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Florida Teens and the "Let Me Talk to the Manager!" Effect

Locus of control and the Parkland survivors’ success.

Barry Stock / Flickr
Source: Barry Stock / Flickr

Walk out of school!

March on Washington!

Post on social media!

Demand a town hall with your congressional representative!

On the heels of the horrific Valentine’s Day massacre at their high school earlier this year, the Parkland Survivors, led by the likes of the formidable Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, have famously showed the world what democracy looks like. And their message has resonated, leading to large-scale activism regarding the issue of gun laws around the world. On March 24, at the suggestion of the Survivors, nearly 1,000,000 people marched on Washington DC. And DC was one of hundreds of such events that took place all around the world. People are demanding change. And it is without question that the message of the Parkland Survivors has paved the way for all of this action.

And we cynical adults thought that the next generation was hopeless. Ha!

Locus of Control and the Parkland Phenomenon

So people are asking what is up with the Survivors? What is it about them that has led to such effective organization and activism?

Perhaps the most interesting analysis that I have come across regarding this question might be termed the Let me talk to the manager! effect. You see, Parkland is a reasonably comfortable, middle-class kind of place. And as someone who lives in a similar kind of place, I have to say that our parenting is not really always perfect. There is a perception that we let the kids have everything they want. There is a perception that kids run the households. There is a perception that kids make demands and that parents cave. I’d be lying if I said that this conception of parenting in modern middle-American households does not hold at least a kernel of truth.

But you know, there may well be a hidden upside to the way that kids in such communities are raised. And the Parkland Survivors are showing this to the world in all of their glory.

In 1966, renowned behavioral scientist Julian Rotter developed the concept of locus of control - a variable that describes individual differences between people. Based on this concept, people vary in terms of the degree to which they have an internal locus of control (meaning that they believe that outcomes in their world follow from their personal actions) versus those who have an external locus of control (meaning that they believe that outcomes in their world are generally unrelated to their personal actions). If you have an internal locus of control, you are confident that your actions will lead to change. But if you have external locus of control, you might not even bother trying, because you have learned across your life that little follows from your actions.

Research on locus of control regularly has found that people from relatively wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to have an internal locus of control while those who come from less wealthy backgrounds are more likely to have an external locus of control (see Cohen et al., 2001). And, in the realm of electoral activities, people with an internal locus of control are more likely to actually vote in elections compared with those who hold an external locus of control (see Deutchman, 1985).

So these kids from Parkland show all of the hallmarks of an internal locus of control. They come from relatively wealthy families, they likely had a lot of say in decisions regarding their own lives growing up, and they sure seem like they plan to vote when they turn 18!

Let Me Talk to the Manager!

I heard someone use the metaphor of demanding to talk with the manager relative to the Parkland phenomenon. The idea is essentially this: Not everyone whose steak is overcooked, or whose vegetables are cold, or whose drink did not include the right proportion of vermouth is about to make a stink and talk to the manager. But some people do. Who are the people who ask to speak to the manager at the restaurant? As far as I know, no empirical research on this specific question has been conducted (great student thesis project, right!?), but we can imagine that these are people who feel empowered, perhaps even a little entitled. It’s like I’m paying $150 for this meal, and this steak had better be rare and warm, darn it! Let me talk to the manager!

In terms of the idea of locus of control, we can think of demanding to talk to the manager as a classic marker of an internal locus of control. Someone who is demanding to talk to the manager clearly expects that his or her actions are going to lead to some kinds of consequences.

Well look at what the Parkland kids are doing! They demanded to meet with their United States senator - publicly! They are calling out for people all across the US to demand to meet with their elected officials on April 7, in a large-scale set of town hall events to take place across the nation. Wow, talk about wanting to speak to the manager!

Bottom Line

People have insulted the current generation of young people. They are selfish. They are narcissistic. They live on their phones. Hey, you know what? There are lessons to be learned from the kids of Parkland. Sure, some might think to themselves, “who do these kids think they are?” But you know, I see their actions as the bright side of modern parenting across the middle of the USA. Sure, we parents let them get what they want. We’re not as great at setting limits as we should be. We often give in to their demands. Well you know, while no one was looking, these kids were taking away some amazing lessons along the way. You know what they learned? They learned that they should not be afraid to stand up for what they believe in. They learned that if they act, they can get results. They learned to speak to the manager if they don’t like the answer. Hats off to the Parkland Survivors. Here is to progress.

Addendum - Comment on Issues of Race (added 3/30/2018)

Via Twitter, a very important critical comment on this piece was posted by renowned VCU sociologist, Tressie McMillan Cottom. Tressie made an excellent point, which was this:

"The word "white" never appears in this argument despite all the empirical research on who is allowed to act on and from their locus of control and just how salient it is in this case. But okie dokie."

In full disclosure, I think this is an excellent point and do not disagree with this for one second. in fact, I'd toyed with the idea of addressing this issue in the article, but concluded that I really wanted to retain a different focus . But you know, Tressie is totally spot-on and I add this section here to add that much-needed elaboration. Locus of control famously varies across racial lines (see Zahodne et al., 2015), with African Americans regularly scoring as relatively external in their locus of control orientation. And having an external locus of control goes hand-in-hand with poverty, which also famously (and unfortunately) is found to map onto racial lines in the US. So yes, good for the kids of Parkland, but there are millions of kids from underprivileged backgrounds who experience violence and other adverse outcomes associated with poverty all the time in our nation. And if we really want change that matters, we have to address this issue head-on - and we have to address it systemically. Eradicating social and fiscal inequality - and poverty - ultimately are the goals that we need to focus on in this ongoing battle. If we want our youth to develop an internal locus of control, which comes about from having life experiences where one's behavior actually matters, then we need to address systemic racism and poverty. And, as implied by Tressie's tweet, we need to always keep these larger social issues on the forefront of our minds. So thanks to Tressie for publicly making this point, and for keeping me honest. Here is to the next generation of American leaders, who will come from all corners our our nation.

Acknowledgments: I have been incredibly lucky to work with a bunch of bright young activists in the Hudson Valley over the past several weeks. They organized student walkouts at the high school, middle school, and college. They organized a rally across our campus, demanding change. They marched on the Walkway over the Hudson. They wrote articles in local newspapers about all of these activities. They are now asking our congressman for a town hall on April 7. So here is to the young people of the Hudson Valley who have inspired me so much over the past several months: Ellie Condelles, Matt Ferremi, Mary Fervent, Zach Kelly, Rachael Purtell, Caleb Sheedy, and Jacob Sirof


Cohen, A.; Vigoda, E.; Samorly, A. (2001). "Analysis of the mediating effect of personal psychological variables on the relationship between socioeconomic status and political participation: A structural equations framework". Political Psychology. 22 (4): 727–757. doi:10.1111/0162-895x.00260.

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