“It’s not what is happening to us, it’s whether or not we see ourselves as the source of the solution moving forward.”
Defining Locus Of Control (LOC)
Locus of Control (LOC) was first described by Rotter in 1966. Locus of Control refers to how individuals attribute the cause(s) of events in their life. This cognitive style has an impact on subsequent approaches to problem solving. We measure LOC using the Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale. This 29 item questionnaire asks respondents to choose between two items for each question. Individuals are then categorized as either having an external or internal LOC.
Internal vs. External LOC
An Internal Locus Of Control (ILOC) indicates that the individual sees their own actions as the primary influence determining any given situation and outcome in their life. In other words, if someone with high ILOC fails an exam, they look within themselves and evaluate how much they studied and whether they found the right sources in the course of studying for the exam. On the other hand, using this same example, those with an External Locus Of Control (ELOC), point to the exam as being poorly written or out of context to the lectures and materials given by the instructor.
This negative connotation with ELOC should be looked at a bit more closely before we conclude that ELOC is to be avoided in every situation. Note that research looking into ILOC vs. ELOC in collectivistic cultures indicates that ELOC may not impact individuals as negatively as once thought (in terms of mood) compared those living in a more individualistic society (Western culture).
Research Findings on Mood
It appears that, at least in Western societies, an ILOC has a reverse relationship with depression – Viewing depressed symptoms as something that emerges as a result of distorted thinking patterns and poorly chosen behaviours, actually provides the pathway to improved mood. Conversely, viewing the source of how one feels as resulting from events that happens ‘to’ them from an external force (e.g., brain chemistry), actually decreases mood. This likely is related to a strong sense of Self-Efficacy seen in ILOC individuals.
Shifting Your Locus Of Control
Seeing that the evidence points to the importance of having an internal focus as the source of the outcomes in our life, and that this internal focus is contrary to depressed mood, we have put together three approaches that encourage an Internal Locus of Control. From the context of coaching someone to improve exam scores (because that example works well), these are as follows:
- Encourage The Scientific Mind: Think like a researcher. The benefit of thinking in this somewhat detached way, removes you from taking the outcome personally. That is, when you see the outcome as something to observe, you quickly have the ability to shift into problem solving your original approach.
- Remove The Crisis of “Failure”: Remove all-or-nothing thinking. A low score on an exam does not equal failure in contrast to success. See outcomes as feedback that require you to evaluate what led up to the outcome. All-or-nothing thinking leaves you feeling stuck and perfectionistic.
- Promote Self-Efficacy as a Building Block: The road to an Internal Locus of Control is believing that you have the power to effect the outcomes in your life by making changes to your approach. When you do not get the outcome you want, you shift your approach again and again until you reach the final outcome you desire. Over time, persistence leads to better scores on exams.