What do you think about these pairs of statements?

  1. People's misfortunes result from the mistakes they make
  2. Many of the unhappy things in people's lives are partly due to bad luck
  1. In the long run, people get the respect they deserve in this world.
  2. Unfortunately, an individual's worth often passes unrecognized no matter how hard he tries.
  1. Becoming a success is a matter of hard work; luck has little or nothing to do with it.
  2. Getting a good job mainly depends on being in the right place at the right time.

They have a similar theme: the first statement suggests that an outcome (misfortune, respect, or a good job) for a person are the result of their own action or volition. The second assigns the outcome to some external factor like bad luck.(1)

People who tend to think their own attitudes or efforts can control what happens to them are said to have an internal locus of control, those who don't, an external locus of control. (Call them 'internals' and 'externals' for short).

Internals seem to do better at life, pace obvious confounding: maybe instead of internals doing better by virtue of their internal locus of control, being successful inclines you to attribute success internal factors and so become more internal, and vice versa if you fail.(2) If you don't think the relationship is wholly confounded, then there is some prudential benefit for becoming more internal.

Yet internal versus external is not just a matter of taste, but a factual claim about the world. Do people, in general, get what their actions deserve, or is it generally thanks to matters outside their control?

Why the external view is right

Here are some reasons in favour of an external view:(3)

  1. Global income inequality is marked (e.g. someone in the bottom 10% of the US population by income is still richer than two thirds of the population - more here). The main predictor of your income is country of birth, it is thought to explain around 60% of the variance: not only more important than any other factor, but more important than all other factors put together.
  2. Of course, the 'remaining' 40% might not be solely internal factors either. Another external factor we could put in would be parental class. Include that, and the two factors explain 80% of variance in income.
  3. Even conditional on being born in the right country (and to the right class), success may still not be a matter of personal volition. One robust predictor of success (grades in school, job performance, income, and so on) is IQ. The precise determinants of IQ remain controversial, it is known to be highly heritable, and the 'non-genetic' factors of IQ proposed (early childhood environment, intra-uterine environment, etc.) are similarly outside one's locus of control.

On cursory examination the contours of how our lives are turned out are set by factors outside our control, merely by where we are born and who our parents are. Even after this we know various predictors, similarly outside (or mostly outside) of our control, that exert their effects on how our lives turn out: IQ is one, but we could throw in personality traits, mental health, height, attractiveness, etc.

So the answer to 'What determined how I turned out, compared to everyone else on the planet?', the answer surely has to by primarily about external factors, and our internal drive or will is relegated a long way down the list. Even if we want to look at narrower questions, like "What has made me turn out the way I am, versus all the other people who were likewise born in rich countries in comfortable circumstances?" It is still unclear whether the locus of control resides within our will: perhaps a combination of our IQ, height, gender, race, risk of mental illness and so on will still do the bulk of the explanatory work.(4)

Bringing the true and the prudentially rational together again

If it is the case that folks with an internal locus of control succeed more, yet also the external view being generally closer to the truth of the matter, this is unfortunate. What is true and what is prudentially rational seem to be diverging, such that it might be in your interests not to know about the evidence in support of an external locus of control view, as deluding yourself about an internal locus of control view would lead to your greater success.

Yet it is generally better not to believe falsehoods. Further, the internal view may have some costs. One possibility is fueling a just world fallacy: if one thinks that outcomes are generally internally controlled, then a corollary is when bad things happen to someone or they fail at something, it was primarily their fault rather than them being a victim of circumstance.

So what next? Perhaps the right view is to say that: although most important things are outside our control, not everything is. Insofar as we do the best with what things we can control, we make our lives go better. And the scope of internal factors - albeit conditional on being a rich westerner etc. - may be quite large: it might determine whether you get through medical school, publish a paper, or put in enough work to do justice to your talents. All are worth doing.


Inspired by Amanda MacAskill's remarks, and in partial response of Peter McIntyre. Neither are responsible for what I've written, and the former's agreement or the latter's disagreement with this post shouldn't be assumed.


1) Some ground-clearing: free will can begin to loom large here - after all, maybe my actions are just a result of my brain's particular physical state, and my brain's particular physical state at t depends on it's state at t-1, and so on and so forth all the way to the big bang. If so, there is no 'internal willer' for my internal locus of control to reside.

