Internal or external focus and responsibility

Think back to one of the last tests you ever took in school, how did you do? If you scored highly did you attribute your success to the efforts of the teacher, your efforts as a student, or blind luck? If you scored low did you attribute your poor performance to your teacher’s failed efforts to teach, your failed efforts to learn, or, again, blind luck? This is a common example found in introductory psychology text books for explaining internal and external locus of control. Essentially, the question is whether you hold yourself accountable for your actions or you blame others for what happens to you. It may be the case that when you are successful you embrace an internal locus of control, giving the credit to self, but when you fail you adopt an external locus of control, blaming others for the results of your actions. To be fair, there are influences in both cases so in some ethereal way we could argue that there is no absolute internal or external control in every situation. I guess it wouldn’t even be ethereal, that’s pretty much common sense. The point isn’t to look at why or how these attitudes of control exist, but rather to look at the results of each perspective.

We can’t control things we can’t control, right? I can’t control the weather, no matter how badly I might want to some days. So if the weather interferes with my plans, say, like the time my brother and I were driving across the country to the university we were attending  and it snowed on us most of the way. It isn’t my preference to drive in arctic conditions for over two thousand miles, but it happened. I couldn’t control the situation, but I could control my response to it. For me this suggests it is better to develop an internal locus of control, to focus on personal responsibility. If I can’t change something then I don’t want to worry about it. I think I’m better off focusing on what I can control and adapting to or processing everything else as best I can. Whether or not I’m successful at taking an internal locus approach is a work in progress, but I think that route is my best option.

When I look at society I see a lot of troubles. Poverty is a big one and has many different ways of expressing itself. Poverty leads to inadequate housing, food, and health care, to name a few. Now, I can’t fix the poverty issues for everyone, but I can work on my own poverty issues. If I take the external locus of control/minimal to non-existent individual responsibility approach I will blame others for my poverty state. I can blame my parents for not giving me more money; I can blame my employer for not paying me better; I can blame the government for either taking too much of my money or not giving me enough in unemployment or welfare handouts; I can blame the schools for not training me better; I can blame anyone for anything and free myself of responsibility. But where does this get me? Do any of these scenarios of blame help me get out of poverty? No. Depending on how good I am at complaining or how many others I can link up with a change may occur, but it likely won’t be one that improves me, just the situation, perhaps. More handouts won’t get me anywhere in the long run.

You can give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he will eat for a lifetime (provided he has access to a fish filled body of water, and the right tools…call me a realist). But lets introduce his responsibility into it: he can accept the gift of your fish and blame you for not bringing more, or he can learn to fish and not be dependent on anyone else.

give a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime

Something for nothing leads to dependency. Independence takes effort, but is worth the work

Now in my poverty if I take the internal locus of control approach I will accept responsibility for my situation. It may be the case that external forces have contributed to my poverty status, but focusing on them won’t help me. Instead, I focus on what I can to do correct the situation. If I am under-educated I can return to school; if I am under-employed I can look for a new job or show my current employer how I can contribute more and ask for better compensation; if the government is taking too much I can campaign and vote for those who will govern in accordance with Constitutional principles better. I could even run for office myself, that’d kill two birds with one stone. Maybe my example isn’t very good, but the message still holds up. When I focus on controlling what I do have control over – my emotions, my attitude, my thoughts, my actions – I will have greater control over my experience and broader satisfaction in life.

Individual responsibility is a great gift; it is the result of individual will or agency. In order to be free to live independently and by my own thinking I need to accept the responsibility of natural consequences, and even man-made consequences, that come with free will. As far as parenting goes I only have eight months of personal experience so far, but I’ve seen a lot of parenting done in real life and on television. All of that combines into what I call society’s approach to parenting. In this approach I hear a lot of “no, you can’t do that,” or “stop it!” There’s nothing wrong with these phrases, sometimes they will be necessary, but is the mentality behind them one of guidance or control? I think it is important to provide options in order to foster healthy decision making rather than exercise control over children. I believe it is through learning to make decisions that personal responsibility is encouraged, and it is through personal responsibility that a lot of the troubles we see in the world today may be overcome.

About paulbrodie

I am a writer and a musician. My education is in psychology with emphasis in industrial/organizational psychology. My work experience has been primarily with electronic document management. Academically and intellectually I am interested in criminology and sociology. I am married to my favorite person in the world and we have one daughter.
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