The Internal vs External Locus of Control Trap

Internal vs External Locus of Control
Internal vs External Locus of Control

Yesterday, I wrote about how our beliefs about who or what controls our lives affect our ability to maintain healthy habits. 

Today I’m asking, internal vs external locus of control – is one perspective really better than the other? 

External locus of control: When things go wrong, the blame lies elsewhere.
External locus of control: When things go wrong, the blame lies elsewhere.

An internal locus of control emphasizes our ability to control our own lives. In contrast, an external locus of control believes that others and outside forces govern our life. 

Research on Internal vs External Locus of Control

Some studies show a strong correlation between internal locus of control and healthier habits, but others don’t. 

For example, a 2012 study from the University of Cape Town concluded, “overall the health locus of control construct was found to be a weak predictor of health behaviour.”

And a 2011 study published in Current Psychology found successful aging was associated with greater reliance on external locus of control!

The Australian study I reviewed yesterday concluded, “We find strong evidence that those with an internal locus of control eat healthier food, exercise more, and smokeless.”  

A majority chose internal locus of control: 

The overwhelming majority of Australians who filled out the study’s research questionnaire were in the internal locus of control camp, believing they could: 

  • Control most things that happen to them. 
  • Solve most of their problems. 
  • Accomplish most things they try to achieve. 

But another study looked at internal vs external locus of control views in 43 countries. Americans ranked more solidly in the internal locus of control group than Australians. 

So, if we’re overwhelmingly in the internal locus of control group, shouldn’t we also succeed at keeping healthy habits?

The American record on maintaining healthy habits:

This research examined how well Americans adhered to five habits between 1988 and 2006. Among adults aged 40 to 74, three of the five habits worsened – and significantly! 

  • The adults with body mass indexes over 30 rose from 28 to 36 percent.
  • The adults physically active twelve or more times a month fell from 53 to 43 percent. 
  • Those consuming five or more fruits and vegetables a day dropped from 42 to 26 percent. 
  • In the only positive development, moderate (as opposed to excessive) alcohol consumption rose from 40 to 51 percent.
  • Smoking rates barely changed, decreasing from 26.9 to 26.1percent

And the number of those practicing all five habits went from 15 to 8 percent in just 18 years. As of 2006, only 1 in 12 Americans were following all of these habits.

And I’d dare to say that figure hasn’t improved since then.

What’s wrong with this picture? 

We say we’re in control of our own lives, but we don’t live as if we were. I’m among the 1 in 12 US adults who practice these five healthy habits. However, like almost everyone, I regularly fall short of my goals and intentions. 

Better Question: Who or What Do We Blame? 

Who or what we blame for failing in our resolutions might give a clearer picture of our actual beliefs. Do we blame external factors like: 

  • Covid-19, sickness, or aches and pains?
  • Employers, business partners, employees, or co-workers?
  • The weather or our calendars? 
  • The media or government? 
  • Our parents or friends?

or whatever else life dishes out? 

When things don’t go right for me, I blame external factors as often as not. My mix of internal vs external locus of control beliefs is greater than I realized. 

My internal vs external locus of control concerning my habits: 

I thought I was the master of my fate and captain of my soul. Yet, I spent most of my adult life trying to:

  • establish better sleep habits
  • write daily 
  • exercise consistently

and eat well.

And I failed over and over again.

I envied others who stayed faithful to their New Year’s Resolutions or other good habits. Believing I was responsible and in control didn’t always translate to behaving that way!

Over the past few years, I’ve gone from having overconfidence in my sense of internal control and lacking outer self-control to:

  • awakening early every morning
  • eating my greens and veggies without fail
  • completing 1,000 pushups a day

and writing 5,000 words a week. 

So what changed? 

I didn’t start accomplishing my goals by swinging to the other extreme. I stopped seeing one belief as better than the other and strengthened my faith in both. 

My new paradigm is no longer an internal vs external, but an internal and external locus of control. 

My mind and self-control are like muscles that I can keep exercising and strengthening. But they’ll always be woefully limited. 

To have genuine control, I must acknowledge my limitations. Only then will I learn to accept whatever life brings. 

Bi-Local Expectancy: 

Internal vs external locus of control? These two extremes are often at odds when they should be working together. A healthy worldview embraces both. wake up and smell the rain - Internal vs External Locus of Control

Psychologists call this “bi-local expectancy.” In one study, researchers found that those who balance their internal and external loci of control attain a “maximum level of happiness.” 

The next time it rains, I can grab my umbrella. Or, I can just start dancing.

The choice is mine, but whatever it is, I can also accept the rain as the absolute best thing possible at that moment. 

It’s time to reframe internal vs external locus of control, not as two opposing beliefs, but as a perfect unity!

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