control of actions that are well socialized. Those actions differ not in their structure but in the content of the principles and programs (and perhaps the self) that exist in the persons who engage in the actions. This view thus is very different from views of motivation that address (for example) what specific core motives may underlie human growth and optimal functioning (e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2001). It was never the explicit goal of the feedback approach to speak to those issues.

On the other hand, it is also possible to stretch these ideas a bit more, to speak to at least some of those issues. It is inherent in a hierarchical organization of (p. 39) values that the values have some degree of compatibility. If there is too much inconsistency among goals, effort toward one of them enlarges discrepancies with respect to another. This is bad enough when the goals are simply in competition for devotion of time and resources to their attainment (for example, when taking extra time to work on a project at the office takes time away from engagement with one's family). It is even more problematic if the goals are intrinsically in conflict (for example, when taking a new job for oneself in a new town requires one's spouse to accept an inferior new job).

To the extent that the biological blueprint of a human being incorporates species-wide imperatives, goals at various lower levels of abstraction must be brought into at least some degree of compatibility with those imperatives. Precisely what species-wide imperatives are contained in that blueprint is a question on which there is a good deal of debate. Clearly the establishment of dominance hierarchies is one of them; relatedness to at least some other humans is another.

The upshot of this set of issues is that a model of hierarchical organization of the self and its goals appears to entail continuing pressure toward compatibility among the values that define the self and one's view of community. The attainment of lower order goals is the process by which higher order goals are realized, all the way to the highest values the person has.

Where Do New Goals Come From?

The principle that lower order goals have links to higher order ones also has implications for how new goals arise and are adopted as reference values (for broader treatment, see Carver & Scheier, 1999b). A person's repertoire of goals changes in many ways over time. Some changes are very simple and restricted; other cases involve the adoption of goals that are very new.

Sometimes the change is limited to shifting one's level of aspiration. Goals that aren't being attained are scaled back to be less demanding. Goals that are attained too easily are raised to be more demanding. Such changes allow the person to continue in the same general domain of activity at a level that is both challenging and attainable. When such a change has been made, however, the goal is not quite the same as it was before.

Another small step in the direction of new goals would be cases in which a person engages in an activity for one purpose (e.g., going to a gym to work out, with the goal of staying healthy), and inadvertently finds that the activity also satisfies a second purpose (making new friends). The activity thereby acquires a second kind of usefulness and becomes connected to a different higher level goal than it was connected to before. This behavior has evolved a new link upward in the goal hierarchy (Fig. 3.2). The activity itself (going to the gym and exercising) already was in place as a goal, and thus it is not new itself. But its broader implications are now different—perhaps quite different—than they were. This change in a goal's connectedness to other aspects of the self structure also implies newness.

 Cybernetic Control Processes and the Self-Regulation of Behavior

Fig. 3.2 Attainment of a goal at a relatively lower level of abstraction often can contribute to more than one goal at the next higher level. An example, also discussed in the text, is that going to the gym can contribute to the maintenance of physical health, and it can also be a way of making friends, thus enhancing connection to others.

In many cases, new activities are undertaken precisely because they have been pre-identified as potentially relevant to a higher order goal in the person's life. For example, a person who is high in openness, who likes to explore diversity in life, may decide to take a vacation tour of Asia, try scuba diving, or experiment with bicycle racing. In such cases, the new activity is (p. 40) approached because it is identified as a possible means to satisfy the desire (the goal) of exploration.

Exploration provides an easy illustration, but it certainly is not the only higher level desire that can lead to new activities. Any time someone says, “You ought to try this—I think you might enjoy it,” an inference is being made that the activity will satisfy a broader desire the person has. Anytime people contemplate undertaking new activities, they are considering how the activities might fit into their current patterns of preferences.

In these examples a link is prespecified between the “new” goal and an existing one. Sometimes, though, an activity seems to come together without much forethought or planning, and (when it occurs) is found to be enjoyable. In such cases, the person may actively seek to identify the activity's essence, so as to make the positive experience repeatable by intention. Thus, it becomes a new goal. That is, in order to make the experience repeatable, the person encodes its nature in memory in a manner that renders it accessible to top-down use later on. In this sort of case, a bottom-up self-assembly (component elements coming together without an explicit higher level reference value) leads to synthesis of a new reference value at the higher level.

What makes an experience unexpectedly enjoyable? Finding an experience enjoyable, we suggest, means that engaging in the experience serves to move the person toward another goal that already is in place as part of the self. The person may have had no idea beforehand that the new activity was going to connect to that already incorporated value. But because it does connect, the experience of the new activity creates positive affect. Thus, a new action, as well as an old one, can fairly quickly acquire an upward link to a higher order goal. A given principle (for example) can be fulfilled in myriad activities, even activities that might at first not have seemed relevant to the principle.

Closing Comment

We have chosen a rather unusual construct to be interested in for such a long time. We are, after all, personality psychologists, and these ideas are not exactly mainstream personality. We could have focused on goals and left it at that. But, no, we keep dragging in the idea that goal-directed action involves feedback processes. Why?

The answer is fairly simple. Scientists in diverse disciplines see feedback processes as among the basic building blocks of nature. Not of motivation, but of nature. It was suggested many years ago that feedback loops are embedded in many different kinds of systems, at many levels of abstraction (e.g., Ford, 1987; von Bertalanffy, 1968). The principle of feedback control has been found useful in understanding phenomena as diverse as weather systems, the stability of ecological systems, and homeostasis. The argument that the same fundamental principle underlies even the regulation of overt action asserts a rather astonishing link between human experience and other aspects of nature, parts of nature that could hardly be more different from human life. The possibility that such a link is real is at least part of the fascination.


Preparation of this chapter was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute (CA64710), the National Science Foundation (BCS0544617), and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (HL65111, HL65112, HL076852, and HL076858).


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