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The Secret to Success is the Belief That We Can Control It

Thank you for participating in this experiment. There are three pairs of statements listed below. For each pair, please select the statement that best describes how you feel. This task shouldn’t take more than one minute.

  1. Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck.
  2. People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.

 

  1. One of the major reasons why we have wars is because people don’t take enough interest in politics.
  2. There will always be wars, no matter how hard people try to prevent them.

 

  1. The average citizen can have an influence in government decisions.
  2. This world is run by the few people in power, and there is not much the little guy can do about it.

These are just a few questions taken from a test developed nearly fifty years ago by a psychologist named Julian Rotter. At the time, Rotter was developing a concept he called “locus of control.” He noticed that people who have an “internal locus of control” believe that they are responsible for their own fates–success is a function of hard work and luck favors the prepared mind. Others have an “external locus of control.” For them, we’re powerless pawns in a game of chance.

Over the subsequent decades, Rotter and other researchers discovered that where people fall on this spectrum depends on a few variables. Japanese tend to have an external locus of control while Americans tend to have an internal locus of control. People close with a family member or a friend who died in a traumatic event or from a debilitating disease are more externally oriented.

It also matters when you’re from. In a survey published several years ago, Jean Twenge and two colleagues found that since 1962, college students have become more external over time. Today, as Gerd Gigerenzer reports in his latest book Risk Savvy, the average college student scores more externally than 80 percent of his peers did in the early 1960s.

Twenge’s finding is puzzling. Aren’t individualism and self-expression at an all-time high? Rock n’ Roll won, birth control is readily available, and race and gender prejudices are lessening. We have greater freedom to direct our lives and do what we want, marry who we want, and blog and tweet what we think. Is it possible that individualism hasincreased while the locus of control has become more external?

There are at least two reasons to think so. Younger generations are victims–yes, victims–of the self-serving bias. They are quick to blame misfortunes on the world and take credit for things that work. Social movements in the 60s and 70s dispelled the 1950s myth that, with enough hard work, anyone can make it. Students who underperform are more likely to blame a learning disability–it wasn’t me, it was my ADD! We’re living in an era of “victim mentality.”

The media also exaggerates negative events, thus creating a culture of fear (it’s 9pm, do you know where your kids are?). According to the news, planes are dangerous, the world is at war, and Ebola is about to wipe out humanity. As a result of this sensationalism, cynicism and distrust are high and civic participation is low. It’s a fertile ground for the external mindset.

The worrisome implication is that at work and in school, an external focus correlates with poor performance and laziness. If the world is run by the few people in power, and there is not much the little guy can do about it, why bother? On the other hand, when we believe that we can control outcomes–when we believe that we write our own history–we’re less willing to sit back and passively watch the future unfold. We don’t blame bad outcomes on bad luck but a lack of effort, so we make a point to try harder the next time.

One way to embody an internal focus is to understand intelligence, talent, and work ethic as skills to be developed. That’s why grit and good mentors and teachers are so important. Everyone screws up–the important part is being reminded that how we respond determines how productive and creative we actually are. Do we ignore the deadlock, assuming we unluckily got pit against the hard problem? Or do we dive deeper, believing that the answer is within our grasp?

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Books Mentioned in this Post

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer

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