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Improve Your Life by Recognizing Your Own Agency

Adopting an internally focused locus of control can change everything.

Key points

  • An internal locus of control assumes outcomes in life are largely due to one's behavior.
  • An external locus of control assumes that one has less influence over life's events and circumstances.
  • Developing an internal locus of control will generally lead to more desirable outcomes.
Shutterstock/Ivf
Source: Shutterstock/Ivf

"The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts." — Marcus Aurelius

Pronounced over 2000 years ago by the famous general and eventual leader of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius' words are still powerfully accurate into the 21st century. How we think about the world around us profoundly affects the quality of our life.

Could it be that simple?

While the connections between beliefs, behaviors, and outcomes have been extensively studied within many psychology domains, one line of inquiry highlights the importance of this relationship. Over 60 years of research around the construct of locus of control reveals the strength of the association.

What is locus of control?

First conceptualized in 1954 by Julian Rotter, locus of control is generally defined as the extent to which an individual feels control over his or her own life. More scientifically stated, locus of control refers to the degree to which you believe a causal relationship exists between your behavioral choices and the outcomes you experience in life.

When something good happens to you, do you think you were lucky? Or do you assign the positive outcome to your own efforts? How about adverse life events? Do you blame yourself or consider yourself ill-fated? How do you contemplate a failed exam? Do you immediately think, "I should have studied more?" Or, do you quickly blame the test itself or your teacher? How you answer these questions can give insight into your locus control.

Measurement of locus of control

While measurement of locus of control has undergone an evolution over the years, Rotter's Locus of Control Scale conveys the original meaning of the construct.

Here is a sample of three items from Rotter's original Scale:

  • 11a. Becoming a success is a matter of hard work; luck has little or nothing to do with it.
  • 11b. Getting a good job depends mainly on being in the right place at the right time.

  • 18a. Most people don't realize the extent to which their lives are controlled by accidental happenings.
  • 18b. There is really no such thing as "luck."

  • 23a. Sometimes, I can't understand how teachers arrive at the grades I get.
  • 23b. There is a direct connection between how hard I study and the grades I get.

Participants in Rotter's studies were forced to choose one statement over the other. Selecting 11a, 18b, and 23b would indicate that your locus of control tends to be more internal. You believe that your efforts are directly connected to the outcomes of your life. If, on the other hand, you answered 11b, 18a, and 23a, your locus of control might lean external.

Often we contemplate constructs related to ourselves as a dichotomy. While it is fun to exclaim boldly, "I am an extrovert" or "I am an introvert," psychology research suggests it is helpful to conceptualize most constructs in psychology—including locus of control—as a falling on a continuum rather than as a typology.

Why does locus of control matter?

Research on locus of control accelerated following Rotter's 1966 publications on the construct. The results of the studies overwhelmingly indicate that having an internal orientation appears to be beneficial across varied life domains. Some important constructs related to internal orientation include:

  • Taking more responsibility for one's own health
  • Greater care at avoiding accidents
  • Better nutritional habits
  • Lower levels of stress
  • Higher self-efficacy
  • Higher income
  • Higher levels of education
  • Greater job satisfaction

An overview of locus of control research studies suggests internally oriented individuals attain more educationally and occupationally, experience better health, and suffer less depression than their externally oriented counterparts. External locus of control is related to a higher incidence of offending behavior and almost all forms of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety.

Parenting and locus of control

According to Rotter, as children develop from infancy, they experience what they perceive as consequences to their behavioral choices, which can affect the development of their locus of control. Research supports Rotter's initial assumptions regarding the relationship between parenting and locus of control.

Lynch et al. (2002) found a delicate balance between too much or too little parental involvement and the development of an external locus of control. When parents are too involved and controlling, their children tend to believe that outcomes are not the result of their behavior. On the other hand, neglectful parental behavior may create a situation wherein children are not provided an opportunity to evaluate the behavior-outcome sequences encountered throughout childhood. In turn, these children may not adopt appropriate coping mechanisms when facing failure, leading to the development of an external orientation.

In 2011, researchers found that warm, supportive family structures and non-authoritarian parenting styles are associated with an internal locus of control. Nowicki et al. (2018) analyzed data from over 6,000 observations of mother-child interactions within the home environment before a child's fifth birthday. The externality of children at age six years was related to lack of warmth, nurturing, and cuddling in the home environment. In addition, fewer stories being read at bedtime and lower levels of breastfeeding were also associated with the development of an external locus of control.

Overall, internally oriented individuals are more likely to have had families that emphasized efforts, responsibility, and education. In addition, these families more often followed through with promised rewards.

Some things are out of our control. What can we do?

Adopting an internal locus of control generally leads to better life outcomes. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes, people are put into circumstances in which they genuinely lack any control. In those instances, recognizing that you are unable to control the outcomes may be beneficial. Heavy traffic, severe weather, or the declining stock market are outside our sphere of control, but how we react to external events gives us back some sense of control over these types of stressful events.

The words of famed neurologist, philosopher, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl can be a tool to overcome the despair felt in the rare situations in which individuals are unable to change their circumstances in any way: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Final thoughts

"Change your thoughts, and you change your world." — Norman Vincent Peale

While many people struggle to navigate the complexities and challenges of modernity, it should be comforting to know that a change of mindset is an evidence-based approach to improve well-being. Altering your perspective to recognize you have agency in most circumstances may enhance your overall quality of life across multiple domains—from relational to financial to educational. This realization can be magically transformative.

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