Costs, Benefits and Applications of Psychological ‘Locus of Control’
[This is Part II of a 3-part analysis of psychological "Locus of Control". Part I provides a critical preliminary, while Part III explores unusual career manifestations of locus of control.]
The usefulness of the psychological concept “locus of control” crucially depends on how it is defined, much as the concept “hage” defined as “height x age” would, if we chose to create such a concept.
“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).”
In my analysis in Part I, I argued that this standard definition of “locus of control” has numerous, serious flaws, and that it should be replaced with a more carefully parsed and broader concept that has as its elements all of the following:
- locus of causation or control: A locus of causation or control orientation is a belief about whether the most important outcomes of important situations or events in general or in specific situations are or should be entirely, mostly or crucially causally contingent on what I have intentionally done in an attempt to make them happen, i.e., to cause them or to control them after they have happened (internal control orientation) or, instead, on events or factors outside my personal control (“external control orientation).”
[This is a key modification of the original and limited "standard" definition of LOC, in that, unlike that definition, mine distinguishes initial "cause" from after-the-fact "control" and includes the all-important dimension of preference, in addition to belief.
It also eliminates the definition's flawed, pointless and self-answering question of whether "outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (i.e., on those same actions)", which of course, is equivalent to asking whether "results of our actions are caused by those actions".
Moreover, it allows that such control may be limited to specific situations rather than to all.
"Our" is replaced with "my", because LOC should be about my beliefs about my control, rather than about "our" control; otherwise, LOC becomes a belief or preference about everyone, not just oneself.]
- locus of coping: the psychological orientation (belief and/or preference) that my coping with situations and events depends or should depend entirely, mostly or crucially on my actions or, instead, on other factors outside our personal control (such as help from friends).
[This coping element is entirely ignored in the standard definition of LOC.]
- normative locus of control: the psychological orientation (belief or preference) that validation and justification of my actions, values, beliefs, etc., depends or should depend, entirely, mostly or crucially on my independent judgment or, instead, on external factors (such as the opinions of friends, the Bible or tribal elders)
[This critical element is also omitted from consideration in the standard definition.]
- locus of reward or punishment: If rewards and punishments for our actions and efforts are self-administered or generated by the same internal processes that they are rewarding or punishing, they have an internal locus of control, e.g., the reward of the satisfaction of recognizing that you’ve solved a crossword puzzle correctly or self-loathing for a drug addiction.
Likewise, if you and you alone decide whether the painting you’ve done is any good or horrible, the resultant self-satisfaction and self-deprecation that rewards or punishes your efforts has an ILOC. Otherwise, rewards and punishments have an external locus of control and administration.
[This too is not touched upon in the standard definition, despite intuitively warranting inclusion as a very important form of LOC.]
- locus of prediction: the psychological orientation (belief and/or preference) that prediction of personally critical events and situations is or should be entirely, mostly or crucially within my control or, instead, within the control of others (including computer simulations).
[This warrants inclusion as an element of control because of the contribution prediction makes to other elements of control.]
Locus Costs and Benefits
Before identifying and weighing the costs and benefits of some form of locus of control, it’s logical to consider the roles and functions of internal and external forms of control.
The key roles of a locus of control are identical with the role of control, period: facilitation, remediation, adaptation and prevention—to make things happen as desired, to fix them when they don’t, to adapt to them when necessary, or to make sure they don’t happen at all.
Against that conceptual backdrop, what are the respective costs and benefits of being or hiring someone with an internal locus of control vis-a-vis an external locus?
The benefits of having an internal locus of control do not include savings in time, energy or money, since deciding, doing or evaluating things oneself can involve more or less of all of these than depending on external factors, such as group advice, pressure or encouragement.
Interestingly, whether the locus is perceived as a benefit or a cost is likely to be determined by which of the two—internal or external—you have as your only or primary form. This means that the associated costs and benefits of the locus may not be calculable without a prior commitment to it!
For example, if you are already committed to an internal locus of control, you are likely to cite as a benefit the “elimination of the middleman” (some external opinion) in decision making, thereby freeing you to act on your own judgment.
But if you have an external locus of control, such elimination of middlemen would be a cost, since you would be very likely to see middlemen as catalysts, corroborators, collaborators, resources and validators.
Conceptually and psychologically, this is a very unusual and paradoxical cost-benefit analytical model:
Instead of weighing the costs and benefits of two opposite control strategies to determine which to adopt, we seem to be unable to specify these pluses and minuses independently of a presupposed, pre-existing commitment to one of the two strategies we are supposed to be evaluating.
That means, in this instance, using or rejecting a LOC strategy as a prerequisite for evaluating it.
That’s like using two different yardsticks to verify the accuracy of each.
That kind of special limitation notwithstanding, as suggested above, there are clear and important applications and misapplications of locus of control to the workplace, marketing and one’s personal life.
Here is a small sample of such (mis)applications of LOC:
- Tobacco company X is targeting women smokers who have an evident external locus of control, e.g., they smoke because their peers do, because their peers urged them to, because their stress management skills and other internal resources are not up to the task of quitting, because it makes them look “cool”, “in”, “free” and (superficially) sophisticated and because the distinctively and harmoniously colored pack makes a nice accessory to their total “look” as a complete, external package.
But sales have recently slumped, because the pack color, forest green, is out of fashion. So, the company pays off fashion designers to push forest green for fall, and it works: sales recover, as the time-tested and proven principle of harmonizing cigarette package color and fashion package colors pays off once again.
(Yes, it does. Just look at any randomly chosen set of cigarette ads or smokers and their clothes, bags, shoes, etc., and cigarette packs. Better yet, just look at this ad and the Stanford University analysis accompanying it. Then look at the dozens of other Lucky Strike ads [shown there] designed to do the same thing.)
Note: This illustration is based on a 1972 Senate investigation into precisely those kinds of payoffs for precisely the same purpose and with precisely the same results. It should also give you a feel for how an external locus of control can be manipulated.
- Tim, lead systems engineer on a big airliner design project, has a very pronounced internal locus of control; but, as part of a team, he is being asked to “appreciate” and be “sensitive” to the resistance to his ideas among a number of his team members and perhaps to reconsider his own designs.
The initial management issue here is not to determine which designs are best, but to get Tim to engage in a way that is unnatural for him—namely, to surrender or shift some control from his deeply entrenched and fortified and preferred internal locus of control.
To the extent that his manager mistakes Tim’s inclusion in the team for Tim’s acceptance of team control, Tim has been misclassified as having an ELOC, instead of an ILOC.
- You’re hiring instructors for a fitness center: Does it make a difference whether the candidates have an internal or external locus of control? How could it? Well, consider the possible differences in instruction style and objectives: Tiffany is all about building up inner strength, discipline, self-control, independence from junk and toxins that are “out there”, e.g., external, often addictive controllers, such as junk foods, TV and booze. She’s a Spartan who preaches building a strong “core” and fusing a strong body with a strong, independent, meditative and reflective mind.
Mitsy’s approach is different: She’s about shaking a better, buff booty and getting noticed on Whisky’s dance floor. Her target: to get her clients a lot of praise for “lookin’ good, Girl!”—again, external control as the focus and locus of decisions, behavior and values.
So, the question becomes this: Do you want to advertise for and hire instructors whose image, techniques and goals can be summed up as “buns-of-steel Playboy Bunnies” or “will-of-steel ‘Survivor’” (allowing for hiring of one or more of each type, and assuming comparable visible results)?
Chances are that the decision will hinge, at least in part, on whether your own locus of control is internal, or external—at least in that situation. If that’s not obvious, consider shifting a bit more internal control to your brain for reflection on it.