Friday, January 21, 2011


One of the most robust (meaning least likely to change over time) personality traits is the "locus of control." This is one of the most fundamental assumptions about the world and it affects so much.

In a nutshell, a person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she controls his or her own life. An external focus of control believes that they are at the whim of forces much greater than themselves.

I can make a good argument for either case: Your genetics, the place, time and circumstances of your birth, and the luck of accidents or even who you meet in the course of your life make for a matrix of overwhelming forces....

Except you will be hard pressed to find a circumstance so bleak that someone hasn't excelled, or a circumstance so privileged where someone hasn't failed.

I find an internal locus of control useful. It's where I am anyway and maybe that's just making a virtue of necessity, but damn. With an internal locus of control you can change things. You have choice. You have, as Kai would say, agency.

Everyone has these, of course. Always do and always will. But people with a strong external locus of control can't seem to see it, and if something is invisible to you, you can't use it.

You can tell an internal locus of control because they tend to take personal responsibility for their failures. The more extreme the ILOC, the more things they feel responsible for (seriously, I should have seen the economic crash coming. All the signs were there but I went haring off to Iraq...) An external locus of control, not so much. "I never had a chance." "They would never let someone like me..." "The ball bounced wrong."

Years ago, I got into a minor debate with a friend. I'm still not sure I'm right, but my gut feeling is that you can't teach an ELOC any form of self-help. You can show them everything they need to do to get control of their own lives and they will agree, and then just look at you with a blank face, waiting for everything on the to-do list to magically happen.

I had a minor epiphany the other day that got me thinking about it. A friend thought I would or should be mad at something that happened. I had to fix it, but it was a pure accident. No malicious action from anyone. Because it was her accident, she thought I would be mad at her.

This is just speculation (though it looks solid, thinking back) but with ELOCs, feeling what they do is the result of other forces, not really distinguishes between chance and their won actions...does it work the other way. Is it not just that they don't feel blamed for failure, but they do feel blamed equally for failure and for chance?

Don't feel I'm explaining this well. What I saw, was someone who didn't feel responsible but expected blame. Do ELOCs feel that there is no connection between not just result and action but reward, punishment and chance? Does the world look arbitrary to them?

Or are they the world? Expecting to be punished if the world does something?


Jason Azze said...

This post reminded me of the concept of "learned helplessness." I had a weird suspicion that I had read a good explanation of learned helplessness here, and I was right.

Dan Dravot said...

Maybe somebody had taught your friend to feel helpless when she was small. The way you do that is you teach the child that there is no deterministic connection between her behavior and reward/punishment/praise/blame. It doesn't even have to be abusive: Some kids are praised for everything, regardless of what they do.

There was an article going around recently about a study that suggested (paraphrasing pretty roughly) that kids who are praised for their intelligence tend to avoid anything that might actually test their intelligence, while kids who are praised for hard work tend to welcome challenges: If you get credit for success just by Being The Wonderful Person You Are, why break a sweat working hard, just to risk the pain of failure?

Of course, all results in the social "sciences" are shaky, because there are too many variables to do anything genuinely quantitative. It ain't physics.

Tiff said...

I agree with Jason. We can often be punished for the mistakes of others. Not sure how much LOC relates to that as a general concept.

Kai Jones said...

I think you can teach ILOC, at least to children. The problem with teaching it to adults is that even trying is an attack on their identity. They've been telling themselves all along that they couldn't change anything, and they're probably very invested in that being true; they probably work to make it true.

And of course the concept of ILOC has been abused--think of the people who believe cancer is your own fault for having bad thoughts. I don't actually believe everything is within my control; a lot of bad stuff just happens, but you can always affect the situation through your response.

Defensiveness seems like it would be more associated with ILOC, but I only ever hear it from people who have ELOC. Which is giving me cognitive dissonance--why be defensive if you don't really believe you had any ability to change the outcome?

Steve Perry said...

The, "Yes, but --" response is pretty hard to get past when you starting talking to somebody who responds to any comments or suggestions that they might be able to grab some reins and gee and haw the horses at least a bit.

One of my most unpleasant life experiences was with a woman who was never at fault for anything -- anything, everything that went off track in her life was always somebody or some thing's fault.

None so blind as those who will not see.

Josh Kruschke said...

I think this harkins back to this dicution and post:

I think we need to work on insuring are kids learn the differance between what is in our control and and what is out of our control. Is this posible? I'm not sure, but I think it is.

Balance I think is key.

Unknown said...

The internal locus of control (ILC) vs. external locus of control (ELC) is one of the most consequential dimensions of personality traits that manifests in observable behavior including verbalizations that reveal their loci.

Actually, you can train teach ELC's to learn ILC thinking by successive approximations to "success". A series of successes gives birth to self-efficacy.