However, even if that is so, we can parse things in a compatibilist way: 'internal' factors are those which my choices can affect; external factors are those which my choices cannot affect. "Time spent training" is an internal factor as to how fast I can run, as (borrowing Hume), if I wanted to spend more time training, I could spend more time training, and vice versa. In contrast, "Hemiparesis secondary to birth injury" is an external factor, as I had no control over whether it happened to me, and no means of reversing it now. So the first set of answers imply support for the results of our choices being more important; whilst the second set assign more weight to things 'outside our control'.

2) In fairness, there's a pretty good story as to why there should be 'forward action': in the cases where outcome is a mix of 'luck' factors (which are a given to anyone), and 'volitional ones' (which are malleable), people inclined to think the internal ones matter a lot will work hard at them, and so will do better when this is mixed in with the external determinants.

3) This ignores edge cases where we can clearly see the external factors dominate - e.g. getting childhood leukaemia, getting struck by lightning etc. - I guess sensible proponents of an internal locus of control would say that there will be cases like this, but for most people, in most cases, their destiny is in their hands. Hence I focus on population level factors.

4) Ironically, one may wonder to what extent having an internal versus external view is itself an external factor.


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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:50 PM

I was kinda surprised to see IQ as an external factor; my impression is that internal vs. external locus of control is actually personality traits vs. circumstances and environment, and IQ obviously falls into the first category.

If you consider IQ and mental health external factors, what are the internal factors, then? Willpower? But willpower is determined by the brain structure just as IQ and mental health and other personality traits.

Basically, if you assign everything to the "external" category, so that the "internal" is an empty set (or almost empty), then one's success is determined by "external" factors. No surprise here.

[I've seen your follow-up post on discussion. I thought it would be best to reply to both here.]

It may be that everything is determined by prior events all the way to the big bang. So there's no 'internal willer' isolated from previous events that can steer us one way or another. But we can keep talking about 'internal' and 'external' loci of control on a compatibilist view of free will (which I'd guess is the common view, including amongst those affirming an internal locus of control).

On this sort of view, internal factors are just those our choices can change - external factors, those which our choices cannot. If I want to run faster, how much time I spend training is an internal factor: it influences how fast I can run, and I can choose (in the compatibilist sense) how much time I spend training. If I have a dense hemiparesis secondary to a birth injury, that's an external factor - it also influences how fast I can run (indeed, whether I can run at all), and can't choose whether or not to have a hemiparesis.

So I take those with an internal locus of control to think that - in the main - the outcomes that matter are mainly sensitive to factors that in turn are sensitive to our choices (how hard I work, how long I practice, etc.), whilst those with an external locus of control say that these things are primarily determined by factors outside of that person's control.

It seems clear to me that IQ should be in the 'external factors' camp: IQ seems to be set early in life, has a large heritable component, and the non heritable bit is likely due to environmental things that I also can't change for myself, either at the time or retroactively. The failure of brain training programs suggests that you can't improve your IQ by any feat of effort. And we know it has all sorts of influences on how our lives turn out. If I have (due to factors outside my control) an IQ more than one standard deviation below the mean, I won't be able to become a doctor, or a physicist (or, indeed, joining the US armed services) - no matter what else I do. Mutatis mutandis cases where it might not serve as a strict bar but a variable handicap (c.f. evidence that the beneficial effects of IQ have no clear ceiling).

The alternative account you propose for demarcating 'external' versus 'internal' factors - internal factors are those causally distal to your brain's neural output - looks too broad: all internal factors need to be downstream of our neural output, but that isn't sufficient. The hemiparesis case I allude to above would be one example - that I can't move one side of my body is due to my neural output, but that is because of this insult which wasn't due to my neural output. I think the same applies for other cases of brain damage and particular types of mental illness: indeed, this is implicitly recognised by the criminal justice system.

(I've added remarks to this effect in the body of the post - thanks for this comment!)

Now, I think that the source of our disagreement are diverging intuitions about free will and IQ.

I think that I can boost my IQ to some extent by exerting willpower; the amount of "thought power" in relaxed, normal and extreme-effort states seem to differ quite substantially.

You may see IQ score as the measure of maximal "thought power" (like when one passes IQ test when fully rested with no distractions and making his best effort); it makes IQ more or less constant, but a worse predictor of success, since success is more determined by average cleverness rather than peak cleverness.

The only factor under your control may be to realize that the only factor under your control is to obtain and use better methods and processes to think, gather information, act in the real world, generate feedback and adjust yourself.

