It is so interesting to listen to how people perceive cause and effect in their lives and the lives of others. We have all heard someone say ( or have said it ourselves) things such as “Oh well she has had such a hard life, her parents split up when she was little”. Or - “He hasn't had many chances in life” - or the reverse - “no wonder he is doing so well - he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth”. The former is often said to make excuses for people behaving badly towards others or to try to make sense of why they are underperforming in the work place for example. The latter makes us feel better, as we rationalize that if we had been born with that proverbial silver cutlery in place, we too would be super successful.
But is it really that simple? If all people who grew up with divorced parents underperformed they would make up roughly half of the population now. Conversely, if all people born of rich parents were guaranteed success, how is that there are so many underachieving rich kids?? As hard as it is, sometimes we need to challenge our own preconceived ideas about why people are successful and happy.
One framework that helps explain how some people are able to defy their simple beginnings relates to a concept called locus of control. It describes how people broadly have either an internal locus of control or an external locus of control. A person with a strong internal locus of control believes generally that he or she can influence events and their outcomes. Someone with an external locus of control tends to blame external factors for everything that happens in their lives.
To give an example of how the person with an internal locus of control perceives events we will look at writing exams. If you believe you have control over events you receive your exam results and interpret them based on how hard you studied for them. So a great result would be seen as a confirmation of hard work and ability and a poorer result would be accepted as a reflection of inadequate preparation. A person with an external locus of control would not accept responsibility for the poor result, and would tend to blame external factors such as the teacher or some aspect of the exam, such as “oh they were stupid questions..”
When we are trying to see how this trait affects people’s health, psychologists use a test called the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control scale or MHLC. The scale is based on the idea that health may be attributed to three things: First are internal factors such as self-determination of a healthy lifestyle. The second is “powerful others” - such as one’s doctor and the third is luck! The attribution of luck as being a cause of health status is really dangerous, since people with this view will tend to ignore lifestyle advice. These people are very difficult to help - a challenge for all healthcare workers.