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!