Locus of Control

When we think of personality traits, we think of things like attitude, charisma, friendliness, intelligence, openness, and the like. I’ve recently become interested in a lesser-known but important personality trait: Locus of Control

Your Locus of Control describes how you see the relationship between your actions and the rewards you receive in life. People can be classified into two groups: those with an internal locus of control and those with an external locus of control.

Internals are those who believe that the outcomes they receive in life are a result of their personal actions. Externals believe that external forces such as luck, chance, or fate, control their lives and determine their rewards and punishments. Ultimately, each of us believes that their life’s outcomes sit somewhere on a spectrum between “entirely up to me” and “out of my control”.

The locus of control has been studied as an aspect of personality psychology for the last 50 years. Over the years, psychologists have learned that the locus of control is largely determined by an individual’s past experiences. So in the classic nature vs nurture argument, it is decidedly “nurture.” To the degree that our life experiences show a direct connection between cause and effect, we further formulate an impression about how much control we have in our life.

Of course, this has child rearing implications. Children who are raised in an environment with consistent and predictable discipline for misbehavior and reward for good behavior tend to believe that their behaviors control their outcomes.

Why do I think this is interesting? Because it affects how we view success. Do you ever look at that Porsche flying by you on the freeway and say to yourself, “Man! That guy is so lucky.” Maybe his is and maybe he isn’t. The point isn’t whether or not luck exists, it is whether or not you think it exists. I like the Thomas Jefferson quote:

“I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Have you ever heard of Accelerated Debt Reduction or ADR (Dave Ramsey would call it the “debt snowball”). Basically, ADR is a method of paying off a series of debts by using a regular amount of money to pay off the smallest one first. Once it’s paid, you use that regular amount of money PLUS the monthly payment of that smallest debt to pay off the next smallest one. As you pay off each debt, the amount of money you apply to the next one gets larger and larger, kind of like rolling a snowball down a hill. Here’s the interesting part: If you were to pay off the one with the highest interest rate first (instead of the smallest debt) and then move to the next highest interest rate all the way until you are debt free, then you would end up saving more money. Despite this fact, everywhere you learn about the debt snowball will teach you to start with the smallest debt first. Why? It’s because of locus of control. By starting with the smallest debt first, you will pay off your first debt quickly and get a boost of “Wow! That feels good. I put forth effort and it really worked.” The second debt can be paid off quickly too. You see, a few quick successes has the effect of convincing the person that their efforts are really working and they are more likely to stay with the program. It is behaviorally effective. It emphasizes an internal locus of control.

Of course, I’ve given the impression that an internal locus of control is superior to an external one. I tend to believe that that’s the case. Researchers have found that in times of upheaval and disruption, externals tend to be more frustrated and anxious than internals who are better able to cope with the situation. At the same time, a belief in an external God who blesses and curses people may be considered as support of an external locus of control. Of course, if these blessings are conditional upon personal prayer, obedience, or righteousness, then the locus remains internal. I suppose we embrace the best of both worlds as we resolve to, “pray as if everything depends on the Lord, and then work as if everything depends on you.” In this case, you’ll get the best outcome regardless.

It is in this attitude that I recommend an internal perspective. If we believe that we control the outcomes then we cannot lose: If we are right, then we will have acted correctly. If we are wrong, then that’s ok because we still got the best (and only) possible outcome. It’s kind of like Pascal’s Wager. Believe in God and you’ll always win.

The only problem is that we tend to be energy optimizing machines that don’t like to put forth any effort unless it is absolutely necessary (whether that be going to church or practicing your jump shot). If this is you then whenever someone calls you out on being lazy, you can always just respond, “I’m optimizing energy!”

Sometimes optimization is overrated.