How are you experiencing your current situation in life?
Were you allotted your current situation (e.g., by God, Destiny, CoVID)?
Or did you create your current experience?
Or is your perspective a mixture of these two?
How might looking at things this way effect you?
Locus of Control
Confronting Life vs. Life confronting you
“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).”-Zimbardo, 1985, p. 275
Another way of putting this is:
Do you believe that the causes of your experiences in life are due to factors within your purview (internal), or due to factors beyond your control (external locus of control)?
Locus of control relates to both pleasant and stressful events.
Although, people only tend to take a closer look when they are dealing with stressful events…
We tend to accept pleasant events without digging deeper
Internal Locus of Control
I believe the outcomes I end up with are within my control, regardless of what is dished out my way
A belief that what we do as individuals has impact on the outcomes we experience in life.
The self-confidence that you can take a next step to take you one step closer to what you want rather than hoping that fate will bend to your hopes or views, even in the face of challenges and failures.
When Michael Jordan faced the challenge of getting cut from his high school basketball team, he showed exemplary personal resolve and self-determination to come back and be the best basketball player who ever lived.
There are many examples of this in his career, including the confidence he had to take and the steps he had to make to play for the Chicago White Sox (Baseball!).
In the Netflex special the “Last Dance”, one of his senior teammates from the University of North Carolina joked about rookie Michael Jordan when he said “I was better than Michael Jordan…for about 3 weeks”.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!
People who have a higher locus of control tend to have:
1. Higher self-confidence that they can rise to the occasion (self-efficacy)
- self-efficacy: “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action (i.e., using attitudes, abilities and cognitive skills) required to manage prospective situations.” (Bandura, 1995)
2. More motivated (as they expect to succeed)
- More likely to learn
- More achievement oriented
3. Get better jobs
4. Better decision-making abilities
5. Are often happier and more independent
Researchers found that of more than 7,500 British adults followed since birth, those who had shown an internal locus of control at the age of ten were less likely to be overweight at age thirty, less likely to describe their health as poor, or show high levels of psychological stress. The major explanation for these findings was that children with a more internal locus of control behave more healthily as adults because they have greater confidence in their ability to influence outcomes through their own actions. They may also have higher self-esteem (Gale et al., 2008).
Locus of control is just one part of the puzzle, there are other factors involved, and so one shouldn’t oversimplify the matter. Having an internal locus control does not guarantee the above, nor does it come without some potential disadvantages.
As always, every advantage can have some disadvantages in some contexts.
When we look at the definition of an internal locus of control, it says “the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do”.
Which outcome is the right outcome?
Locus of control refers to the ability to get to an outcome, but what if:
1. The journey to that outcome is not enjoyable?
2. The outcome doesn’t meet up to your expectations?
3. Is not the ideal outcome for you?
4. You missed out on a better outcome because you were too focused on your goal?
5. You never reach your outcome?
6. You isolate yourself on the journey to that outcome?
7. The opportunity to getting to that outcome was too high?
A common story nowadays is that some people work very hard and over come great odds for material success. But many, in the process, pay the price of alienating, and sometimes losing, friends and family. This can cause a lot of resentment and may lead one to wonder if their direction was the right one.
If someone with an internal locus of control were to get too attached to their own views, it may be challenging for them to adopt another perspective, even if it carries more advantages for them.
That is, they have had so much success relying on their dogma, e.g., ‘Luck has little to do with success; it’s mostly a matter of dedication and effort.’
You can’t expect them to give up their secret weapon that quickly…Especially when they can’t see the potential for it to backfire.
An internal Locus of Control can be difficult to maintain if one does not have the cognitive flexibility, value highlighting, and balance to appropriately read the situation and appraise it in a way that is best for them.
When one does not do this correctly, it can lead to feelings of hopelessness, and catastrophization.
External Locus of Control
I believe the outcomes I end up with are beyond my control
An external locus of control is the opposite of an internal locus of control.
This means that one believes that they have no influence over their situation; and that external forces account for the outcomes in their life.
Saying “it isn’t worth setting goals or making plans because too many things can happen that are outside of my control” or “what’s the point, you don’t get back what you put in, you get what the Universe wants to give you” would be more in keeping with an external locus of control.
Another example: in post-concussion syndrome, patients with an external locus of control often rely on the doctor to “fix” their headaches or medication to remove the pain.
If one were to feel like no matter what they do, they will get what they are given, one can start to feel helpless.
This has been called learned helplessness (Seligman, 1972)
Learned helplessness can lead to many health consequences such as depression, anxiety, a passive and/or aggressive personality type, decreased cognitive performance and problem-solving (Roth, 1980), decreased resilience to trials and tribulations of life; and all social, biological and psychological consequences that come with these.
Internal and External Locus of Control on a Continuum
What is your locus of control formula? And what is desirable?
