On the Locus of Control

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I have been thinking again recently about the concept of the ‘locus of control’, something I have mentioned every so often in this blog, but not mused about at length for some time. This is the idea that how you experience and interpret events is strongly shaped by where you attribute causation. If you believe that you make things happen, you have an internal locus of control; if you believe that things happen to you, your locus of control is external.

So I guess the first thing to note is why it is desirable to have an internal rather than external locus of control. On one hand, it affects how you feel about things: the sense that what you do makes a difference makes you feel more purposeful, less passive. You feel more optimistic about the future if you don’t feel like the victim of circumstance. On the other, it affects what you can achieve. Not everything we attempt is destined to succeed, but if we go in with the mindset that we can shape our own destinies, we are more likely to attempt things more often and to persevere longer in the face of obstacles.

Phrasing it like that makes it look like our locus of control is something we can choose, rather than an inherent part of our make-up - itself an internal locus of control position, I guess! This would be the contention of writers such as William Glasser (disclaimer: I’ve not actually read this, but I have a friend whose précis skills I trust who has talked in some detail about it), and of Carol Dweck, whose work on fixed versus growth mindsets is having some very useful impacts on school cultures in both the UK and the US.

I suspect that circumstances also push us to one position or the other, and I have been thinking about some of the factors that mitigate towards an external locus and what we might do about them to wrest some control back into ourselves.

  • Contest. One of the things that got me thinking about this was the way so many singers at LABBS Convention sought external validation for what they had done, and it occurred to me that the very structure of the occasion promotes this attitude. Examinations or auditions would have the same kind of dynamic - any situations in which you volunteer your efforts to be judged by others.

    (This is in some ways different from sports where your efforts are not so much judged but directly countered by others. Your success is measured in the same medium as that in which you make your attempt.)

    Of course you are going to care about the outcome in these situations - you wouldn’t enter if you didn’t think the results were meaningful for you - but going into them with some well-defined process and personal goals will help balance your experience. The overall outcome may be in other people’s hands, but there are things you can control, and doing so will give you resilience in the face of what fate may throw at you.

  • An over-committing past self. This was a weird one. During my bonkers-busy autumn of 2015, I quite often felt I was at the mercy of my diary, being bounced from one commitment to the next without space to catch my mental breath. The imperative, ‘I’ve got to do this next’ felt just as overwhelming as the workload pinch-points used to be when I was employed and other people were defining the tasks. I was aware that every thing on that to-do list was something I had chosen to put on it (and in fact that I was glad to do) but once that choice was made, it felt like the list rather than me in control of events.

    I have already had words with my future self about diary management. In theory, I should be able to prevent too many repetitions of this experience.

  • The concept of talent. I won’t rant again about this (previous expressions of opinion are here and here). But it’s on the list as a belief structure that robs the practitioner of their sense of agency. If you want to pay someone a compliment, tell them they are ‘skilled’ or ‘expert’ rather than ‘gifted’; that way they get the credit.
  • Being part of a directed ensemble. One of the points of being part of a larger group that is led by the director is that you hand over considerable executive control to that external agency so that they can coordinate you to perform together. But it is all too easy for the conductor to help themselves to control over far more than they really need, and thus hollow out their singers’ sense of personal agency. (They then complain that the group isn’t producing enough emotion in their performance....um.)

    I have this sense of having opened up a huge great bit can of worms here. At this stage in the post it is far too late to empty it out and look at everything we find in there, so for now we’ll just note that this deserves a place on this list, and that we should think about it in more detail later.

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