Cohort Differences in Adult-Life Trajectories of Internal and External Control Beliefs: A Tale of More and Better Maintained Internal Control and Fewer External Constraints

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Denis Gerstorf, Johanna Drewelies, Sandra Düzel, Jacqui Smith, Hans-Werner Wahl, Oliver Schilling, Ute Kunzmann, Jelena S. Siebert, Martin Katzorreck, Peter Eibich, Ilja Demuth, Elisabeth Steinhagen-Thiessen, Gert G. Wagner, Ulman Lindenberger, Jutta Heckhausen, Nilam Ram

In: Psychology and Aging 34 (2019), 8, S. 1090-1108


Lifespan theory posits that socio-historical contexts shape individual development. Inline with this proposition, cohort differences favoring later-born cohorts have beenwidely documented for cognition and health. However, little is known about historicalchange in how key resources of psychosocial functioning such as control beliefsdevelop in old age. We pooled data from three independent samples: Berlin AgingStudy (six waves, N = 414); Interdisciplinary Longitudinal Study of Adult Development(four waves, N = 925); and Berlin Aging Study II (four waves, N = 1,111) to constructoverlapping multi-year longitudinal data from ages 61 through 85 years for cohortsborn 1905 to 1953 and examine historical changes in within-person trajectories ofinternal and external control beliefs. Results revealed that earlier-born cohorts exhibitage-related declines in internal control beliefs regarding both desirable and undesirableoutcomes, whereas later-born cohorts perceive higher internal control and maintainthis advantage into old age. Earlier-born cohorts experience steep age-relatedincreases in external control beliefs regarding both powerful others and chance,whereas later-born cohorts perceive lower external control and were stable across oldage. Education and gender disparities in control beliefs narrowed over historical time.Socio-demographic, physical health, cognitive, and social factors explained some ofthe differences in control beliefs, and accounted for sizeable portions of cohort effects.Our results indicate that current generations of older adults perceive more and bettermaintained internal control and fewer external constraints. We discuss potentialunderlying mechanisms and consider conceptual and societal implications of ourfindings.

Gert G. Wagner

Senior Research Fellow in the German Socio-Economic Panel study Department