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Everything under control?

Younger adults feel in less control of their lives than 18 years ago, while older adults feel less constrained. These are the findings of a joint study by the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium and Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA. The results of the study are to be published in the journal ‘Developmental Psychology’.

Good news for anyone concerned about becoming older: not everything gets worse with age. Today’s 65-year-olds feel significantly less constrained on average in their experience of control than 65-year-olds 18 years ago. Conversely, a different picture has emerged for younger adults: the generation of today’s 25 to 39-year-olds report diminished mastery beliefs. These findings are also supported by initial indications from a national sample in the USA, where several demographic groups who previously felt disadvantaged in their perceived control have caught up, while the gap for other population groups in this area seems to be expanding.

The researchers link these gains with socio-cultural factors such as level of education. Improved physical fitness and the associated higher degree of independence in old age – as the researchers suspect – also contribute towards the increased perception of control among older people. Similar findings to those in the USA could meanwhile also be obtained by the research group of Johanna Drewelies, which examined older people in Germany and the Netherlands.

“We anticipate, however, that the observed positive effects on perceived control significantly diminish at ages approaching the end of life,” added Denis Gerstorf. After an increase in years of good-quality life, a rapid and significant deterioration of perceived control is still expected at the end of life. This is supported by current studies from this age group, which examine the final years of life of older people.

Participants in the study in Berlin include researchers from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium and Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA. The publication is based on the data of the ‘Midlife in the US Study’ (MIDUS), which is representative for the US population (see ‘Methodology’ below).


Drewelies, J., Agrigoroaei, S., Lachman, M. E., & Gerstorf, D. (in press). Age variations in cohort differences in the United States: Older adults report fewer constraints nowadays than those 18 years ago, but mastery beliefs are diminished among younger adults. Developmental Psychology.


The researchers used the representative data of US citizens who were surveyed on their experience of control as part of the ‘Midlife in the US Study’ (MIDUS). They compared this data with data from the previous study from the early 1990s and identified 2,223 ‘statistical twins’, largely comprising a person of the same sex from each of the studies who are as similar as possible in terms of age and sex. In addition, factors like education, self-reported illnesses and social integration were also taken into account in the analysis. The comparative pairs were between 23 and 75 years of age.

Further information

Study in Developmental Psychology


Dr Johanna Drewelies
Institute for Psychology
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Phone: +49 30 2093-4917

Press Contact

Hans-Christoph Keller
Spokesperson for the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Head of the Press and Public Relations Unit

Phone: +49 30 2093-2332