Psychological ‘Locus of Control’: What It Really Means (for You and Your Jobs)
Among the three most important things you do in life are to cause, control and/or justify what happens in it (with prevention and coping liberally interpreted as two forms of control).
If you believe that you—not someone or something external to you—are principally responsible for all or some of these three life elements, you have, as I and researchers see it, a legitimate claim to having some kind of an “internal locus of control“.
But what does “locus of control” mean? Utilizing a “cause/control” interpretation of “locus of control”, with no mention of coping or of internal vs. external justification or validation of what we do, Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo defines it, as many do, this way (in a July 30, 2014 BusinessInsider.com report):
“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).”
Before proceeding any further, it must be noted that there’s a devastating flaw in the definition’s notion of “outcomes of our actions” being contingent on “what we do”.
“What we do” is, by definition, clearly equivalent to “our actions”. So, what the definition is really saying is that “outcomes of our actions are dependent on our actions”, which is an empty tautology—namely, “Our actions influence or cause their effects”, which no one could reasonably disagree with, and which, therefore, is useless in identifying distinct personality types.
Despite this crippling conceptual handicap, the report goes on to note that research has found that those with an internal locus of control:
- Are less vulnerable to depression
- Do better in school
- Deal better with stress
- More actively find solutions to problems
- Are more satisfied with their jobs
- Are more oriented toward achieving their goals
However, on the flip side, I believe it is reasonable to speculate that those with some better-defined internal locus of control will find it harder or be less willing to share control, e.g., work in partnerships, teams or otherwise allow “externals”, such as other people, much or any control over decisions, creative processes, administration, etc.
This is because if you believe that outcomes of events and situations (not outcomes of your actions) depend on you, why would you let anything external interfere with or replace your control? As a result, an internal locus of control (“ILOC”) personality is very likely (given the definition of “LOC”) to think, “The outcomes of situations and events depend on me, so I better accept that and not risk thinking otherwise”.
Alternatively, an ILOC personality may simply be one that prefers to seek control of outcomes, and choose situations that allow that, without necessarily believing that most or all outcomes of human or personal actions are contingent on those actions.
One way to gain that control is to limit what is undertaken and the methods of doing them to those that are maximally contingent on one’s own actions.
In effect, that means ILOC types may be willing to forsake collaborative opportunities in order to retain control independence and invulnerability. That in turn will limit the kinds of tasks the favor and avoid, e.g., purely mental and team-based, respectively.
If you re-read the list of ILOC pluses above, you can imagine the contribution that non-interference from and non-dependency on others make to these benefits. But that understanding must be supplemented with a grasp of the costs.
In a workplace or life emergency, if you are an ILOC type, especially in the clearer and broader sense in which I will use the term, you are very likely to take charge, stay calm, exercise independent judgment, investigate autonomously, be more concerned about justifying your actions in your own mind (rather than to the group), and cope with criticism and disagreement, if not ignore it altogether.
However, there are several other problems with the standard “outcomes” Zimbardo definition, not the least of which is that only some outcomes, events and situations (like cleaner teeth after brushing, but not solar flares) are “contingent” on what we do, while most things are not.
So, with respect to outcomes of situations or events (rather than of our actions) that are (tautologically) contingent on our actions, we have an internal locus of control orientation if we believe that; for the rest, external case-by-case locus of control—right?
This means that LOC should be understood as only situation-specific, not a general personality orientation or trait, unless LOC as an orientation includes what we prefer were always the case, as opposed to what we believe is the case.
(Therefore, alternatively, the two LOC personality types may be conceived as avoiding as much as possible any personal or professional situation in which their preferred form of control—internal or external—is jeopardized or unavailable, while seeking out those compatible with it.)
Next, it is a mistake to frame the LOC concept in terms of beliefs about “our” actions, because it is unclear about whether that means “my” actions or “my and all of your” actions. These are enormously different as belief markers, since the latter makes an LOC orientation a belief about or a preference regarding everyone’s beliefs about control, rather than just about one’s own.
