Remote Control.

I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s newest book, Smarter, Faster, Better (which debuts today–I’ll review it in the next week or so), and the first chapter deals with a concept that may be familiar to students of psychology or counseling but was new to me: internal and external locus of control.

Who’s in Charge Here?

In lay terms, someone with an internal locus of control believes that their choices can affect their lives. They have the power to make changes, to make a difference, and to chart the course of their own path.  This leads such a person to take responsibility for their circumstances and make decisions that are meant to lead to a desired outcome.

Conversely, someone with an external locus of control sees their life as being affected by outside forces that are indifferent to them (or even opposed to them). A person with an external locus of control sees his or her life as being directed or at least affected by these external forces, and due to this, their best efforts will still be moderated, if not totally undone, by these forces.

The result of this is that people with an internal locus of control feel like they can change their lives for the better, and it’s up to them to do so, while people with an external locus of control tend to believe that they need help from the outside in order to make any positive changes in their lives.

(I realize this may be a gross over-simplification of the concept, and it’s probably more complicated than that. If you have more experience with the idea, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!)

We Don’t Need Another Hero

In thinking about this idea, one can even make the jump to social and political ideology. It’s not hard to see that some political positions work from an internal locus of control; they focus on self-reliance, personal responsibility, and limited involvement from outside forces. Others work from an external locus of control; they emphasize systemic issues that require systemic solutions, and de-emphasize the ability of an individual or  family unit to overcome such challenges, which require outside assistance (usually in the form of governmental intervention) in order for such individuals to succeed.

Each stance has its inherent dangers at the extremes. People with an internal locus of control struggle with having a solely-inward focus, caring only for themselves or their family and ignoring the needs of the people around them. (For example, consider Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy as an extreme example.) Such a stance also makes it hard for these individuals to sympathize with people from a much different background and set of experiences, who may not have the same opportunities and are unable to change certain circumstances.

On the other hand, people with an external locus of control may feel like they are always victims of outside forces, and thus they refuse to take responsibility for their actions. They may feel helpless and dependent, despite having the capability to create change. As a result, they look for rescue from other people and outside entities who promise to set things right and deliver them from evil (even if these pseudo-saviors consistently fail to live up to their promises).

A Savior on Capitol Hill

Which leads me to the following video, from nationally-syndicated radio host and financial guru, Dave Ramsey:

As I’m sure you can guess, Ramsey functions very much from an “internal locus of control” approach. He emphasizes that “YOU” can change your life and that “YOU” are not a victim.

I have to admit, though: as I watched that video, something didn’t sit right with me. I understand that Ramsey was trying to speak to wide range of viewers, even if he is himself a professing Christian. But as a Christian, I can’t help but notice that there’s Someone missing in all this.

The same thing is true with the locus of control discussion as a whole: the internal vs. external models seem primarily materialistic, and don’t account for spiritual realities.

So how do I think of these concepts as a Christian? What kind of “model of control” addresses a more Biblical worldview?  I have some ideas about that, and an alternative stance, which I’ll share…tomorrow.


Your Turn: Have you ever heard of this idea of “locus of control”? Do you find yourself leaning more toward internal or external locus, in your day to day thinking? Am I misunderstanding this concept? Share your thoughts in the comments!



2 thoughts on “Remote Control.

  1. I didn’t like where you were going with applying this lotus-thing to politics, but I think you see the problem with Ayn Rand. In all the self-help stuff I’ve read, I’ve heard them refer to “the lotus of,” but never heard something speak directly to it, so that’s interesting.

    I started out seeing the world from the internal viewpoint, as my parents did. After college, I got more artsy and started shifting to the external view. This is around the time I was at CFBC. Then I got depressed and started reading self-help books, tons of them, and shifted back to the internal view. It was self-empowering and I fixed a lot of my problems. Then that’s where I got into problems with my relationships with other people. I started to think the world could be cured by getting everyone to switch mindsets as I did. At least the people whom I deemed willing to switch mindsets. (You were victim to this arrogance of mine a few times, and I’m sorry.) Where I’m at now is… it’s my responsibility to have the internal viewpoint, for myself. But as far as everyone else is concerned, unless they ask for my advice, it’s none of my business whether they have the internal viewpoint or not. When it comes to politics, I have the external view. Because, fundamentally, some people can’t change, for whatever reason. Maybe that’s defeatist. Maybe they can change, but I certainly can’t make them change, so for all intents and purposes they are the way they are, in that moment. I cannot see their heart, and it is really naive of me to think everyone’s mind operates as mine does, especially when the stakes of me being wrong is their quality of life. That’s not worth the coin flip. So I just think, we take people at their word, and we help them, and we hope that in helping them they will one day learn to help themselves, and then to help others. We hope this because we believe that helping oneself is better, and we believe those who are able to help themselves will come around to seeing that, as we once did. And those who are not able, we help them forever.

    I do think that’s the Jesus way, but I am not as versed in Jesus as you are, so I’m interested to hear your take on it. And I know you factor in people like Paul too, whom I tend to not factor in at the same level.

    1. I think the big question here (if we keep “locus of control” as a binary, for now) is: Who is in control of your life? Is it you, or someone outside of you? That’s why I brought up politics/ideology; these questions in particular have been popping up in the public conversation. I wasn’t ready to make a firm political argument (with big, bold lines as to what THIS or THAT is), but the ideological echoes occurred to me as I was thinking through this, so I figured I’d throw that in for the sake of discussion. (Although, if I *were* to make another observation–I think certain politicians on both sides of the aisle are leaning hard on an external locus of control, while pointing at different exterior forces as the oppressors of the American people.)

      And yes, I definitely see huge (YOOGE) problems with a Randian mindset–especially as a Christian.

      Re: your personal process–thanks for sharing that. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve had my share of times where I acted like I was a victim of this or that. And I totally understand why this frustrated you, as someone who wanted to be a friend and encourage progress in my life. So I can see in retrospect where you were coming from. (Thanks.)

      You may not be totally on board with my conclusions tomorrow, but I appreciate your being part of the discussion. I hope this is beneficial to you.

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