Locus Of Control

On the radio today, I heard a man say that “everybody” has either an external or internal locus of control. He explained what it meant, which I’ll do briefly: people either believe that events in their lives are out of their control — external locus, or they believe that they alone are responsible for things that happen in their lives — internal locus (according to him).

My immediate reaction was surprise. I thought: “Clearly, both are at play in everyone’s life; who doesn’t realize this?”

But then I remembered the Facebook memes.

Apparently, a lot of the people I follow have an internal locus of control. In the past year, I’ve seen at least a dozen memes along the lines of “you alone are responsible for what happens in your life”.

It also reminded me of the ongoing (thousands of years now) arguments among religious folk, on the topic of “God’s Plan” versus “Free Will” (which I discussed briefly a couple of years ago). This isn’t the same discussion as free will versus determinism, but they’re related.

Basically, the man on the radio (didn’t catch his name because Austin’s NPR station barely reaches us here in Killeen, and I hear as much static as I do dialog) was explaining how teachers have motivated students, military leaders have motivated soldiers, and business leaders have motivated managers and employees — all by using careful techniques to shift the locus of control for the people in question.

In other words, if I have a bunch of students who believe test results are out of their hands (they think I’m grading based on whether I like them, for example), then they’ll be less motivated to study or pay attention during lectures. But if I can trick them over time into thinking that they control the test results, then they’ll do better.

Still, I thought, clearly some things are within my control and some things are not.

As I mentioned during 2015’s discussion on Free Will, some choices are off-limits due to physics and biology. That’s out of your control. You can’t leap a tall building in a single bound, because of physics. You can’t breathe underwater because of biology. Those two things alone strictly limit every choice we make. I’d love to travel directly to my destination, but there are houses, buildings, and hills in my way. It would be almost as quick to fly a low curve just over the tops of those obstacles — but I can’t do that either. So I’m stuck with the choices of driving, walking, or staying home.

Other choices are limited due to other people. For example, I can’t be CEO of Coca-Cola. It’s not due to physics or biology, but due to Coca-Cola’s top folk deciding not to hire me (even if I chose to submit an application, which I didn’t).

But clearly, some things in life are under my control. Just today, I chose to see a movie instead of staying home, and then I chose which movie to see. I also chose between three routes to the theater, which of our three vehicles to drive, and whether to buy expensive junk food while I was there.

So either I’m drastically misunderstanding this whole “locus of control” thing, or it’s obviously “both”.

Note: I don’t think this is incompatible with my view, expressed two years ago, that determinism is more likely than free will. The fact that I have control over some of these choices doesn’t mean that I wasn’t pre-programmed to make certain choices.

  1. Dana says:

    Was the speaker saying that someone would have the same locus of control at all points and situations in his life or that in any given situation, a person would have either an internal or external locus of control?

    Without hearing the original NPR piece, it’s hard to get a grasp of what the speaker meant. I’d have to agree with your analysis that both exist and influence how we view things.

    (Although, I probably lean to the internal locus of control end of the scale in most endeavors, while I have friends who definitely err on the external locus of control side. People who labor under a victim mentality probably are most influenced by an external locus of control, for example.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      It’s possible he explained at some point that most people exist on the spectrum between one or the other. Unfortunately, that station is fairly unclear here in Killeen. :-(

      But I very definitely recall the statement that most people are one or the other. I think it was in the context of motivation, in a business/team setting, though he also gave examples of military and classroom settings.

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