Illustratively, no matter how innately intelligent a native English speaker might be, if he never had any experience with Japanese, he won't be able to read and understand kanji. Is that a failure of intelligence, or a failure of knowledge and method? If you've never had any experience in any science, and don't know the specialized vocabulary, then it is likely you won't be able to understand a technical paper. Again, is that a failure of intelligence, or is it just that you'll need some time to grow familiar with the field? A lot of intelligence and rationality is like that. Including understanding your own intelligence and capabilities to better yourself.

You'll ned to assess where you stand now, then iteratively improve yourself. You'll need to look outside, for information and help, to get better at it. Depending on your starting point, your incremental improvements may be slow at first, until you learn how to get better at improving yourself. You may have more terrain to cover too.

"I vow to always do my best to make my best become even better."

Your end point may still be determined by your IQ or working memory, but the starting realization that you can ameliorate yourself, can be as simple as a few words. It's still an external factor, but one that, depending on your sensitivity to such ideas, you could encounter regularly enough that it will eventually sink in, and start changing you. Frequenting places where such ideas are more prevalent (like here), may help bootstrap this process earlier.

The main predictor of your income is country of birth... [along with] parental class explain 80% of variance in income... perhaps a combination of our IQ, height, gender, race, risk of mental illness and so on will still do the bulk of the explanatory work.

It wouldn't surprise me if all of those factors together could "explain" 200% of variance in income, given how strongly correlated many of them are. But the greater problem is that none of these factors explains anything. You just found some correlations. And moreover, you don't even engage with the arguments for internal locus of control.

Clearly, external factors shape what possibilities are open to you (if you were born in 1253 BC, you didn't become an astronaut). Equally clearly, internal factors determine what you make of those possibilities (if you never got out of bed, you didn't become an astronaut). It's overdetermined. Your argument is like saying that because you'd die without lungs, the lungs must be more important than the heart.

What would it mean for the external view to be "more true" than the internal view? We might unpack it as saying that, on the margin, external factors matter more than internal factors for life outcomes. But what's are the relevant margins, and what are the units? What's the robustness? Consider one marginal change - that my mother had given birth to me while on holiday, and so the country of my birth, but nothing else about me, had changed. What difference do you think that would have made to my life outcomes?

When events are overdetermined, I would take a pragmatic marginal view of "causes." In other words, the fact that the Sun emits UV radiation, the fact that people go outdoors sometimes, and the insufficient use of sun-cream are all the "cause" of skin cancer. Only one of these, however, gives us a sensible way of fixing the problem on the margin, so I'd say failure to use sun-cream is the "cause" in the relevant sense. From this point of view, the internal locus of control is correct by definition.


"All interesting human behavior is overdetermined." Eric S. Raymond

Seems to be a case of it. I think your point is that if even if you can say predict 80% of outcomes based on external factors only, you it is still possible that you could predict 80% of outcomes based on internal factors only, and this is what overdetermination means.

(This is funny, because it would mean both political sides are right. Lefties are right organizing the world differently could lead to vastly different outcomes, righties are right people choosing to live different would could lead to vastly different outcomes too.)

Each man has a character of his own choosing; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job.


The context here is Seneca arguing for treating one's slaves well. He observed that one could be a good person and still end up a slave doing a menial job due to circumstances outside your control (like living in a city that got conquered by Rome).

It seems to me that while the external view is largely correct, it can lead to a passive sort of fatalism. The internal view seems better at motivating someone to put in a lot of time and effort, which does give a better chance of being able to exploit chance opportunities.

There are several places where you've put "[ref]". Were those placeholders for something that never made it in?

Previous discussion of the opening questions and Peter McIntyre's article.

If we look at:

(1) Becoming a success is a matter of hard work; luck has little or nothing to do with it. (2) Getting a good job mainly depends on being in the right place at the right time.

I don't think this is about birth advantages such as country of origin, high class parents and high IQ.

Birth advantages are basically what set you up to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe you get a job because you met somebody in college. But you had to be born such that you could get to college in the first place.

In any case, success has to be a combination of luck and effort. You might luck into that job, but you wouldn't have been hired if the employer didn't think you had the skills he was after - skills you probably had to work to build. And, once you have the job, you still can't slack off, not if you plan on keeping that job.

