Psychology Action Regulation Theory
by
Hannes Zacher
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0219

Introduction

Action regulation theory explains the psychological regulation of individuals’ goal-directed behavior. It describes how workers regulate their behavior through various cognitive processes, including goal development and selection, internal and external orientation, planning, monitoring of execution, and feedback processing. In addition, action regulation theory explains links between these cognitive processes, behavior, and the objective environment. For example, the theory focuses on reciprocal effects between work design and tasks and individual workers’ actions and experiences. The action regulation process occurs on multiple hierarchically organized levels of action regulation, including the sensorimotor or skill level, the level of flexible action patterns, the intellectual or conscious level, and the meta-cognitive heuristic level. These levels range from unconscious and automatized control of actions to conscious intellectual processes and from muscular action to thinking. Action regulation at lower levels in this hierarchy is more situation-specific and requires less cognitive effort than action regulation at higher levels. Workers further develop action-oriented mental models that include long-term cognitive representations of action prerequisites, goals, plans, and expected and prescribed results of action, as well as knowledge about the boundary conditions of action and the transformation procedures that turn goals into expected results. These elements constitute the knowledge base of action regulation and guide workers until the action sequence is completed. The accuracy and level of detail of such action-oriented mental models is closely associated with the efficiency and effectiveness of action regulation. One of three foci can be in the foreground of action regulation. A task focus is most strongly associated with high efficiency and effectiveness of action regulation, because it links task-related goals with relevant plans, behavior, and feedback. In contrast, a focus on the social context or the self is more likely to impede efficient action regulation. Action regulation theory has been applied to understand several important phenomena in the field of industrial, work, and organizational psychology, including proactive work behavior, work-related learning and error management, entrepreneurship, training, occupational strain and well-being, reciprocal influences between personality and work, teamwork, career development, aging at work, and work-family balance. As a meta-theoretical framework, action regulation theory allows integrating mid-range theories that focus on human action. The theory is an important basic theory in applied psychology, particularly in the field of industrial, work, and organizational psychology. Action regulation theory is distinct from (but shares some concepts and propositions with) other cognitive-behavioral theories, including control theory and goal-setting theory.

General Overviews

Action regulation theory is outlined by Hacker in multiple editions of a (German-language) book as well as in several book chapters and journal articles. Hacker 1998 provides a comprehensive overview of the basic tenets and applications of action regulation theory. Hacker and Sachse 2014 is the most recent and updated edition of the book. The book chapter Hacker 1985 focuses on activity as an important concept for work psychology. Hacker 1994 reviews empirical studies based on action regulation theory, and Hacker 2002 summarizes fundamental concepts and propositions of action regulation theory. Frese and colleagues also published several book chapters on action regulation theory. The comprehensive chapter Frese and Zapf 1994 introduces action regulation theory to a broader international readership. Frese 2006 reflects on the role of action regulation theory as a grand theory for understanding active work behavior. Frese, et al. 2017 offers a brief overview of basic tenets, selected applications, and contributions of action regulation theory. Finally, Zacher and Frese 2018 provides an up-to-date overview of the key concepts of action regulation theory, as well as established and emerging research based on the theory.

  • Frese, M. 2006. Grand theories and mid-range theories: Cultural effects on theorizing and the attempt to understand active approaches to work. In Great minds in management: The process of theory development. Edited by K. G. Smith and M. A. Hitt, 84–108. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Personal reflections of a work psychology scholar on his contributions to action regulation theory.

  • Frese, M., J. Rank, and H. Zacher. 2017. Action regulation theory. In The SAGE encyclopedia of industrial and organizational psychology. Edited by S. G. Rogelberg, 13–15. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    A short encyclopedia entry that covers the basic tenets, selected applications, and contributions of action regulation theory.

  • Frese, M., and D. Zapf. 1994. Action as the core of work psychology: A German approach. In Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology. Edited by H. C. Triandis, M. D. Dunnette and L. Hough, 271–340. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

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    A comprehensive handbook chapter that introduces action regulation theory to an international readership.

  • Hacker, W. 1985. Activity: A fruitful concept in industrial psychology. In Goal directed behavior: The concept of action in psychology. Edited by M. Frese and J. Sabini, 262–284. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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    An early book chapter that defines an action as the smallest meaningful unit of goal-directed behavior.

  • Hacker, W. 1994. Action regulation theory and occupational psychology: Review of German empirical research since 1987. German Journal of Psychology 18:91–120.

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    A literature review of early empirical studies conducted in Germany that were explicitly based on action regulation theory.

  • Hacker, W. 1998. Allgemeine Arbeitspsychologie: Psychische Regulation von Arbeitstätigkeiten. Bern, Switzerland: Huber.

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    A seminal book that describes the core ideas and applications of action regulation theory. The title of the book can be translated as “General work psychology: Psychological regulation of work tasks.”

  • Hacker, W. 2002. Action theory, psychological. In International encyclopaedia of the social and behavioral sciences. Edited by N. J. Smelser and P. B. Baltes, 58–62. London: Elsevier.

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    A short encyclopedia entry on the fundamental concepts and propositions of action regulation theory.

  • Hacker, W., and P. Sachse. 2014. Allgemeine Arbeitspsychologie: Psychische regulation von Tätigkeiten. Göttingen, Germany: Hogrefe.

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    The most recent edition of a comprehensive book on the psychological regulation of actions. The title of the book can be translated as “General work psychology: Psychological regulation of tasks.”

  • Zacher, H., and M. Frese. 2018. Action regulation theory: Foundations, current knowledge, and future directions. In The SAGE handbook of industrial, work and organizational psychology. Edited by D. S. Ones, N. R. Anderson, C. Viswesvaran, and H. K. Sinangil, 80–102. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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    A handbook chapter that provides an overview of the key concepts of action regulation theory, as well as established and emerging research based on the theory.

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