When something happens to you, do you take responsibility or do you blame others? The answer to that question determines whether you have an external or internal locus of control. That orientation will not only determine the way you relate to the world, but it will also influence your success in life, as well as your satisfaction with yourself.
What is the locus of control?
In 1950, Julian Rotter developed the concept of locus of control to refer to a person’s perception of the causes of events in his life. In other words, to answer the question: do you believe that you control your destiny or that it depends on external forces?
Originally Rotter called it the locus of control of reinforcement in order to bridge the gap between behavior and cognitive psychology. Rotter believed that behavior was largely guided by “reinforcements” (rewards and punishments) and that through these contingencies we develop certain beliefs about the cause of our actions. In turn, those beliefs guide the attitudes and behaviors we adopt.
This conception of the locus of control coincides with the idea of Philip Zimbardo, according to which, it would be “The belief about whether the results of our actions depend on what we do (orientation towards internal control) or on events that are beyond our control ( orientation towards external control).”
People with a locus of control external believe that external forces, be it fate, luck, circumstances, or others, are primarily responsible for the events of their lives. In contrast, those with a locus of control internal believe that their lives depend on their decisions, efforts, and behaviors.
However, the locus of control is not a rigid construct but rather a continuum that moves between the external and the internal. This means that we can have a locus of control external in one area of our life, thinking, for example, that health is inherited and we cannot do anything to improve it, while we have a locus of control internal in other areas, such as the work or relationship.
Interestingly, it has been appreciated that as we get older, we tend to develop a locus of control internal, probably because we realize that we have the power to decide how to face the challenges that life brings us.
Are you master of your destiny? The influence of the locus of control on our lives
The locus of control can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that success depends on luck, for example, we are less likely to put in the effort. If we believe that finding a partner depends on destiny, it is possible that we assume a more passive attitude waiting for the crush.
Several studies have shown the importance of the locus of control in the results we achieve in life. For example, researchers at the University of Southampton found that 10-year-olds’ perception of their own freewill is a fairly reliable predictor of their 30-year-old health, including obesity, high blood pressure, and psychological distress. Therefore, those who develop a locus of control internal from childhood are more likely to be in good health.
The locus of control internal has also been associated with greater psychological well-being. A study conducted at the University of La Laguna found that people with a locus of control internal felt more satisfied with their lives, reported more positive emotions, and experienced greater psychological well-being.
Researchers from the University of Lahore found that students who have a locus of control internal have higher academic performance because they are more proactive and more involved in the learning process. On the contrary, those with a locus of control external adopt a more passive and reactive attitude towards learning, which is why they tend to have worse results.
The influence of the locus of control also extends to the workplace. A study carried out in China and the United Kingdom found that people with a locus of control internal could adapt better to the professional environment, better balance their work and personal life and show greater satisfaction with their career.
Lights and shadows of the locus of control internal vs. locus of control external
As a general rule, having a locus of control internal is often more advantageous, not only for achieving the results we set out to do in life, but also for protecting our emotional well-being. However, there is no “correct” locus of control. Both have strong and weak points.
For example, people with a locus of control external tend to be more willing to let things flow and are better at delegating tasks, so they are less likely to get overwhelmed with work. They are also able to let go more easily, so they don’t tend to cling to impossible or doomed projects.
Instead, those with a locus of control internal tend to be under greater pressure and experience intense feelings of guilt, even though they are not directly responsible for events.
A locus of control internal too strong can lead us to believe that we can control everything, so that if our plans don’t work out, we feel responsible for that failure and break down emotionally. That can lead to a lot of frustration, stress, and in extreme cases, anxiety or depression.
When the locus of control internal is not accompanied by self-efficacy, it can be a time bomb. People with an exaggerated perception of their control, but lacking the right skills, effectiveness, and opportunities, can become neurotic.
This means that the ideal is to find a balance point in the spectrum through which the locus of control moves. We need to develop a realistic sense of our circle of influence in order to strive to change what depends on us and let go of everything that is not in our hands.
The good news is that although our locus of control is shaped in large part by the rewarding and punishing experiences we go through as children, it is a flexible construct that we can change throughout our lives.
Developing a balanced locus of control will help us accept situations that we cannot influence and manage them more adaptively when they arise while focusing our efforts and energy on controlling what we can. This is how we take control of our lives and, at the same time, make peace with the uncontrollable.
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