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In Older Adults, Fluctuating Sense Of Control Linked To Cognitive Ability

Everyone has moments when they feel more in control of their lives than at other times. New research from North Carolina State University shows that this sense of control fluctuates more often, and more quickly, than previously thought – and that this sense of control may actively affect cognitive abilities.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to see how the day-to-day changes in our sense of being in control may actually influence the way we think,” says Dr. Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and lead author of a paper on the research.

The study found older adults’ sense of control could fluctuate in a single day, and affect their cognitive abilities.

In a study focusing on older adults, Neupert and her co-author, NC State associate professor of psychology Jason Allaire, tested each participant’s sense of control every 12 hours for 60 days. In the study, participants were asked questions about whether they felt in control of their lives and whether they felt able to achieve goals they set for themselves. Cognitive functioning, such as memory and inductive reasoning, was also measured. Participants ranged in age from 61 to 87, with an average age of 74.

The study found that participants’ sense of control could fluctuate significantly in the course of a single day. That is particularly interesting, given that previous research has largely focused on the presumption that one’s sense of control remains relatively stable.

Researchers also found that participants who normally reported having a low sense of control performed much better on inductive reasoning tests during periods when they reported feeling a higher sense of control. Inductive reasoning is a type of problem solving. For example, being shown a series of letters and being able to determine which letter should come next in the sequence.

Further, the researchers found that people who normally reported feeling a high sense of control scored higher on memory tests when feeling more in control than usual.

Based on modeling, researchers say it appears that the improved cognitive functioning stems from the feeling of improved control, not vice versa. “This wasn’t part of the experimental design, so we can’t say for sure,” Neupert says. “But it is a first step toward determining which comes first – sense of control or improved cognition.”

The paper, ““I Think I Can, I Think I Can: Examining the Within-Person Coupling of Control Beliefs and Cognition in Older Adults,” is published online by the journal Psychology and Aging.

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Note to editors: The study abstract follows.

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can: Examining the Within-Person Coupling of Control Beliefs and Cognition in Older Adults”

Authors: Shevaun D. Neupert, Jason C. Allaire, North Carolina State University

Published: Online, Psychology and Aging

Abstract: We examined short-term intraindividual variability in control beliefs (competence and locus of control) and cognitive performance and the extent to which the constructs travel together over time. Thirty-six older adults (M 74 years, SD  5.51) completed questionnaires and cognitive tests twice each day for 60 consecutive days. Results indicated that control beliefs fluctuate within people across time. Multilevel models revealed that control and competence are coupled with concurrent and subsequent performance, but the benefit of occasion-level increases in control depends on individuals’ average control. These findings underscore the importance of examining constructs using a within-person approach to identify dynamic processes in cognitive aging.

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