When something goes wrong in your life, do you tend to blame yourself or someone else? Psychologists call this type of ‘blaming’ or ‘attribution of success or failure’ our Internal and External Locus of Control. Sounds complicated, right? Well, it’s not, and it can affect how happy your life is. So what is this locus of control and how does it impact you? When we go through life, we have different experiences.
These can be positive or negative, successes or failures.
The locus of control is how a person attributes the causes of these experiences. We tend to attribute the outcomes of our experiences internally or externally. In other words, you make things happen or things happen to you. This is the internal and external locus of control. “A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).” Philip Zimbardo Both of these examples are of you and how you fared in an exam. But in both, you attribute your success or your failure to the actions you performed. I’m using the exam example again to show how people can use the internal and external locus of control in the same scenario. So why does it matter? It’s because studies have shown that people who typically use the internal locus of control are happier, healthier and more successful. Conversely, those with an external locus are dissatisfied with life, are more likely to be overweight, unhealthy and suffer from stress. But why are internals happier than the externals? Psychologists believe it’s all about taking responsibility for what happens, whether it’s good or bad. Internals believe that they are in control of what happens to them. As a result, they will attribute their successes to hard work and their own efforts. Conversely, externals think that fate or luck decides how they fare in life. That there’s little they can do to influence an outcome. And if you think that your success or failure depends on outside factors, you’re less motivated to make the effort yourself.
The idea of locus of control and internal or external factors was first proposed by Julian Rotter in 1954. Rotter describes the internal locus of control: “The degree to which persons expect that a reinforcement or an outcome of their behavior is contingent on their own behavior or personal characteristics.” Rotter (1990) Here are the characteristics of the internal and external locus of control: Those with an internal locus of control tend to: Rotter describes the external locus of control: “The degree to which persons expect that the reinforcement or outcome is a function of chance, luck, or fate, is under the control of powerful others, or is simply unpredictable.” Those with an external locus of control tend to: Rotter suggested that all through life, our behaviour is influenced by a system of rewards or punishments. If we are always rewarded when we do well, we are likely to repeat that behaviour. However, if we are always punished, we won’t repeat them. So we learn there are consequences to our actions. But it’s more than just modifying our actions. It is the consequences to our actions that determine how we view the underlying causes of these actions. For instance, if we work hard throughout childhood and get good grades and we are rewarded, this cements the belief that we are in control of our destiny. But say the reverse happens. We are not rewarded, we might be punished for studying instead of doing chores, we will start to think that it doesn’t matter what we do, or how hard we try. Now, knowing all this, you would think that having an internal locus of control, as opposed to an external one is a benefit. And generally speaking, that is true. Internals do tend to lead happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. But you can have too much of an internal locus of control. Those with a very high internal locus can believe they control everything, from world events to personal matters such as illness.
They can become impatient and intolerant of those they believe are not as controlled as they are. Sometimes we can become so embedded in our way of thinking that it’s really hard to break free. For instance, growing up in a religious household, seeing your parents or siblings overlooked for jobs they were qualified for, simply because of their religion. This has left you with a sense of ‘what’s the point?’ And yes, this can be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean you can’t change your attitude. If you believe you have an external locus of control and would like to change this to an internal one, here are some tips: As with most psychology, this really seems like common-sense. Of course, we should take responsibility for what we do. With more autonomy over our actions, we are bound to lead happier and more fulfilling lives. Do you have an internal or external locus of control? Take this test to find out. R.
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