This article has formatting issues. Also, I don't know enough to check if whatever social science in it is sound. However, I'm unsure there's too much to check. The biggest possible problem I perceive is just the one user "estimator" pointed out: everything could be changed into "external" factors. If we nail down what we mean by external or internal factors it could work better. If you could find appropriate terminology to replace "external/internal", I think that would be warranted for the sake of making the insight here more coherent. You might want to make the diagram slightly better, i.e., it would be sufficient to replace to make the words more legible from within MS Paint.

Other than that, I agree with this article. I think if you polished the article based on what I've pointed out above, this article would be sufficient to post in Main. Note: I think users on LessWrong are too cautious in not posting good content they produce in Main, and they should take more risks in doing so. This may be biasing my recommendations.

Internals seem to do better at life, pace obvious confounding: maybe instead of internals doing better by virtue of their internal locus of control, being successful inclines you to attribute success internal factors and so become more internal, and vice versa if you fail. If you don't think the relationship is wholly confounded, then there is some prudential benefit for becoming more internal.

I'm willing to bet that Internals think there's a prudential benefit to becoming more internal and Externals think the relationship is wholly confounded.


Mind-killer warning: politics

The strange thing is that in the western world internalism is generally associated with conservatism and a bit of a callpous view, expecting people to bootstrap themselves, while the external view is more associated with compassion, egalitarianism, empathy, sharing and political leftism. But this is not necessarily so and I have seen evidence for it not being so.

Specifically, you can see in a lot of places in Eastern Europe people flaunting their wealth more aggressively than in Western Europe, wearing designer brands being more important and so on, clearly shaming people who look poor as unsophisticates etc. Yet the views are very external. Especially being the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, having the right connections and so on. This is something mostly everybody agrees there that they matter most. Externalist views don't lead to a lot of compassion there.

The point is, the rich in these regions knew perfectly well they don't really deserved it, they have good connections, are not super hard workers, yet it does not fuel egalitarianism, it fuels much stronger aristocratism than in the West.

I cannot 100% explain why. My best bet is power. If you need to deserve what you have, you are still one of the underpowered proles, the perfect victims who can be exploited by anyone strong. Not needing to deserve what you have is a sign of power. Showing off wealth you got not by earning it but having the right i.e. powerful connections is a demonstration of power.

The point here is, the West thinks there are only two ways of thinking, while there is in fact three. The two the West knows is either everybody baking their own pie (internalist) or everybody getting a slice from a common pie, but how big the slice is depends on power, which is bad, as it is exploitative, and it would be better to have equal power and thus equal slices. However, there is the third view, that the West is unwilling to recognize that it exists, which view is that everybody getting a slice from the common pie, how big is the pie depends on power, which means get as much power as you can, get a big slice, and then happily bathe in their sweet tears of envy ever after. This probably sounds evil. But this is incredibly common in non-Western circumstances, although of course way less directly as I presented it, I wanted to over-emphasize it a bit for shock value to make a point, but it is obviously usually far more subtle. The closest thing the West ever got to understanding this third option is the gangsta, and gangsta-rapper culture: the gold and diamonds people like 50 Cent wear are to demonstrate power, not merit.

My point is this: don't think you can make the world fairer and more compassionate or more left-wing if you manage to kill the just world fallacy! It could just as well turn more aristocratic or more gangsta-style. In the absence of explaining inequality with merit, people will not necessarily turn to equality, they may as well explain it by power, the power they have: and realize they enjoy flaunting their power around.

Do people, in general, get what their actions deserve, or is it generally thanks to matters outside their control?

I'd recommend taboo-ing "deserve" to separate ideas of justice from ideas of control and agency. If you replace it with "what their actions influence", the answer is so clearly "both", that I'm confused at how often people struggle with the question.

It's pretty clear that, for any common conception of action and decision, your future experiences are strongly influenced by your actions. It's equally clear that the range of possible future experiences is not infinite, but is limited by your situation.

I think I see the problem. Tell me what your response to this article is. Do you see messy self-modification in pursuit of goals at the expense of a bit of epistemic rationality to be a valid option to take? Is Dark == Bad? In your post, you say that it is generally better not to believe falsehoods. My response to that is that things which depend on what you expect to happen are the exception to that heuristic.

Life outcomes are in large part determined by your background that you can't change, but expecting to be able to change that will lead you to ignore fewer opportunities to get out of that situation. This post about luck is also relevant.

I had much the same reaction. Thanks for writing this!