Believing You Are In Control Of Your Life
In order to feel independent and free and responsible for what happens, you must see yourself as having some control over the situation, over your own behavior, and over the outcome of the situation. Otherwise, you see yourself as helpless and at the mercy of the "powers that be" or fate or chance. We have already discussed self-efficacy, i.e. faith in your ability to handle a specific situation, in chapters 4 and 5 (also see method #9 in chapter 14). That is important but doesn't need to be repeated here; however, the concept of internal or external locus of control does need to be briefly described because it is another important aspect of passivity and dependency.
Some people believe they are in almost complete control of what happens in their lives. They are called "internalizers" because they assume the locus of the controls over their lives to be internal, i.e. inside them (or inside the space ship you are in charge of). Likewise, Humanists and Existentialists believe that we are internalizers and have choices to make that determine what happens to us. Thus, we are responsible for our future and for what we feel.
Self-discipline is when you tell yourself to do something and you don't talk back.
-W. K. Hope
Other people believe they are not at all in control of what happens to them (these people feel like they are merely riding a space ship controlled by a control center far away). It seems to them that external forces, such as other people, fate, luck or chance, are responsible for what happens to them. Such people are "externalizers." At first, it may seem like externalizers would be hopeless, scared, and paranoid. Some are but others are optimistic and blissful because they believe "things happen for the best," life is guided by a kind fate and/or by God's will, or a benevolent God is looking out for them.
Many learning theorists, such as B. F. Skinner, believe that forces in the environment (including previously learned response habits based on rewards and punishment) determine what happens in our lives. This eliminates free will (meaning an undetermined choice--one which is of our doing at this moment and not explained by the environment or our past experience). Yet, many if not most people feel as if they make "free" choices and are in control. How could we get the belief that we are directing our lives if everything were determined by external factors (which I don't believe)? Because it "seems like" we are planning and directing our lives, at least some parts of it. I believe that is an accurate perception, but, in addition, research has shown that in certain circumstances there is a remarkable tendency to believe we are in control when we aren't. For instance, Langer (1975) sold $1 lottery tickets. One half got a randomly selected ticket; the other half got to select their own ticket. Then she asked them how much they would sell their ticket for. The first group would take on average $1.96. The second group wanted an average of $8.67, presumably asking much more because they believed it was more likely to win. So it is quite possible to believe you are in control when you aren't. (And, as we saw in Seligman's helplessness research in chapter 6, the opposite may be true too: dogs and many humans too may believe they are out of control when they aren't. More on this later.)
Why might a person believe they have control when they haven't? This view provides hope (of winning the lottery, etc.) and makes the world less scary and more predictable and comfortable. Indeed, considerable evidence suggests we are more effective, more responsible, and happier when we feel we are partially in control, i.e. have made the decisions and carried out the plans for changing things (Deaux & Wrightsman, 1984). But, of course, it is usually impossible to know exactly how much of our good fortune is due to our efforts and how much is due to others, fate, or chance. It is, to some extent, a matter of "beliefs."
Several years ago Julian Rotter developed a simple but now famous personality test for measuring internalization-externalization, called the I-E Scale. It asks these kinds of questions in order to measure your beliefs about your control over life events:
Once you understand the concept, the internalizer answers are obvious, so you can get a good idea of how you would score on such a test.
- Are most unhappy events in your life the result of bad luck or your mistakes?
- Does it pay to prepare a lot for tests or is it impossible to study for most tests?
- Can ordinary people influence the government or do a few people in power run things?
- Do good friendships just happen because the chemistry is right or do friendships happen because both people are making attempts to get along?
- Does it pay to carefully plan things out in detail or do most things just work out as a matter of good or bad fortune anyhow?
- Is what happens to you mostly your own doing or are most things beyond your control?
What does being an internalizer or externalizer have to do with dependency? If we consider our internal cognitive processes, such as thoughts, skills, and decision-making, to be unimportant in determining what we do, it seems unlikely that we would become resourceful, self-reliant self-helpers. If we thought external forces ruled our lives, we'd do little but look for help from others, human service agencies, employers, government, God, or fate. Perhaps we'd adopt an Eastern philosophy that says the universe is unfolding as it should and our lot is to quietly, serenely accept whatever happens.
Beier and Valens (1975) have taken an attributional approach to this issue and described five common targets of blame when things go wrong: (1) other people, especially parents, siblings, friends, teachers, bosses or traits in others involving selfishness, hostility, stupidity, prejudice or other forms of maladjustment or malice; (2) forces beyond our control, such as the government, a lack of money or time, or fate; (3) ourselves, in the form of self-blame for physical appearance, size, inability, nervousness, temper and so on; (4) objects, such as defective or unreliable equipment--the late train, a computer error, etc.; and (5) social-psychological circumstances, including deprived or traumatic childhood experiences, poverty, poor parents, poor education and so on. These targets of blame, including self-blame (internal), become reasons for doing nothing because we see the problems as beyond our control. Surely this is one way to become pessimistic and passive.
