Coping with Change: Locus of Control

Alexander was dumped by his girlfriend. “How could she do this to me?!” he bemoaned “Nothing I did seemed good enough for her, I was always under attack, I put up with so much, and to top it off, she cheated on me!”

Alexandra was dumped by her girlfriend. “How could I have let this happened?” she lamented “She gave me all the warning signs, I knew she wasn’t happy, I wish I’d just done more”.

Who is responsible for the bad things that happen to you? Who deserves blame for your sorrows and defeats? Who deserves praise for your joys and victories?

When we analyse the chain of events that led up to a personal triumph or disaster, we usually see that many factors influenced the outcome. These factors can be classified as either internal (something I did) or external (something that other people, or the world, did). Take Alex’s sad tale:

Alex’s girlfriend decided to end the relationship because (1) she had been unhappy for a long time, and (2) she had met someone else. For Alex, the girlfriend meeting someone else is an external factor. She was mainly unhappy because Alex did not give her much attention (an internal factor).  

Influential psychologist, Julian B Rotter, noticed that some people hold themselves to be responsible for the trajectory of life, whilst others blame circumstances outside of their control. In 1954 he developed theory of locus of control. People who believe that they are in control of their lives he believed to have an internal locus of control. People who believed that others, or society, or fate, determine their life, are said to have an external locus of control. People with an internal locus of control were said to have better mental and physical health outcomes.

Alexandra focused on the internal factors of the breakup. She has an internal locus of control.

Alexander focused on the external factors. He has an external locus of control.


The only constant is change and change is constant. Although this has always been true, change has accelerated in recent years. Our ability to cope with change is a major determinant of how mentally healthy we are. Is it better to view change as externally, or internally derived?

Our international society, bloated by years of population growth and greater global connection, has watered down the personal influence each of us has on the trajectory of politics and society and culture. Decisions that happen in the governments of other countries, or in corporate boardrooms, have much more influence than decisions made by people like us, for people like us. So many certainties of life have already fallen that its hard to feel confident about anything. In the face of this modern life, surely one can only believe in an external locus of control.

On the other hand, by some measures, the people have never had so much power. The internet has allowed us to connect with other like-minded individuals, and therefore be capable of pushing for grassroot change. Education and transparency have lifted the veil of ignorance that separated the masses from the elite for millennia. Democratic enfranchisement has given the silent of previous generations a voice. Now more than ever we should have an internal locus of control.

How to face change?

Is it better to assume responsibility for our existence, for better or for worse, or to rail against the people and structures that harm us? Seeing ourselves as powerless or empowered; in my opinion they both make a good case. There is truth in both.

Greek philosopher, Zeno the Stoic, believed that although we are powerless to alter nature and fate, are free to select our attitude toward them. Zeno told a parable of a dog getting dragged by a cart through the countryside. Regardless of how the dog strains on the leash, he will not affect the course of the cart. Freedom, for the dog, lies in understanding its limitations. Following the flow of the cart, but using whatever slack remains on the chain to go where it wishes.

How does this relate to we humans? Humans to feel more mentally healthy when we feel in control of our lives. So, we should focus attention on what we can control and accept the rest. And it is an art to differentiate between what we can control and what we cannot. This art is called wisdom, and it lies above our simple urges to blame ourselves or fate.

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