Then there’s the dog in the photo here: Does this illustrate the dog’s internal locus of control over the bone, or the bone’s external control of the dog? Because the standard definition does not distinguish outcomes that are “entirely contingent” from “partly contingent” on our actions, the answer in any case, given that definition, is yes and no.
Enumeration of the flaws doesn’t end there: It is one thing to believe one’s actions influence or control outcomes, but quite another for it to be true or to know it is true. The standard definition of “locus of control” blurs that very important distinction: the difference between correctly and incorrectly believing specific important outcomes importantly depend on one’s own actions.
I propose calling correctly believing this “having a strong locus of control” (internal or external) and incorrectly believing it “having a weak locus of control” (internal or external). The distinction is important because falsely believing one is in some way(s) controlling outcomes can have disastrous uncontrolled consequences.
Another way to describe this flaw is to note that the standard definition fails to take into account the distinctions among belief, fact and knowledge: There is a tremendous difference between merely believing you have some kind of control and actually having it, or knowing that you have it.
In practical terms, that can spell the difference between catastrophe and its avoidance, e.g., between merely believing that you are responsible for a casual date’s pregnancy (ILOC) when in fact you are not (because it was an outcome contingent on some other guy’s actions, hence, ELOC). That can translate into 20 years of child support vs. all the less costly alternatives.
An even bigger flaw with the original Zimbardo concept is that it completely fails to mention “coping” as a crucial and more specific form of control. That is especially unfortunate because of the importance of coping at work and daily life, and in any context or situation in which causing or controlling the problem are out of the question, while coping is not only possible, but also necessary, e.g., coping with the destruction of your office by an earthquake.
In fact, I wish to suggest that “locus of coping” may be a more important concept than “locus of control”—if only because it does not require any delusional or otherwise mistaken belief that everything, most things or the most important outcomes in life are always somehow contingent on our actions (or that they never are).
Then there’s the validation-justification element of LOC: In such an internally-controlled mind, conformity is a result of, not a prerequisite for, deciding what is right. That’s because, in addition to the “causal control” interpretation of locus of control, the inclusion of my proposed locus of “validation” and “justification” element in the concept captures this crucial dimension of internal control of our lives.
Likewise, an “internal coping locus of control” may be both a fact and an orientation, i.e., a belief, even in situations in which your having caused or controlled that with which you are coping are out of the question. For example, do you cope with rejection on your own, or do you seek the solace of friends, when you neither caused, could prevent nor control being rejected?
Finally, the definition doesn’t address the question of whether it recognizes one of the most common and most important forms of control we experience: control of interpretation and cognitive-emotional-volitional framing of outcomes.That’s important because what an “outcome” is and its consequences often depend on how you interpret that outcome, e.g., whether getting fired is the end of the world or a ticket to a new one.
Deciding What It Means to Decide
If you say, “I decide these things”, you probably mean “decide” in one or possibly all three of these interpretations—cause, control and validate. However, it is possible to confuse these with each other, and think that, because you alone make your choices, that somehow you will have controlled them, or that because you have justified them in your own mind, you somehow are controlling the decisions’ outcomes, e.g., getting a mortgage with a dangerously high variable interest rate.
It has been claimed that some cultures foster an internal locus of control as a dominant norm, while others do the opposite. For example do you believe, like the archetypal rugged “American” individualist, that you are “in control” of your life, that you—not others—decide what is morally right or wrong, smart or stupid, useful or useless, worthwhile or not, and numerous other issues primarily, and to the fullest extent possible, for and by yourself?
Or are you more “Japanese” and inclined to believe that and behave oppositely, e.g., that society, culture, peer-pressure and, above all, the group decides what is right or wrong; that “acceptability”—whether moral, social, professional, intellectual, etc.—is determined by something or someone external to your judgment?
