Post No.: 0276
People with a high internal locus of control tend to be able to cope with pressures better – they tend to see things as challenges, feel that they have control of their own destiny and they seek opportunities for personal growth, which improves the chances of them actually achieving better outcomes. Having a high internal locus of control means that one tends to feel that things are within one’s own control and destiny, whereas having a high external locus of control means that one tends to feel that things are beyond one’s influence hence is more psychologically reliant on external factors, other people, luck or fate to make things happen.
This post is all about the psychology or perception rather than the reality, which would be a different discussion or debate. Indeed, the world is far more unpredictable and uncontrollable than we may think. We all do depend on luck in our lives. But if you believe that something about you cannot be changed, such as your intelligence or confidence, then you’ll not likely even wholeheartedly attempt to improve that thing about you because it’ll feel futile to bother – thus believing that you have the control to change even deep aspects about yourself allows you to seek self-improvement.
The psychological feeling of control and autonomy is important to our well-being. Feeling that our furry self-worth and status is not down to what other people think of us (e.g. the amount of followers or likes we have) but how we think of ourselves and/or what’s evidently true or valuable (e.g. our qualifications or greater purpose in life) improves our happiness. In fact, obsessively seeking approval from others is correlated with many negative health outcomes such as depression, addiction and aggression.
So, in the main, believing that we have control of our lives, crediting ourselves regarding our own successes, as well as blaming ourselves regarding our own failures, leads to more happiness and will likely eventually lead to greater success, as long as the control is directed towards self-improvement rather than arrogance. (Note that believing that one has the control to shape one’s fate is related to, but not exactly the same as, believing that one has the competence or self-efficacy to shape one’s fate.) For most people, it feels less stressful to feel like one has control of a situation rather than not. We’ll feel more empowered to make ourselves happier when we don’t blame other people for our own unhappiness; albeit at the same time we must strike a balance because external injustices should not be ignored.
However, the ‘illusion of control’ is the belief that one has more control over a situation than one really does. Our desires and expectations of controlling our own destinies and the world around us can sometimes go too far (e.g. it can lead us into making overly risky gambles and relying on superstitious behaviours to ‘control’ their outcomes, or to frustration and disappointment that reality or other people don’t match our expectations). Seeking and perceiving control is generally good but, beyond a certain point, the drive and expectation to control things can make us miserable. Liking being in control but not being in control leads to anxiety and/or anger (e.g. ‘backseat drivers’, or some sufferers of eating disorders who use the control of their calorific intake as an attempt to regain control of or cope with other undesirable aspects of their lives).
When life doesn’t quite go according to plan (which happens for many people), those high in need for, or expect to have, control when they don’t really have it, tend to suffer more. Goals are generally good, but becoming obsessed with attaining a particular outcome results in those goals controlling you, and the obsession may mean that other aspects of one’s life become sacrificed too. People tend to be happier when they understand and accept that much of life is unpredictable or chaotic. We cannot control other people’s feelings or decisions easily (people generally don’t like being under other people’s control anyway and will likely rebel with reactance) and we cannot control world events (at least on our own), but we can relatively more successfully take responsibility for and control of our own well-being, morality and education (e.g. exercise, diet, life-learning), for instance.
It’s starting to sound a bit contradictory but I guess the refined conclusion is this – it’s really about taking control of the things one can control, and accepting the things one cannot.
We are better at accepting and being happy with the things we cannot change or have made an irreversible commitment to, compared to things we can opt to change easily if we wanted to. This is related to the ‘endowment effect’ and the instinct to rationalise that we’re happy with the things we’ve got now and are stuck with compared to if we could change our minds and induce ‘buyer’s remorse’ (e.g. in time, we’ll be far happier continuing with a paid online course that we cannot change once it has started, than continuing with a course that allows us to change our minds within a trial period. This is because doubts may linger even after this trial period because we’ll have the chance to reverse our choice to stay. Yet to (further) highlight the fact that few of us intuitively know what makes us happy in the long-term – most people will tend to choose a course that offers the choice of changing!) So choice, and in turn control, doesn’t always make us happier. Post No.: 0170 investigated this in more detail.
‘Choice-supportive bias’ or ‘post-purchase rationalisation’ is the tendency to remember one’s choices as being better than they actually were or, in a self-rationalising manner, retroactively ascribing one’s choices as being more positive or more informed than they actually were at the time they were made (e.g. if someone chose option A over option B, they are more likely to amplify the merits and downplay the faults of option A, and vice-versa for option B). We can even post-rationalise being happy with decisions we didn’t personally make but subsequently must accept, never mind just the decisions we made and must accept.
Most people wouldn’t want to choose a sick puppy from the outset. But most people who buy a puppy who is subsequently found to be or becomes sick, say they wouldn’t change the (now their) dog for the world. Woof!
Commitment therefore improves the chances of contentment, and the freedom to change something after a choice has been made can lead to greater doubt, all else being equal. We’ll eventually begin to accept the things we cannot change, but we cannot start this process until/unless we know we cannot change the situation. Hope is important but isn’t always beneficial then, when committing to moving on to new pastures would instead lead to a healthier and happier result in the long-term, such as moving on permanently from a troubled on-off relationship. (But does commitment mean to sticking or twisting though? This suggests that one should choose one path, whichever it is, then wholeheartedly commit to it without looking back; unless something drastically changes. Only the benefit of hindsight can show us what the best path was (although most times we’ll never know) but we can only make the best decision we can make at the time we must make it.)
There’s a controversial argument though that, in business contexts at least, it’s psychologically better to have a ‘defensive externalism’ locus of control, where you accept responsibility for successes but blame the rest of the world for your failures or the bad events that happen to you, as if they’re always down to the external environment, which might improve in the future! In other words, mentally feed off the successes to boost your own confidence but deflect any failures so that your confidence won’t ever feel damaged. But although confidence is important in business, and life in general, overconfidence and narcissism is problematic. We have control and can change things in some contexts and we have none and can’t in others, but within a context, if we decide to take the credits if we win, we must also take the blames if we lose too.
Feeling embarrassment or guilt evolved partly to socially signal remorse and mend relationships and partly to spur oneself to self-improve and learn from one’s mistakes. If one never thinks one ever makes mistakes then one never learns and never grows. Lots of people already tend to be automatically mentally pervasive with their successes and mentally non-pervasive with their failures i.e. they believe that any large or small success means they’re fundamentally great all-round, whilst any failures are only confined to those one-off moments – and these types of people can be seriously annoying and antisocial people! Plus if your ego or self-esteem cannot take the odd knock and survive then you don’t really have true confidence at all but a false and overcompensated veneer.
Anyway, there is some value in generally believing that good fortune lasts whilst bad fortune is temporary. Internalising explanations for good things happening and taking nothing bad personally can improve our psychological well-being. The main times not to have such a ‘rose-tinted view’ of life though are if the consequences are too potentially grave if you fail and/or the odds of failure are high.
All in all, control and choice are complicated subjects that don’t have simple answers. It’s sometimes good to believe in a high internal locus of control, but there are many things we cannot control, and having choices doesn’t always improve happiness either. Well, to paraphrase the Serenity Prayer – wisdom is accepting the things we cannot change, having the courage to change the things we can, and knowing the difference.
Woof! What do you think about all this? Please share your thoughts with us via the Twitter comment button below. I don’t bite!