Whenever there are advantages and disadvantages to an approach, there creates the opportunity for balance, diversification, flexibility, etc. to see us leverage the pros and cons in a way to get the highest returns.
Excessive Internal & External Loci of Control prolonging post-concussion syndrome recovery
An example relevant to post-concussion syndrome is articulate in our article Behaviours Associated with Longer Recovery. Patients who demonstrated endurance behaviour (i.e., plowing through the symptoms come hell or high water) and those that demonstrated avoidance behaviour (i.e., excessively restricting activities to safeguard against the perceived constant threat of negative physical and psychological outcomes).
An example of how an Internal Locus of Control may present clinically
These patients often don’t accept help well. They trust themselves and their methods more than others’. It makes sense as they have a proven track record and excellent reputation with themselves for controlling their outcomes.
It can be hard to put your guard down, adopting a not-knowing position, and embracing the vulnerability in accepting help.
For these patients, they focus on the opportunity cost (i.e., other goals, usually financial) of the time they commit to rehabilitation.
Often the condition humbles these patients, sometimes even a year later, they then start accepting the help and engaging in therapy in a way that sees them moving forward.
Usually, when they leave the program, it is a proud moment for us as they demonstrate more calm, flexibility, direction (as post-concussion syndrome often sees people questioning and rediscovering life purposes) and comfort with applying their internal locus of control more flexibly to get better outcomes.
A cyclist comes to mind who refused to drop his mileage. He found rides getting tougher, muscles staying sorer longer and that he was actually gaining weight despite working harder. He was also more irritable and had difficulty performing cognitively at work. To his credit, after a month, he quickly heeded to our medical advice and cut down the mileage. We had to explain the neurophysiology behind it and he was convinced. In cutting down the mileage, to his surprise but not ours, he was able to actually lose weight.
He learned that working harder is not always the smartest way. That everything has a rhythm, and in understanding the same, you can work with it in a more efficient way.
An example of how an External Locus of Control may present clinically
In post-concussion syndrome, patients with an external locus of control often rely on the doctor to “fix” their headaches or medication to remove the pain.
While there is evidence for medication in some contexts, the exclusive reliance on it is telling of a poorer prognosis.
There are neurophysiological reasons why more of an internal locus of control can lessen the “pain experience” of a headache, and associated disability.
It is always a proud moment in our clinic to see the evolution of patients. Often, they first come saying that their strategy for coping with the pain is to “eat ibuprofen”.
And once they learn about their condition, and internal strategies they can use to change their pain experience and their lifestyle experience, even in the face of a headache, we don’t hear about them “eating ibuprofen” anymore. They take many measures to improve their situation.
They may still use ibuprofen, but not with the same desperation.
The headache gradually falls by the wayside as their focus shifts to what they can influence.
Strengthening one’s Locus of Control
Methods to adjust your locus of control formula to help you to your desired outcome
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation in which I rebuilt my life.”– J.K. Rowling
To be clear accepting a situation for what it is, is different than condoning a situation.
Acceptance is not forfeiting to fate, it is a prerequisite for change.
Consider the example of Terry Fox, he had to accept many hard facts before he could heroically fight his battle.
How did he maintain an internal locus of control in the face of almost certain death; and deciding to run across the second largest country in the world through rain, sleet and snow with one prosthetic leg?
His story, and many others’, serve as excellent examples of the resilience of an “adaptive internal locus of control“.
When steeped in:
2. Cognitive flexibility and critical thinking ability (can be trained in CBT)
4. Honouring one’s strengths and resources.
Do you know your strength?
Chances are… you don’t, at least according to research (Smith, 2011; Niemiec, 2013); where only 1/3 of the participants asked were aware of their strengths (Linley, 2008).
In addition to the resources already suggested in the links in this article, consider checking out the following pages to help you in navigating through an upcoming challenge using an “Adaptive Internal Locus of Control”
Bandura, A. (1995), Exercise of personal and collective efficacy in changing societies. In A. Bandura (Ed.). Self-efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, (pp. 1-45).
Gale CR, Batty GD, Deary IJ. Locus of control at age 10 years and health outcomes and behaviors at age 30 years: the 1970 British Cohort Study. Psychosom Med. 2008 May;70(4):397-403. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e31816a719e. PMID: 18480188.
Linley, A. (2008). Average to A : Realising strengths in yourself and others. Coventry: CAPP.
Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York: Springer.
Sarafino, Edward & Smith, Timothy & DeLongis, Anita & King, David. (2015). Health Psychology: Biopsychosocial Interactions.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). “Learned helplessness”. Annual Review of Medicine. 23 (1): 407–412. doi:10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203. PMID 4566487.
Smith, E. (2011). Spotlighting the strengths of every single student why U.S. schools need a new, strengths-based approach. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.
Zimbardo, P. (1985) Role of locus of control in developing human behavior, Psychological Review, 2(1): 275.
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Last update: March 2021