Here I talk about Julian Rotter's locus of control, and the implications of the research on our health, happiness and productivity. 

As per my last article(s), feel free to let me know what you think here, privately, or anonymously



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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:44 PM

I've heard this advice before, and on every occasion I've been reluctant to follow it. The thing is, I actually believe that external factors having more influence over one's life than internal ones is the factually accurate thing to believe, and every time I hear someone telling people to shift their locus of control to oneself, I can't help but dismiss it as one of those white lies you're supposed to tell yourself in order to improve your outcomes in life.

I'm not sure I can currently think about the matter clearly enough to tell whether this belief is actually a question of factual accuracy or some sort of choice one makes, but my intuitions lean strongly towards the former.


Work overdetermination into your model. Overdetermination is like execution by a firing squad, getting 12 shots of which there are 6 that would be enough to kill the condemned alone. So you cannot say which shot killed him, because you could take any away and he is still dead, in fact you could take any five of the six away and he is still dead.

Overdetermination means external factors can predict 80% of your success and yet internal factors could also predict 80% of your success.

In an overdetermined system, just because it is factually accurate that external factors have a huge influence, it does not follow they have more influence than internal ones or that the internal ones are still not huge.

The mistake here may be that you examine the firing squad victim and you find a bullet through the heart with "external factors" written on it, and you stop the investigation there because it is clearly enough to cause the death and thus you have your answer. But you would find another five bullets in another crucial locations with "internal factors" written on them which kill the victim just as well.

Speculatively, people who have never suffered a serious setback at the hands of others may be biased in favor of thinking they are the only ones who exercise control over their own outcomes. That might well explain why they self-report as happier- they're less likely to be inconvenienced!

It sounds like a virtually impossible task to disentangle internal and external factors to see which plays a bigger role, honestly. Any given incident may have causes that come from both camps, and any given event can easily be interpreted either way. As in, were you turned down at the job interview because the HR guy dislikes candidates wearing blue ties, or because you exercised a poor fashion sense decision and wore a blue tie the HR guy didn't like?

The latter attitude of internalizing everything sounds suspiciously like treating everyone else as an NPC...

Does anyone know if chronic narcissists or psychopaths are on average likely to self-report as happier than regular people?

This, I think. It looks to me like an attempt to deliberately invoke the Fundamental Attribution Error on oneself.

That said, I still think there's a core of use here. Picture a game involving a couple of dice -- say one four-sided die and one six-sided die. To win the game you need to roll above, say, 8. The catch is that the d6 is rolled as usual (chance), but the d4 can be influenced -- in the easiest case you can just set it on the table however you like, harder cases require some set of difficult actions to get a particular roll.

It's pretty clear that you have some control over this outcome. In fact, it's necessary to exert some control if you want to win, because the chance die can't reach the winning value alone. On the other hand, sometimes chance will screw you sufficiently thoroughly that no amount of effort will suffice. This seems like a pretty good model of how life works, and justifies discarding both the "it's all me, I put all this effort in and failed and that is evidence that I am a Platonic Failure" attitude and the "it's all chance, no point in putting in the effort" attitude.

I think of internal vs. external locus as more like a decision or a purpose than a belief.

The article leads with a poll that asks the reader about agreement with statements whose meaning depends on ill-defined politicized words. I'll cite the first question:

Select the statement (a or b) that you agree with the most.
a) Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck.
b) People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.

A poll like this can be seen as either a poll on respondents' definitions of the words, or as being intended to use the meaning assumed by poll's author (we are not told which one it should be; I think the respondents are not supposed to notice the distinction). The second option is too misleading for this particular poll, as there is a wide distribution of people's preferences about these words and we don't know very much about the author. The first option is particularly annoying when you notice how some words don't have settled meanings, forming statements that don't have well-defined truth value. Agreement with such statements is not informed by factual or moral questions, but is a function of definitions of their terms and can't be evaluated when the terms remain undefined. I have no preference on definition of ill-defined politicized words (my preference is to use better tools, not to use bad tools in a particular way, especially when there is no principled way of improving them), so I can't supply these definitions.

I read the article as a piece of self-help/personal development writing. Part of the corresponding reading protocol is that I interpret all questions to the reader at the beginning as being intended to prime a response contrasting with the article's message.

Anyway, those three questions are just the short form quoted from the slides in reference [4]. The full version used as a psychological scale is linked in reference [1]. It includes the scoring key. I achieved a perfect "internal locus" score, even though I left two questions unanswered. They and several others turned out to be unscored. I guess they are there to camouflage the purpose of the test. (I presume that when the test is actually administered, it isn't labelled in big letters, "Rotter's Locus of Control Scale".)

The article asks the questions of the reader, it doesn't just cite the poll as a tool used in standard experiments. I find the article's suggestion to answer such questions deplorable, as it requires the reader to at least play along with the confusion in the questions, instead of fixing or sidestepping it. Even as a tool, the problems with the questions suggest looking for better tools, although that's probably outside the scope of the article.

Saying that language is ill-defined dodges the issue. People do have beliefs and those beliefs are made up of language.

Maybe it's helpful to think about the question as checking aliefs. Which of the two resonates more? Which produces a bigger feeling of agreement?

Working with people who are in denial about their beliefs they have because they focus on a intellectual answer to such a question can be hard.

Agreement with such statements is not informed by factual or moral questions, but is a function of definitions of their terms and can't be evaluated when the terms remain undefined.

That's also not the point of the exercise. The exercise is about taking account for the beliefs that the reader holds

Which of the two resonates more? Which produces a bigger feeling of agreement?

Such things can be easily and dramatically changed by minor adjustments to expressions used -- that has been demonstrated repeatedly and pollsters know that very well.

The point of a psychological test instead getting polling results. It doesn't make sense to treat the test the same way as an opinion poll.

By the way, the title string of the blog page reads "Blog - CFARCFAR | Center for Applied Rationality". That's three CFARs in one title.

I just wanted to point out that the article says "People who see outcomes, both good and bad, to be due to their own doing are said to have a strong internal locus (the left side of the below scale)." but the scale shows the internal locus on the right.

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