Yeah, ELC's would be inclined to fear punishment as much from chance as their intentional behavior; they are prone to depression via learned helplessness as Jason mentioned.

ELC's are challenged to unlearn "learned helplessness" if they want to reclaim their lives. This "unlearning" can happen with adults and kids. These are 2 tools/skills learned during depression and anxiety inoculation training People modify the thoughts and behaviors of both ILC and self-efficacy.
Rory is allowing discussion of agency. Question is whether he will have a go around about teleology.
Some people seem to come along and their job is to give you endless opportunities to be patient.

I hereby suggest "patience" is a term and an aspect of being during physical and interpersonal battles.

Patience isn't much talked about though most of the CC stuff seems predicated on it's existence-presence in those who intervene.


Anonymous said...

The thing that I think of here is the old tale anti abortionist.
something like this (but I'm not entirely sure of the facts).if you had a mother who was a whore, and a father who suffered madness would you let their unborn child those are the circumstance that Beethoven was born into.....however if you subsribe tio the view that he shouldn't have been aborted.then you must also subscribe to the view that we are the masters of our own questions of social standing, ethnic minority don't really come into it

Unknown said...

"Years ago, I got into a minor debate with a friend. I'm still not sure I'm right, but my gut feeling is that you can't teach an ELOC any form of self-help. You can show them everything they need to do to get control of their own lives and they will agree, and then just look at you with a blank face, waiting for everything on the to-do list to magically happen."


on the big picture I believe I have no free will and no real choice; solidly ELOC, yet,

in everyday reality I live and plan and prepare my life as if I was ILOC all the way.

Somehow these two pov have little to do with each other...

Maija said...

The ability to distinguish one's own 'stuff'(aka chaos/power) from other peoples' 'stuff', from the general 'stuff' of the universe, is a hugely valuable life skill to cultivate.

Tiff said...

Come to think of it, Rory, you mention "luck" as a huge factor in surviving, say, an assault. With "luck" as an external factor, wouldn't assuming its influence lend one the POV of an External Locus of Control?

The miasma of psychology course material in my brain suggests that the loci of control are a continuum, a spectrum.

Unknown said...

If you google "locus of control inventory" you can take a free inventory--used by psychologists--to see where you are on the spectrum

Lisa said...

I agree with Maija. As much as I agree that having ILOC is useful (I think I'm mostly that way myself) I'd also point out that a person who believes that they directly affect and/or control everything that happens in their lives can end up talking themselves to a standstill if something goes wrong in their world over which they actually don't have control. For example, if I'm the school counselor that sent away Jared Loughner and I think that I have control over everything, I might be inclined to quit my job when I find out I missed what was going to come. An inappropriate sense of responsibility can really hurt some very productive and caring people.

That being said, I'd still much rather have ILOC than ELOC. I can actually get things done this way!

regolith said...

I like this post. I'm currently working for a strongly ELOC person - great guy, as long as you remember nothing is ever his fault - and it's good to see it spelled out that some people are like that, no big deal.

On the other hand, I had a little incident with a piece of machinery last night (towball bracket sheared off while towing a trailer, luckily the fence above the creek caught the trailer) and this morning it occured to me that if my mother knew about that she'd surely tell me I hadn't said enough prayers, and if only I had it wouldn't have happened. Sure, there's got to be some realistic balance between the two extremes.

I've read that ELOC leads to ineffective leadership, but it seems to me that there should be strengths and weaknesses for both views, in any situation. Do you know of ELOC people who have been highly successful or are most the ILOC type?

Actually, you can train teach ELC's to learn ILC thinking by successive approximations to "success". A series of successes gives birth to self-efficacy.
Kevin - would the opposite also hold true? And so maybe life events could sway an individual to/from ext/int sense of control?

Unknown said...

Hey Regolith,

Sure, give me a die-hard ILC and allow me to induce "learned helplessness"(LH) and we've sown the seeds for ELC---bringing us full circle to Jason's recognition of a good explanation of "LH".

Anonymous said...

I think there are two possible scenario's:

1 What appears to be ELC + being afraid to get blamed (even for accidental stuff).
That sounds like some state of learned helplesness. We see that often in victims of child abuse. I wrote a blog about it, but it's written in Dutch :( ( )

2. ELC + Being afraid to get blamed.
We're talking personality traits here. I think being afraid to get blamed for stuff (lack of trust in others) complicates having an ELC.
I think it's almost impossible to learn these people to help themselves; to expect them to take their responsibility.

In the first scenario it's hard, but not impossible, to unlearn this learned helplessness: Challenging your fears. Good therapy or counseling. Having experiences of being in control of being able to make choices. Learning things are different than the conditioned stuff. It's something that can develop over time. I've seen it happening.

Just my thoughts.

Wishing you well!