Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
Image Credit: Pixabay
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control.” ~Epictetus
Every morning before I head to the office, I go online and check the traffic report. I mentally rehearse my drive, avoiding all congested roadways, and check my backup route just in case. I have a cup of coffee, check my watch, and briefcase in hand, dash through the front door. I try to control my exposure to traffic as much as I can but unfortunately, traffic in Los Angeles is uncontrollable and unavoidable. Upon arriving to work, I park in my designated parking spot and begin my day.
Every day we make decisions. To whom or what we attribute the results of these decisions has much to do with our locus of control. Locus of control of reinforcement referred to as locus of control was conceptualized by psychologist Julian B. Rotter. It refers to our perception of where control lies and how we account for the successes and failures we experience. It questions how much power one believes they have over events in their lives. Essentially asking, do you control your life or does some external factor such as an all-powerful deity, karma, luck or a person control it?
This concept can be applied to many different areas of your life and one can have an internal or external locus of control depending on the situation. I have an internal locus of control when it comes to traffic. That is, I believe I have some control over the amount of traffic I will experience in the morning by checking the traffic report and leaving at a certain time. Regrettably, traffic much like the weather is beyond my control and trying to control it often leaves me stressed as opposed to feeling in control. My wife, on the other hand, sees traffic like a coin toss. She leaves it up to chance and goes with the flow. When it comes to traffic she has an external locus of control and believes she cannot control the amount of traffic she will face. Many people exhibit both external and internal locus of control but will usually have one dominant belief system. The locus of control is not set in stone and one can learn to adjust it.
A person with an internal locus of control generally believes that they have influence over the outcome of events. You believe hard work pays off and if the right choices are made the desired outcome will result. You see your success and failures as personally derived from your efforts and abilities. One can learn this from parents or past experiences that reinforce the belief that if you take control of the situation you have control over the outcome. In essence, you believe that your actions make your life happen. For example, if you receive the top grade in your class you will conclude that it is a result of your hard work and intelligence and not because of God, luck, the teacher or any other external factor.
A person with an external locus of control blames outside forces that are beyond their control for everything that occurs in their life. They have learned from their parents or from events that things that happen to them are a result of an external power. This may be an all-powerful deity, good or bad, fate, luck, other people or environmental factors. They believe that life happens to them. For example, a person with an external locus of control will attribute their top grade in the class to prayer, karma, luck, or an easy grader. Individuals with an external locus of control have learned that taking control of a situation has little to do with the outcome and that things that happen to them are beyond their control.
The idea of control is essentially a self-imposed illusion reinforced by past events, family or culture. If I perceive my actions resulted in the desired result then I will adopt an internal locus of control in similar situations. I will attribute all failures and successes to my own efforts. Conversely, if my taking control has no effect on an event then I will form the belief that events that happen to me are beyond my control. Therefore, establishing an external locus of control.
In the work environment, research shows that individuals with an external locus of control are more team players. They do not rush to accept responsibility in a work environment and if there is not a positive outcome they are quick to blame others. Individuals with an internal locus of control are more driven but less of a team player. If there is a failure, they are quick to blame themselves. They are hard working but their take-charge attitude can lead to them stepping over others.
Further research on one’s perception of control shows that attempting to control an uncontrollable situation, such as the weather or traffic, tends to produce stress, whereas not attempting to control a controllable situation has been linked to anxiety and depression. These results can be applied to one’s life in a number of situations. For instance, by trying to control traffic I am more inclined to experience stress than if I just accept that this is uncontrollable. What is controllable is my performance at work. If I were to constantly neglect my preparation for work, which is within my control, I would eventually develop anxiety about beginning my work week.
Studies show that failure to take control when one is feeling helpless has been shown to lead to anxiety and depression. Perhaps you have a parent that is constantly asking you to borrow money. You have been raised to believe that family is of utmost importance and feel you are not able to say no. Arguably, this is within your control and you can put a stop to the behavior by saying no. If you give up control of this and go along with the behavior, eventually you may become anxious and depressed.
Whether real or an illusion, the perception of how much control you have in your life can have a large impact on your life. A well-known study has shown that people who believe they have more control over their lives tend to live longer. Low perceived control will result in an overall sense of helplessness, which may result in a suppressed immune system and impact one’s quality of life. If you feel that you are not in control of your life, it is important to start implementing changes and take charge of your existence. You have one life to live. Don’t be a passenger in your life journey. Take off the autopilot and take control.
I hope you found this post helpful and interesting. I would love to hear your insight on this topic. This is not meant to be used as a tool for self-diagnosis and is solely meant for educational purposes.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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