The notion of "locus of control" has been studied since the 1950s. It is documented in every Year 1 Psychology textbook. It is a dimension considered part of your personality.
People with an INTERNAL locus of control believe events (both disastrous and good) in their lives are internally controllable by their own actions and effort. For example, whether receiving test results (or experiencing in a tornado), people with an internal locus of control tend to attribute both good and bad outcomes to themselves and their efforts. People with an EXTERNAL locus of control tend to make attributions to external factors such as the teacher, the test or God's will.
Basically, people with an internal locus of control say, "There is something I can do about it."
Those with an external locus of control say, "It cannot be helped."
A Short Literature Review
In organisational science, it has been found that internal locus of control leads to better outcomes. "Compared to people with an external locus of control, people with a moderately strong internal locus of control tend to perform better in most employment situations, are more successful in their careers, earn more money, and are better suited for leadership positions. Internals are also more satisfied with their jobs and cope better in stressful situations." (McShane and Von Glinow, p. 55)
When faced with a setback, successful people are likely to think, "I need a new approach." Rookie life insurance sales representatives who view failures as within their control sell more policies. They are only half as likely as their more externally oriented colleagues to quit during their first year (Seligman and Schulman, 1986). College swim team athletes are more likely to exceed targeted expectations if they have an internal locus of control (Seligman et al., 1990).
"Employees with an internal locus of control need to be managed differently too. They thrive under participative and achievement-oriented leadership, and can get frustrated by a directive style. Employees with an external locus of control thrive under directive leadership" (McShane and Von Glinow, p. 411)
Most complex jobs (doctors, lawyers, engineers...) that require some measure of thinking need participative and achievement-oriented leadership, simply because the tasks are too complex for the boss to do the thinking all by himself. The simpler and lower level jobs (cleaners, receptionists etc...) can be passably managed with directive leadership. The boss tells you. You do it.
Why Do People With an Internal Locus of Control Perform Better?
People with an internal locus of control think they can do something about it, they look for ways to do better. They innovate and create in the face of what appears to be hopeless. They made a mistake once but they actively look for ways to NOT make the same mistake.
People with an external locus of control sit down and grieve.
Implications for Parenting
Locus of control, as a construct, has been around for half a century. It has been well-researched. I already was familiar with it 20 years ago. It informed my actions. It informed my parenting. I consciously cultivated an internal locus of control in my children.
I am illiterate in Chinese. Instead of sitting down to grieve that Little Boy was failing Chinese and I could not help him because I was illiterate, I invented Potato Chinese(R). He went from failing in P3 to passing Higher Chinese at PSLE.
Little Boy came home one day very angry with his Teacher. An English exam question was ambiguous. There was a simpler interpretation and a more esoteric one. Little Boy picked the more esoteric one. His invigilator clicked her tongue at him. So, he changed the answer to the simpler interpretation. It turned out that the marking guide was later amended to the more esoteric answer. Little Boy was devastated at the loss of 2 marks. His invigilator should not have clicked her tongue. It was an exam after all. That was the one and only time that Little Boy came home and required me to go and fight for his 2 marks.
I told him that it was his fault. Then, I asked him what he could have done to avoid this the next time. We discussed and then agreed that he should have done the paper entirely on his own (because that was the right thing to do). He should have put down the answer that he believed in (and then he would not be able to blame anyone else).
I knew, even then, that it was arguable. Why did the Teacher click her tongue? However, I wanted my son to take ownership and develop an internal locus of control. Happily, he has. I do note that when he meets setbacks, he does not sit down to lament. He thinks about what he can improve on for the next time.
What About Situations Where You Really Cannot Do Anything?
What about situations where you really cannot do anything? Like tornadoes, shark attacks, lightning strikes. As I dug around in the piles of research, I was bemused to find that internal locus of control can even be applied to forces majeures, a situation most people would read as "no hope... so just suck it up". In a very old 1972 study, Sims and Baumann examined how 2 American states (Alabama and Illinois) coped differently with natural disaster (specifically, tornados). Their results showed that Alabama residents leaned more towards an external locus of control, whilst Illinois residents leaned more towards an internal locus of control. Since Alabama residents believed that there was little they could do about tornados (external locus of control), they took less precautions. Since Illinois residents believed that even in the face of force majeure, they could still do something to improve the odds, they took more precautions.
Result: There were higher casualties in Alabama after a tornado than in Illinois.
So you see, it is just like what Captain Jack Sparrow said, "The problem isn't the problem. The problem is your attitude towards the problem."
McShane, S.L. and Von Glinow M.A. (2009). Organizational Behavior, New York: McGraw Hill.
Seligman, M.E.P., and Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting amongst life insurance sales agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 832-838.
Seligman, M.E.P., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Thornton, N., and Thornton, K.M. (1990). Explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance. Psychological Science, 1, 143-146.
Sims, J.; Baumann, D. (1972). "The tornado threat: Coping styles in the North and South". Science, 176, 1386–1392.