“Locus of control” is a concept in psychology that addresses how we answer that question. Originally developed in the 1950s by Julian Rotter, locus of control theory refers to our attitude about the main causes of events in our lives. It is best viewed as a continuum rather than a binary construct.
The poles of that continuum range from “internal” (believing one has a high degree of control over life’s events) to “external” (events are controlled by outside forces). I suppose one could also take that construct one level deeper and ask whether our belief about our personal locus of control is because we were born with some locus of control gene or did we learn that attitude. (Psychology research suggests it is largely learned.)
Nations can vary widely in their attitude toward locus of control. Americans, with our common history of impoverished and persecuted immigrants overcoming great perils and achieving success, have more faith in self-determination than Europeans, even though Europe is where many of our ancestors came from. A 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey asked residents of various countries if success in life is determined by forces outside our control. Seventy-two percent of Germans answered yes compared to only 36% of Americans. I recently read that in Egypt Masha’ allah – This is what God has willed – is a common social greeting, which makes me suspect that on the locus of control axis Egyptians are more like Germans than Americans.
Positions on either side of the continuum have plusses and minuses. We can expect to find more business start-ups in societies having faith in internal locus of control, and less initiative and more apathy where external locus of control is the prevailing attitude. Conversely, people with an external locus of control can be happier, more easygoing. Que sera, sera.
An internal locus of control can result in excessive self-blame for setbacks. The New York Times recently reported that Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who studied unemployed white-collar workers, found that in the United States they view their ability to land a job as a personal reflection of their self-worth rather than a matter of arbitrary luck. They take rejection hard, blaming themselves, frequently giving up seeking work, and sinking into hopelessness. In Israel, by contrast, similar unemployed workers view getting a job “as more like winning a lottery, and were less discouraged by rejection.”
Our assumptions about locus of control carry over into the political realm. A culture that views success as due mostly to hard work and initiative will be less supportive of a safety net than when success is seen as due more to luck or fate. One criticism of Donald Trump is that he is a man who was born on third base but believes he hit a home run – a really huge home run.
Consider what happens when economic sectors shift or even collapse due to macro-forces beyond any individual’s control, such as deindustrialization and globalization. What do we first assume when we hear that someone is on welfare? Are they lazy or were they sidelined by macro economic forces? Our answer influences how we vote. In the U.S. this dynamic is burdened by an added layer of race; Robert Putnam and other sociologists have found that we are more likely to answer “lazy” if a welfare recipient is different in skin color.
For artists there are at least two ways locus of control is relevant. In the narrative arts such as novel and script writing, a passive protagonist by definition has an external locus of control. Rather than taking action, he is acted upon. A passive protagonist can be counted on to generate a consistent reaction in a reader or audience – boredom. Regardless in what country a play or movie is seen, audiences are more emotionally invested in characters who take action.
And then there are the careers of artists. Probably no field of human endeavor sees more rejection and failure than the arts. An artist whose locus of control hovers over the internal side of the continuum is more likely to be resilient when the rejections knock her around. Having an internal locus of control won’t keep her from getting pummeled by adversity, but it will help her get back up and engage the battle another day.
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