What is an internal locus of control?
In first grade, I won a raffle. It was just a sticker, but I was in shock. Seconds before my teacher pulled the paper out of the hat, I envisioned my name being called. Immediately after that vision, my name was called.

It was my first coincidence, but in my naive, six-year-old mind, I thought I willed it to happen. For a while, I was convinced I could control every aspect of my life, from stickers to the weather.

Of course, that feeling would wear off over the years, and sometimes, I would feel utterly powerless, like the Universe worked against me. Overall, though, I’ve always had a strong (maybe too strong) sense of control. I’ve always felt that if I do the right things and work hard, I can manipulate the course of my life just the way I want it. That’s why I took it so hard when I was laid off a few years ago–but more on that later.

Psychologists have a name for this: an internal locus of control.

I had never heard this term before. Then I cracked open Charles Duhigg’s new book, Smarter, Faster, Better, and read about people who believe they can “influence their destiny through the choices they made.” Recently, I had a chance to talk to Duhigg about this concept, what influences it, and how to build it if you don’t have it. 

What Is an Internal Locus of Control?

Researchers have been studying this concept since the 1950s, and there’s a good measure for figuring out whether you have an internal or external locus of control. How do you feel when things go wrong–is it always your fault or is it outside forces working against you? And when things go right, do you give yourself credit or do you just feel lucky? If you feel outside forces are responsible for your fate, good or bad, you have an external locus of control. If you blame and credit yourself, you have an internal one.

Research shows there are few advantages associated with an internal locus of control.

  • Academic success
  • Self-motivation
  • Lower rates of stress

“We know that most people seem to be born with almost biological and neurological instincts for the internal locus of control,” Duhigg told me.

You can see it in babies. When they learn to control the action of food going into their mouths, they’ll fight for the control to feed themselves, Duhigg says. Even as babies, we want to take control of our destinies. Even if that destiny is just to shove Cheerios in our faces.

“When people lose that internal locus of control, when it shifts to an external locus of control, it’s oftentimes because of our environment,” Duhigg said. “We’ve been taught essentially that we can’t have control. We’ve learned helplessness. 

That’s bad news if you want to, say, get your finances together, find a better job, or get out of debt. When you don’t think your actions matter, it’s a struggle to get very far with any goal.  Duhigg says:

“The question then becomes: how do we reawaken that belief that someone is in charge of their own destiny?”

The good news is: an internal locus of control is a skill. If you’ve lost it, you can relearn it.

Focus on Choices

Choices are everything. Duhigg talks about how choices and decisions help develop a sense of control.

“Carol Dweck, a psychologist, what she says is – and, studies back her up on this – if a kid does really well on an exam, you shouldn’t say, ‘You must be really smart,’ because being smart is not something that a kid thinks that they control. Instead, you should say things like, ‘You must have worked really hard.’”

This, Duhigg points out, teaches the kid that he or she is in control.  You praise them for their abilities, not things outside their power.

“You make clear to people how their choices, how their actions have these positive outcomes. Then you put them into situations where they actually have to make controlled choices and in doing so they learn.”

You can use this advice to your own advantage. Forget about the things you can’t control, focus on the things you can, then take action to feel powerful–even if it’s a tiny action.

For example, the economy still sucks and student debt rates are crazy high. There’s not much you can do about that, but focus on what you can control:

  • The college you attend
  • The degree you get
  • Where you’ll live
  • Whether you’ll buy a meal plan
  • How many roommates you’ll live with

Your own choices will vary, of course. But the point is just to focus on all the things–even the small things– you can control amidst the many things you can’t. Gradually, you’ll start to feel more powerful.

Here’s another example. For a long time, there was one area I did not feel an internal locus of control: my salary. I didn’t negotiate, and I never asked for higher rates. Eventually, I learned to ask for more, and I was stoked when clients said yes–but I was even happy when they rejected me. Why? Because I still made the decision to ask. I took action, and that action was empowering.

Find the Balance Between Control and Acceptance

Of course, a super strong internal locus of control can backfire. When I was laid off, I was depressed for months because I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I wasn’t perfect, no, but I worked hard and stressed over every detail about that job. Where did I go wrong?

It took me a long time to understand that there’s only so much I can control. Sometimes, shit just happens. When I came to that realization, I regained my motivation and bounced back emotionally.

An external locus of control can come in handy. In this study from the University of Muenster, for example, researchers found that people who have an external locus of control cope better with death. Sometimes understanding that there are some things you can’t control, like mortality, offers relief.  

When it comes to your motivation and productivity, though, you want to harness the power of an internal locus of control. Everything from your age to your upbringing to your culture can have a huge impact on your sense of control. This is why even small, tiny actions can make a big difference to your financial goals, career goals–whatever. They add up, but more importantly, they make you feel in control of your own destiny.

What do y’all think? Do you have more of an internal or external locus of control?

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Learn more about her here.

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