It was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who is quoted as saying “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There is more to this plea than a desire for serenity when faced with tumultuous times. Niebuhr’s quote hints at the idea of locus of control (LOC), the extent to which people believe they have control over circumstances and events in their life.
Those who have an “internal” LOC are more likely to feel that their actions make a difference. Rather than sitting idly by and letting things happen, they are proactive; they feel that they can change the course of their life based on the actions they take and the decisions they make. Those with an “external” LOC are more likely to feel like victims. Their life, it seems, will always be at the mercy of outside forces (like destiny, luck – good or bad – or other uncontrollable factors), and there’s nothing they can do about it. This often leads to a passive, defeatist and, let’s face it, pretty grim view of life. As Homer Simpson put it (in a misguided and unsuccessful attempt to cheer up his children), “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is ‘never try’.”
We collected data from 55, 000 test-takers for our Locus of Control and Attribution Style Test, and made some interesting discoveries about people’s views on life and destiny. The majority of people believe that they possess some degree of control over their life. While most report feeling that not all events and circumstances are within their power to change, they do not perceive themselves as being totally hapless puppets in life’s dark drama. In terms of gender and age differences, men are slightly more likely than women to take proactive control of their love life, while women are more likely than men to believe that they could make a difference in the world. Women also feel that they have control over their level of health. Older age groups possess a more internal LOC than their younger counterparts, particularly in terms of health, love, and the ability to overcome heredity and a difficult childhood. Older people were also less likely to believe in luck, destiny, or fate.
So why is LOC so important? People with internal LOC own their successes and failures, and don’t sit back and wait for things to happen. They actively look for opportunities. They are more likely to take responsibility for mistakes, learn from their experiences, and see self-improvement as a long-term process. Someone with an internal LOC is confident and proactive, and takes life by the proverbial horns.
Here are some other interesting tidbits from our study:
- 12% of our test-takers feel that people who are happy have probably had an easy life.
- 76% believe that they can rise above their background and become successful.
- 23% believe that bad or good luck (curses, for example) can follow someone around.
- 68% believe that they can heal from and overcome a painful childhood.
- 22% believe that many people lead miserable lives because of their parents.
Locus of control also extends to global issues and health. For example:
- 56% feel that their vote makes a difference.
- 48% believe that we can abolish crime if we set our minds to it.
- 69% feel that they can instigate change if they see injustice in the world.
- A whopping 88% of people feel that they can live a longer life if they live healthy now.
- 62% believe that fighting and beating cancer is possible.