On the other hand, believing we are in control of the situation has a powerful impact on our behavior. We try harder. Pain and fears aren't as disruptive if we believe we can control them to some extent. A dramatic but gruesome illustration of this was done by Curt Richter with rats. Wild rats are very good swimmers, being able to stay alive for 80 hours or so in water. However, if they are restrained so they can't escape and frightened right before being put in the water, many will die after a few minutes of frantic swimming. By the way, they don't drown; they just suddenly stop swimming and die. It is as if they give up. Yet, if just a few seconds before dying the rats are permitted to escape from the water, the next time they are put into the water they will swim 40 or 60 or 80 hours. They apparently have learned to have hope. We all need hope.
The little I-E Scale has resulted in extensive research (Lefcourt, 1976; Phares, 1976). Internalizers try harder to change their environment and to change themselves. This involves being more perceptive, gathering more information, remembering it better, and using more facts and care in decision-making about how to cope. Internalizers may be less likely to blindly follow orders; they are more likely to realize there are choices to be made and rely on their own judgment. Of course, when internalizers fail, it is harder for them to say "it isn't important" or "it's someone else's fault" than it is for externalizers. Yet, externalizers are more anxious (lack of hope?).
Strong people make as many and as ghastly mistakes as weak people. The difference is that strong people admit them, laugh at them, learn from them. That is how they become strong.
Remember, regardless of how little confidence you have now in your self-control, there are some internalizer beliefs and some externalizer beliefs in all of us. Furthermore, how we see ourselves (internalizer or externalizer) may depend upon the situation and on whether we are considering successful outcomes or failures. Most importantly, as we gain self-control skills we become more confident internalizers.
There is a tendency, supported by research, to think of internalizers as being healthy and externalizers as being maladjusted. There is some logic to this; however, Rotter believed extremes in both directions were unhealthy. Internalizers may overestimate their control (there is no guarantee that an internalizer will be competent and some situations are unchangeable) and may be disappointed when they don't get what they wanted--and/or they may feel especially guilty and sad about failing. Externalizers overlook their opportunities to influence the situation and may feel unnecessarily helpless. Ideal, as I see it, would be to maximize your control where possible and, at the same time, increase your acceptance of the unavoidable (the Serenity Prayer).
It should be noted that other overlapping factors are important in accounting for our lives, in addition to the internal or external locus of control. For example, there are stable and unstable factors, like intellect is fairly stable but mood is changeable. Weiner (1980) concluded that stable factors influence our expectation of success even more than the locus of control. Naturally some of the internal factors are not stable--our talents and skills will vary from task to task, our effort or mood will fluctuate too, etc. Also, as one can see, there is a question about which factors are controllable (or intentional) and which are not, e.g. perhaps you can control how hard you try but you can't control other peoples' motivation or their ability.
As one might imagine, internalizers and externalizers prefer different kinds of therapy--and probably different kinds of self-help methods. Both respond to rewards but externalizers are not very motivated by the threat of punishment (Deaux & Wrightsman, 1984). Internalizers prefer a therapy in which they can actively participate and from which they can learn how to handle their own concerns. They probably incorporate self-help ideas easily because that is their natural inclination: "how can I use this to mold my world?" Externalizers prefer a therapy that is directive or authoritative (Lefcourt, 1976). They have greater difficulty seeing the relevance of self-help and remembering to use the information. Once used successfully, however, the self-help methods should be self-reinforcing, even in an externalizer.
The explanation we have of our world is complex--but it is important in understanding how we react and feel about our lives, our selves and our future. Lefcourt (1976) says, "...man must come to be more effective and able to perceive himself as the determiner of his fate if he is to live comfortably with himself." To cope, you need to feel responsible and more in control.
How to become an internalizer
One way, if you had a choice, is to be born into a warm, protective, nurturing, middle or upper class family which models success and encourages independence and self-reliance. Other ways involve learning through experience and training that you can change things, that you have the ability to self-help and influence others, that the future is partly your responsibility. There is evidence that applied psychology courses and workshops, personally useful books, self-help projects, personal growth experiences, and certain skill-oriented therapies increase the internal orientation. This book is designed to give you control over your life, i.e. help you be a realistic internalizer.
To accomplish great things, we must not only act but also dream, not only plan but also believe.
Learning Independent Decision-making
You can readily see the extent that our parents, institutions, culture, and peer groups and our own needs and history make decisions for us and control us. But, if you aren't making decisions, you are dependent. It is not simple to decide how and when to take charge of our lives. To many young people it seems that they must defiantly oppose everyone telling them "how to do things" or else cave in to the pressures from all sides. Fortunately, there is a middle ground because one person can not decide everything entirely on their own and, besides, many external influences incorporate the "wisdom of the ages" that should not be contemptuously rejected (Campbell, 1975). The middle ground is making our own decisions as best we can and as often as we can, but accepting established customs or well informed opinions in situations where we can not make a decision for ourselves.
When we are overly compliant, it means we are (1) discounting our own decision-making ability, (2) denying the possibility that each situation is unique warranting an individualized decision, and (3) accepting the foolish notion that traditional social practices are based on all there is to know about the human condition. Surely, social attitudes about the "right thing to do" in 2095 will be as different as current attitudes are from 1895. However, no matter how logical it is to make your own decisions and be less conforming and more responsible, it isn't possible in every instance nor is it easy.