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

Gerstorf, D., Drewelies, J., Düzel, S., Smith, J., Wahl, H.-W., Schilling, O. K., Kunzmann, U., Siebert, J. S., Katzorreck, M., Eibich, P., Demuth, I., Steinhagen-Thiessen, E., Wagner , G. G., Lindenberger, U., Heckhausen, J., Ram, N.
Psychology and Aging, 34:8, 1090–1108 (2019)


Lifespan theory posits that socio-historical contexts shape individual development. In line with this proposition, cohort differences favoring later-born cohorts have been widely documented for cognition and health. However, little is known about historical change in how key resources of psychosocial functioning such as control beliefs develop in old age. We pooled data from three independent samples: Berlin Aging Study (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 construct overlapping multi-year longitudinal data from ages 61 through 85 years for cohorts born 1905 to 1953 and examine historical changes in within-person trajectories of internal and external control beliefs. Results revealed that earlier-born cohorts exhibit age-related declines in internal control beliefs regarding both desirable and undesirable outcomes, whereas later-born cohorts perceive higher internal control and maintain this advantage into old age. Earlier-born cohorts experience steep age-related increases in external control beliefs regarding both powerful others and chance, whereas later-born cohorts perceive lower external control and were stable across old age. Education and gender disparities in control beliefs narrowed over historical time. Socio-demographic, physical health, cognitive, and social factors explained some of the differences in control beliefs, and accounted for sizeable portions of cohort effects. Our results indicate that current generations of older adults perceive more and better maintained internal control and fewer external constraints. We discuss potential underlying mechanisms and consider conceptual and societal implications of our findings.

Das Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung (MPIDR) in Rostock ist eines der international führenden Zentren für Bevölkerungswissenschaft. Es gehört zur Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, einer der weltweit renommiertesten Forschungsgemeinschaften.