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Our reaction to life events—specifically how we explain them—significantly affects our life outcomes.
Of course, there’s a continuum—nobody thinks their life is 100% in their control. But our orientation toward what we believe influences our life has a profound impact on us.
Psychologists refer to this concept as a “locus of control,” a term psychologist Julian Rotter coined in the 1960s.
People with an external locus of control believe that forces outside them—fate, luck, circumstances—are responsible for the events of their lives.
In contrast, those who perceive an internal locus of control believe that their personal decisions and efforts guide much of their lives.
Interestingly, we could have an external locus of control about one area of our life but an internal locus of control about another: We may believe our health is completely genetic, uninfluenced by our choices, but think the success of our career is a direct result of our hard work.
If we think finding a partner is up to fate, we may not feel the need to actively seek, meet, and get to know new people. But if we think we have control over it, we may try harder to put ourselves out there. In professional contexts, if we think a promotion is largely outside of our control, we won’t be driven to pursue it. If we see it as a result of our efforts, we’re more likely to endeavor to deliver good work.
Countless studies have demonstrated the importance of locus of control in determining numerous life outcomes.
For example, the perception that 10-year-olds have of their own agency has been shown to significantly predict their health outcomes in their thirties, including obesity, overall health, and psychological distress; those with a more internal locus of control in childhood have a reduced risk of poor health later on.
Internal locus of control is also associated with psychological well-being, and academic and professional success.
Although studies generally suggest that having an internal locus of control is advantageous, there is no “correct” locus of control. Both extremes can present disadvantages.
So, wherever we fall on the spectrum, we may benefit from understanding our own orientation and how it may shape our behavior.
Julian Rotter’s full Locus of Control Scale is a 39-item questionnaire, available here:
But to get a quick sense of where we fall on the spectrum, we consider which group of statements below resonates more with us.
Psychologists generally agree that although our locus of control is largely established through experiences of reward and punishment when we are children, it is a flexible construct that can change throughout our life.
However, not much research has been done on targeted interventions to change locus of control. Even so, we can notice how our locus of control may affect our life, and we can strive to reduce any negative effects it may have.
Good news: If you have a more external orientation, you may be both more willing to let things go and better at sharing work with others. On the other hand, you may feel less motivated to put time and effort into tasks since they feel beyond your control.
Here are a few strategies to make sure your locus of control doesn’t get in your way:
Although an internal locus of control has many benefits—motivation, health, success—there are still some pitfalls to watch out for.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Regardless of where we lie on the locus of control spectrum, we’ll likely appreciate knowing how our orientation affects our life and how we can avoid the pitfalls it may lead us to.
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