Perceptual Control Theory (or PCT) is a theory, developed by Bill Powers, which attempts to explain human functioning and behaviour. The theory has been seen to be extremely useful in providing an affective, but novel approach to the education system, with regards to student behaviour.
The theory states that human beings engage in a constant battle to stay in control of their environment. They are described as having internal values (or reference values) which they use to compare to the environment which they perceive around them. For example, this may be seen in maintaining body temperature. An individual may have a reference value of 37 degrees as their ideal body temperature. The perceived temperature in the current environment however may only be 10 degrees. The individual will therefore act to reduce the error between the reference value and the perceived value. In other words, the behaviour of moving inside can be seen as a response to the individual trying to regain control over their environment. This process is described as being a ‘control system’.
These control systems, according to the theory are arranged hierarchically and multiple higher level goals can be attempted to satisfy at one time. The ways in which an individual may attempt to satisfy these goals can also be achieved through multiple, and sometimes very different means. If in satisfying these goals, the methods in which these are achieved complement and help each other, the system is satisfied. However, if in achieving one of these goals another is compromised or if two methods of achieving the same goal inhibit one another, the system enters into a period of conflict. This conflict leads the individual to feel they cannot achieve their internal goals and this can lead to psychological distress.
In order to reduce this conflict, and thus achieve their goals, an individual must either adapt their goals or the means by which they attempt to achieve them, so as to allow the system to regain control. In the previous example this concept of conflict could occur if another goal was added which required the individual to stay outside (for example, needing to go to the shop). The individual would then experience a conflict of goals and would either have to change one of their goals- they may decide to go to the shop another day, or they may decide to change the means in which they achieve one of their goals in order to allow both goals to be achieved, for example putting on a coat or driving to the shop instead of walking. This process of regaining control is called reorganisation.
Although the previous example is greatly simplified, it provides an understanding of human behaviour as a result of trying to stay in control of ones environment. Understanding behaviour in this way, therefore, can be extremely useful in the education system, where understanding child behaviour, and thus those elements which encourage learning, are vital.