If you believe your decisions, values, outcomes, etc., are validated, even if not controlled or caused primarily by you (i.e., from an “internal locus of control”), rather than by external things, such as your peer group (“external locus of control”), you have what l will call a “normative locus of control”: You decide what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, without always causing or controlling it, e.g., minimum wage laws or apartheid, as opposed to feeling envy and coveting thy neighbor’s wife.
“Locus of control” is a powerful, useful psychological and management concept that, however, needs, as I’ve maintained, very careful definition, analysis, reformulation and explanation before it is used to predict, explain, justify, describe or manage professional or personal behavior—including matching an employee’s locus of control type with a given task or career.
As my analysis (based on my reading of the literature and thinking about it) suggests, although it is an important concept, “locus of control” means different things to different people and should include “normative locus of control” and “locus of coping” as two of its essential dimensions and elements.
The Revised and Expanded Concept of Locus of Control
Consolidating and expanding the understanding of “locus of control” I proposed above, I would argue that the following constitute its most useful collective pertinent distinctions and elements, with respect to one’s actions, decisions, access to resources, values, priorities, standards, interpretations, perceptions (including self-perceptions).
Each of the following represents one way in which influence and control can be exercised, either internally or externally, and possibly in combination.
Notice the distinction between “control” and “cause”—something not noted in the usual formulations of the concept of a “locus of control”, as well as the addition of validation and prediction. The following is my formulation of the elements of a very clear locus of control over the listed factors and resources (while allowing less clear-cut versions in which “dominant ” is replaced with “contributing”):
- the dominant control on and of the listed factors and resources [This allows that even though we may not have caused something, we can control it thereafter.]
- the dominant cause of one’s actions regarding these [Note: Control and cause are not the same. Being the dominant cause of something implies nothing about being the dominant control over it, once it and its consequences have occurred. Starting a war you eventually lose illustrates this perfectly.]
- the dominant validation and justification of these [We routinely justify and validate things that we do not or cannot control, cause or predict.]
- the dominant coping strategy or resource [necessitated even when causing and "controlling" (in the narrow sense) play no part]
- the dominant source of rewards and punishments: If rewards and punishments for our actions and efforts are self-administered or generated by and as the same kinds of internal processes that they are rewarding or punishing, they have an ILOC, internal locus of control. [Examples: the reward of the satisfaction of recognizing that you've successfully solved a crossword puzzle and the punishment of self-criticism if you've failed.] If the rewards and punishments are external, e.g., immediate collapse of the IKEA table you thought you properly assembled, the locus as source of reward or punishment is external, i.e., is an ELOC.
- the dominant predictor of these [This includes instances of observed correlations without proof of causation, control or attempted justification.]
When these are “internal”, e.g., operating through the exercise of one’s reason, conscience, personal judgment, personal investigations, etc., the controls and causes can be said to have an “internal locus of control” as the dominant form.
When these components are external, e.g., operating through the influence of peers, consideration of external appearances (for example, clothes or “what other people will think”), other social and cultural norms, or the fear of “being different”), the locus is an ELOC (external locus of control).
Free to Choose a 15th Wife?
It is reasonable and insightful to hypothesize that people who strongly believe in “free will” are likely to have a clear and predominantly internal locus of control, given a predisposition to praise and blame themselves (“normative internal locus of control” plus “causal internal locus of control”).
Look for this trait in the ranks of traditional Republicans and other conservatives, and among “self-made” (wo)men.
Although it should be obvious that maintaining, if not creating, a normative internal locus of control should be the easiest to accomplish (given that ultimately all it requires is that we alone decide whether to accept some code of ethics or artistic standard), in high-conformity, tightly-regulated cultures, acquiring a strong normative internal locus of control may be as daunting a challenge as attempting to acquire or become a 15th wife.
But then, if you are fabulously wealthy, you probably are likelier to be a Republican, believe in free will, have an internal locus of control, and be able to have and afford that 15th wife, so long as she’s not already your neighbor’s…
…at least in Utah.
Next: Part II, “Costs, Benefits and Applications of Psychological ‘Locus of Control’”