Perceptual Control Theory

A Ten Minute Introduction to PCT

This was written by Bill Powers, originator of Perceptual Control Theory, on the way to an airport in 1991 – as a simple summary of what PCT is all about:

  1. There have been two paradigms in the behavioural sciences since 1600AD. One was the idea that events impinging on organisms make them behave as they do. The other, which was invented in the 1930’s, is control theory. We are going to explore the second of these paradigms.
  2. Control Theory explains how organisms control what happens to them. This means all organisms, from the amoeba to humankind. It explains why one organism can’t control another without physical violence. It explains why people deprived of any major part of their ability to control soon become dysfunctional, lose interest in life, pine away and die. It explains why it is so hard for groups of people to work together even on something they all agree is important. It explains what a goal is, how goals relate to behaviour, how behaviour affects perceptions, how perceptions define the reality in which we live and move and have our being. Control Theory is the first scientific theory that can handle all these phenomena within a single testable concept of how living systems work.

Bill Powers, 1991.

© 1991 William T. Powers from www.livingcontrolsystems.com April 2004

What Can Learning Control Theory Do For Anyone?

The most frequent comment from people who have learned this information is:

“I now know how to get back into balance, no matter how upsetting the information I encounter might be. And the more I use this process, the shorter the time I spend feeling out of control.”

Perceptual Control Theory offers good news and bad news. The bad news is something most of us know but don’t want to believe – that we really can’t control another person, unless we are prepared to go beyond the boundaries of reasonable behaviour. People control themselves.

From this comes the good news – that we need no longer spend time criticising ourselves for not being able to control someone; we can make much better use of our energy in two ways:

  • Becoming aware that we can control only ourselves, and
  • Finding ways to ask questions that will help another person to work out a reasonable goal.

Want an example? Think about situations where you might ask yourself one of these questions:

If you keep doing this, will things get better or worse? Is it OK with you if they get worse?

Even if things don’t change, how do you want to be feeling and thinking? Ideally, what would you be doing?

How long are you prepared to keep on doing what you are doing and expect a different result?

If you refuse to do something that might help your life to be better because it means the other person would be winning, who is actually winning now?

If you keep doing this for X…, will they get stronger or weaker?