If you see a celebrity on a magazine cover flaunting six-pack abs, what thought runs through your head? That you need to go on a diet/exercise regimen to emulate those surfboard abs? Or, do you roll your eyes and attribute the celebrity's abs to the army of personal trainers and chefs at her disposal, not to mention excellent photographers (with great editing software). Pay attention to your thoughts. They provide a window into your locus of control.
More on this soon. But first, an anecdote.
On the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11, the NY Times published an article describing how the terrorist attack had impacted the city's residents' lives over the year.
Arlene Rosen was one of the subjects interviewed for the piece. A self-described ''worrywart,'' she was busy making plans in the event of another catastrophe. Arlene had created an emergency folder containing details of clients' who still owed her money. She had notified her family about the folder and asked them to collect any outstanding invoices if she were to be killed. It goes without saying; her grown children found her plan ridiculous.
Arlene couldn't control if or when a large-scale terrorist attack would ever occur again. However, she felt secure knowing she'd done her part to be as prepared as she could be.
Here's the $64 million question.
What was Arlene even trying to control?
Locus of control
Psychologists use the phrase "locus of control" to denote the extent to which people believe they have agency or control over the circumstances that impact their lives. The locus of control determines how you view the cause-effect relationship for most events in your life.
Conceptually, the locus of control can be categorized as "external" or "internal."
External locus of control
With an external locus of control, you believe strongly that events in your life are driven by outside factors over which you have no control.
Here are some examples:
- I failed the test because the test was too difficult.
- He won the XYZ award because he happened to be at the right place at the right time.
- What's the point in planning when so many things can go wrong?
- If it's meant to happen, it will. There's nothing I can do about it.
Internal locus of control
On the other hand, internal locus of control is where you believe you have the power to influence events in your life.
Here are some examples
- I managed to sell the company because I put in a lot of hard work.
- If you have a plan a, b and c, you will never face setbacks in life.
- Fate and luck are overrated, while personal effort does not get the credit it deserves.
Where do you stand?
If you find yourself vehemently agreeing or disagreeing with the statements from either of those sections above, that should give you an idea of where your locus of control lies.
But is one really better than the other?
Before exploring that, let's review a key factor that influences our locus of control—culture.
Cultural influences on locus of control
A Pew research study published a few years ago showed some interesting data.
57% of Americans, as opposed to 31% of Germans, disagreed that external forces control their lives. In other words, Americans were seen as highly individualistic and showed a greater internal locus of control compared to their European counterparts.
The American sense of individualism was further corroborated through another statistic. 73% of Americans believed that hard work would help them get ahead in life as opposed to external factors. Contrast this to just 21% of people from Greece who thought their effort mattered for success.
Based on these study results, it's easy to assume that our locus of control is strongly driven by the cultural values we imbibe. We can draw this conclusion: American culture promotes individualism while the culture in Greece fosters more fatalistic attitudes. But there's more to the story.
What's not obvious n the above study is this fact: In 2016, Greece was in the throes of bankruptcy and had just received its third bailout.
An article in The Guardian described the story of two siblings in Athens who moved their hairdressing business from a busy street to a two-bedroom flat to keep their business afloat. By moving, they switched to a cash-only operation with less stringent reporting requirements.
The siblings hoped to circumvent the spiraling taxes and social security contributions that were now mandated to keep the economy going. Bordering on illegal? Yes. But they were dealing with an existential crisis.
It is no surprise, then, that in the Pew research study above, a majority (79%) of Greek citizens exhibit a strong external locus of control. When your country's impending economic collapse threatens your entire livelihood, it can be hard to think you control your destiny. That said, there were still exceptions in the populations—like the siblings described above, who did what they could, in the face of significant external uncertainty, to take control of the situation.
No doubt, culture, and ongoing world events are factors that can influence our locus of control.
But how does having an internal or external locus of control relate to our happiness? Thankfully, scientists have studied this phenomenon too.
Happiness and locus of control
Two meta-analyses (statistical analysis of multiple scientific studies) found that, over the years, the locus of control in younger college students in America had moved from internal to external. The study also states that having an external locus of control results in a feeling of helplessness, decreased self-control, and, as a result, decreases happiness.
And, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why an external locus of control can make us unhappy.
The case for internal locus of control
A fatalistic attitude (common with those with an external locus of control) implies that you believe your happiness or lack thereof is determined by fate.
The cynicism that we're not in control of our destiny can be troubling. It can paralyze the spirit. Why would anyone even bother with effort if they believe their success or failure is dependent only on external factors?
This kind of fatalism is evident around us now, especially when it comes to managing our health.
An overwhelming majority of deaths worldwide are from non-communicable diseases, which are caused by lifestyle factors. We have more scientific studies than ever on how lifestyle diseases such as Type 2 diabetes can be reversed through lifestyle changes, even if we're unlucky in the genetic lottery. Yet, most of us choose to make no changes, blaming our genes, the food industry, and other environmental factors for the disease.
By holding on to the external locus of control, we are sabotaging ourselves.
People with an internal locus of control are more amenable to putting in the effort to change things.
Sounds like a no-brainer, then, doesn't it, to advocate for everyone to have a strong internal locus of control?
Not quite. This is a complicated problem. Therefore, the solution is a shade of gray rather than black or white.
For every complex problem, there's a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." H.L. Mencken
Here's the flip side to having a strong internal locus of control.
When external locus of control works better
A strong internal locus of control works not just in positive situations but can boomerang on us when the outcomes are adverse.
Here are some examples of what this looks like:
- Blaming yourself (your poor performance) for your team not making it to the semifinals in a soccer tournament.
- Domestic abuse victims blaming themselves for "provoking" abuse
- Attributing your child's poor grade to your busy work schedule.
There's a whole alphabet soup of negative emotions that can result when you combine a negative outcome and a strong internal locus of control—self-blame, guilt, shame, self-criticism, to name a few. These emotions are insidious and can play mental tricks on our self-esteem and our ability to function in the world.
So, what are we to do? Is there a happy medium?
The Happy Medium
You bet there is.
Adopt an internal locus of control, but with one condition. Control your actions, but not outcomes.
Let's go back to the story of Arlene Rosen at the beginning of this article. By creating her emergency folder, Arlene was, in effect, controlling what she could do—her actions. That's about all she could control.
Arlene reported feeling secure after she had alerted her family to the emergency folder. This security stems from inner peace, from knowing she did what she could do. That contentment is nothing but happiness in disguise.
Long story, short: have an internal locus of control for your actions but an external locus of control for the outcomes.
Here is an example of what the happy medium looks like:
Question: Do I believe I can reverse Type 2 diabetes through lifestyle changes?
Answer: Absolutely. I'll eat right and exercise, as recommended.
Question: Does this mean I will live a long, healthy life?
Answer: Unfortunately, no guarantees because I could get hit by a car on the way to the gym. But, yes, with the above lifestyle changes, there is a good chance my life won't be cut short by metabolic disease.
Most spiritual, psychology, and self-help books uphold this philosophy on defining our loci of control.
Here's a verse from The Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2: Verse 47) in the Hindu scriptures:
Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani
You have the right to action alone, but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.
It's a good idea not to go through life like potted plants.
Instead, adopting an internal locus of control over our actions can give us enough motivation to get out of bed each morning and be purposeful. That's what life and happiness are all about.
Finally, if you ever are in doubt about your locus of control, remember the Serenity prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America's greatest theologians of the 20th century. Yes, even if you're not in the AA.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.