What do you think about these pairs of statements?
- People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make
- Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck
- In the long run, people get the respect they deserve in this world.
- Unfortunately, an individual’s worth often passes unrecognized no matter how hard he tries.
- Becoming a success is a matter of hard work; luck has little or nothing to do with it.
- Getting a good job mainly depends on being in the right place at the right time.
They have a similar theme: the first statement suggests that an outcome (misfortune, respect, or a good job) for a person are the result of their own action or volition. The second assigns the outcome to some external factor like bad luck.
People who tend to think their own attitudes or efforts can control what happens to them are said to have an internal locus of control, those who don’t, an external locus of control. (Call them ‘internals’ and ‘externals’ for short).
Internals seem to do better at life, pace obvious confounding: maybe instead of internals doing better by virtue of their internal locus of control, being successful inclines you to attribute success internal factors and so become more internal, and vice versa if you fail. 1 If you don’t think the relationship is wholly confounded, then there is some prudential benefit for becoming more internal.
Yet internal versus external is not just a matter of taste, but a factual claim about the world. Do people, in general, get what their actions deserve, or is it generally thanks to matters outside their control?
Why the external view is right
Here are some reasons in favour of an external view: 2
- Global income inequality is marked (e.g. someone in the bottom 10% of the US population by income is still richer than two thirds of the population – more here). The main predictor of your income is country of birth, it is thought to explain around 60% of the variance: not only more important than any other factor, but more important than all other factors put together.
- Of course, the ‘remaining’ 40% might not be solely internal factors either. Another external factor we could put in would be parental class. Include that, and the two factors explain 80% of variance in income.
- Even conditional on being born in the right country (and to the right class), success may still not be a matter of personal volition. One robust predictor of success (grades in school, job performance, income, and so on) is IQ. The precise determinants of IQ remain controversial, it is known to be highly heritable, and the ‘non-genetic’ factors of IQ proposed (early childhood environment, intra-uterine environment, etc.) are similarly outside one’s locus of control.
On cursory examination the contours of how our lives are turned out are set by factors outside our control, merely by where we are born and who our parents are. Even after this we know various predictors, similarly outside (or mostly outside) of our control, that exert their effects on how our lives turn out: IQ is one, but we could throw in personality traits, mental health, height, attractiveness, etc.
So the answer to ‘What determined how I turned out, compared to everyone else on the planet?’, the answer surely has to by primarily about external factors, and our internal drive or will is relegated a long way down the list. Even if we want to look at narrower questions, like “What has made me turn out the way I am, versus all the other people who were likewise born in rich countries in comfortable circumstances?” It is still unclear whether the locus of control resides within our will: perhaps a combination of our IQ, height, gender, race, risk of mental illness and so on will still do the bulk of the explanatory work. 3
Bringing the true and the prudentially rational together again
If it is the case that folks with an internal locus of control succeed more, yet also the external view being generally closer to the truth of the matter, this is unfortunate. What is true and what is prudentially rational seem to be diverging, such that it might be in your interests not to know about the evidence in support of an external locus of control view, as deluding yourself about an internal locus of control view would lead to your greater success.
Yet it is generally better not to believe falsehoods. Further, the internal view may have some costs. One possibility is fueling a just world fallacy: if one thinks that outcomes are generally internally controlled, then a corollary is when bad things happen to someone or they fail at something, it was primarily their fault rather than them being a victim of circumstance.
So what next? Perhaps the right view is to say that: although most important things are outside our control, not everything is. Insofar as we do the best with what things we can control, we make our lives go better. And the scope of internal factors – albeit conditional on being a rich westerner etc. – may be quite large: it might determine whether you get through medical school, publish a paper, or put in enough work to do justice to your talents. All are worth doing.
Inspired by Amanda MacAskill’s remarks, and in partial response of Peter McIntyre. Neither are responsible for what I’ve written, and the former’s agreement or the latter’s disagreement with this post shouldn’t be assumed.
- In fairness, there’s a pretty good story as to why there should be ‘forward action’: in the cases where outcome is a mix of ‘luck’ factors (which are a given to anyone), and ‘volitional ones’ (which are malleable), people inclined to think the internal ones matter a lot will work hard at them, and so will do better when this is mixed in with the external determinants. ↩
- This ignores edge cases where we can clearly see the external factors dominate – e.g. getting childhood leukaemia, getting struck by lightning etc. – I guess sensible proponents of an internal locus of control would say that there will be cases like this, but for most people, in most cases, their destiny is in their hands. Hence I focus on population level factors. ↩
- Ironically, one may wonder to what extent having an internal versus external view is itself an external factor. ↩