Locus of Control

How Can Our Locus of Control Help Us Face the New Normal?

By Dhanishta Shah

Do you wonder about the degree of control you have over your life? A strange question in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic! But, the ongoing pandemic is also probably the biggest test of the efficacy of what psychologists call Locus of Control (LOC). Put simply, this is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces, have control over the outcome of events in their lives. Some people attribute whatever happens to them, to luck. They are said to have an “external” LOC. Individuals with an “internal” LOC think that their success or failure depends on their efforts. Some people lie along the continuum between these two extremes.

Way back in 1954, Julian B. Rotter, developed the concept of LOC and since then it has been helping psychologists understand and influence behaviour. Expectedly, research studies have focussed on the impact of a person’s LOC on different areas of life. One of the most obvious links are with school achievement. If a student believes his results stem from his efforts, he or she is more likely to study harder and thereby get a better result.

However, today, as the world faces the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic, one tends to wonder if LOC has a relationship with health. In fact, the Health Locus of Control (HLC) is a term that describes the degree to which people believe their health is controlled by internal or external factors. This concept was formed by a psychologist named Ken Wallston and his group in the 1970s. Those with an internal HLC believe that their health condition is a result of their efforts and actions. Those with an external HLC attribute their health to fate, destiny, lack of access to the right medical professional, or wrong diagnoses or treatments.

In the pandemic world, despite the fear of COVID-19 looming large, how would a sense of “control” help? Are those with an internal locus of control less likely to fall prey to illnesses? One can certainly draw inferences on how one can leverage LOC and deal with the ‘new normal.’

Despite the uncertainties of the pandemic, an individual with an internal LOC would think that he has some degree of control in protecting himself from infection. This person would be more likely to wear masks, follow social distancing norms, adhere to government guidelines, and adopt measures like frequent handwashing. The belief would actually lead to behavioural changes that can minimise risk. This behaviour would continue even once we are expected to adhere to safety norms in a prolonged pandemic situation. On the other hand, someone who does not believe that his actions will make any difference to the likelihood of contracting the virus, might be less likely to adopt recommended measures, thus putting himself at more risk.

An internal LOC can be helpful in minimising anxiety and negative thoughts, which have been a huge mental side-effect of the pandemic. Internals believe they have some control of events in their life, and hence, their internal narratives lead them to positive self-talk and actions. They are more likely to thus adopt a proactive stance and focus on actions that are in their control in order to ride over the pandemic. On the other hand, those with an external LOC are more likely to play the victim card and show a sense of learned helplessness and passivity in face of the events that occur.

So, are you an internal or an external? Rotter developed a 13-item questionnaire which classified people as having internal or external locus of control. The good news though is that our LOC is not set in stone. It may be influenced by childhood experiences and is largely learnt. But, that does not mean we need to stick with it!

By changing one’s attitude and pattern of thinking one can shift from an external to internal LOC. One must start with acknowledging the basic idea that one always has a choice in situations and that not all things are beyond our control. Some individuals often go in for “attribution training’ which involves teaching the person to make positive affirmations, stop negative self-talk, and habituate themselves to thinking and talking positively.

Shifting to an internal locus of control in view of the ongoing pandemic and post-pandemic future may help us since our perceptions are crucial to wellbeing. It is time to leverage the LOC theory and use this time-tested psychological knowledge to face the new normal. Change your LOC and life will instantly seem better. After all, “It’s all really in the mind.”

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