Locus of Control, Religious Adherence, and God: Who’s in Control?
Many people believe that external forces influence and/or guide their lives. Depending upon the individual, belief in “external forces” can be comforting, disturbing, or down-right harmful. Locus of Control (LOC) is a theory developed by Julian Rotter (1966). This theory considers a person’s inclination, or proclivity, towards ‘internal’ or ‘external’ controls, which in turn influences their decisions and life-course. This means that some folks are more driven by internal self-will or determination, while others believe external factors like, fate, luck, or Divine influences guide their life (i.e., God).
Joelson (2017) cites research suggesting that people with a sense of external control are “more likely to experience anxiety since they believe that they are not in control of their lives”. In general, people with a stronger sense of ‘internal’ control “tend to be more achievement oriented and get better paying jobs”. Joelson (2017) learned from student-subjects that ‘internals’ might have (self-talk) thoughts such as: “I know it’s up to me,” “I have to learn how to become more successful,” or, “I am responsible for what happens in my business”. In contrast, ‘externals’ were more likely to say, “it’s too hard to succeed these days,” or “the competition in our field is killing me”. Thus, ‘internals’ feel it is up to them to succeed, while ‘externals’ are more likely to blame “luck, fate, or circumstance…. more than the strength and quality of their own efforts” (Joelson, 2017).
A British study by Gale, Batty, and Deary (2008) found a link between ‘internal’ locus of control and self-confidence, and that self-confident children tend to be healthier adults. Studying 7,500 British adults from birth, they found that those with an ‘internal’ LOC were less likely to be overweight as adults, to describe their health as poor, and to report high-levels of psychological stress. Dr. Gale, of the University of Southampton (UK), said, “I think it is quite probable that a major explanation why children with a more internal locus of control behave more healthily as adults is that they have greater confidence in their ability to influence outcomes through their own actions”. Dr. Gale added, parents “who encourage independence and help children learn the connection between their actions and consequences tend to have children with a more internal locus of control” (Gale, et al).
Locus of Control and Superstition
Western civilization was long steeped in magical and superstitious beliefs. The Age of Reason (c. 17th and 18th Centuries), gradually turned people’s thinking from magic and superstition to reason and science. Yet, many secularized Westerners still today believe in a host of “superstitions”. For example, fear of unlucky “13” (i.e., paraskevidekatriaphobia), spilling salt, a black-cat crossing your path, a broken mirror, stepping on cracks, walking under ladders, knocking on wood, crossing your fingers, lucky horseshoes, and lucky four-leaf clovers, to mention only a few.
LOC, Psychology and Religious Adherence
Psychology and organized religion have long had a contentious relationship. Some psychologists have linked religious adherence with “psychological distress and dysfunctional behavior, as well as poorer mental and physical health… and high-levels of external LOC are frequently implicated in depression and anxiety disorders” (Ryan & Francis, 2012, p. 775). Not all researchers agree, however, that religious, external LOC, produces negative outcomes. Ryan and Francis (2012) found no definitive link between religious adherence and poor mental health. Krause (2012) cites a group of studies which supports the premise that “people who are more involved in religion tend to have better physical and mental health than individuals who are less involved in religion” (p. 267).
LOC and Christianity
Many criticisms have been leveled against Christianity because of beliefs in an “all-powerful deity that intervenes regularly in human affairs” (Ellison & Burdette, 2012, p. 3), the notion of an afterlife, the doctrine of original sin, and more. Dr. Albert Ellis (1962), the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy, said the “concept of sin is the direct and indirect cause of virtually all neurotic disturbance” (Ellison & Burdette, p. 3). Despite these criticisms, some researchers have found that Christian adherence often bolsters the individual’s sense of control, helps build moral character, and provides adherents with important social supports. Ellison and Burdette (2012) add that adherents do maintain a personal sense of control through prayer and other devotional practices, where their relationship with God is built and maintained.
Historical Christianity has long taught that trust in Scripture and faith in God provides personal comfort, knowing that life is not “out-of-control” and that God both listens and cares. Many Christians are comforted knowing that God’s providential, or, invisible hand, is always working for their best interests. For many Christians, God guides their lives through both internal and external LOC, though the balance and emphasis varies individually.
Pre-eminent theologian, J.I. Packer, DPhil (Oxford), says that God’s sovereignty and human free-agency are both true—even though this apparent contradiction is difficult to understand (Packer, 1961). Packer suggests that while God has revealed many things—through His written and natural revelations—there are still many things He has never revealed. Theologians sometimes call these God’s secret, or hidden counsels. The Greek Fathers (before 1,000 AD) used the term mystery [Greek: μυστήριον] to describe these partial revelations. To clarify, these are not “secret gospels”, the so-called forbidden sayings of Jesus, Gnostic wisdom, or the like.
To conclude, there are differing views about internal or external Locus of Control. Finally, each person must decide what makes sense to them, knowing that their beliefs will affect personal decisions about many things. Thus, we ask ourselves—am I more internally, or externally guided through life?
Closing with a bit of humor, remember what the old Grail Knight said to Walter Donovan in, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – “But choose wisely. For as the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail shall take it from you”.
~ John M. Haase, Th.D.
Ellison, C.G., & Burdette, A.M. (2012). Religion and the sense of control among U.S. adults. Sociology of Religion, 73(1), 1-22. doi: doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srr035
Gale, C.R., Batty, G.D., & Deary, I.J. (2008, May). Locus of Control at age 10 years and health outcomes and behaviors at age 30 years: The 1970 British cohort study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70(4), 397-403. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e31816a719e
Joelson, R.B. (2017, August 2). Locus of Control: How do we determine our successes and failures? In Psychology Today. Retrieved February 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moments-matter/201708/locus-control
Krause, N. (2010). God-mediated control and change in self-rated health. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 20, 267-287. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2010.507695
Packer, J.I. (1961). Evangelism and the sovereignty of God. Downers Grove, IL: IV Press.
Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies of internal versus external control of reinforcements. Psychological Monographs. 80, (609). Retrieved March 2018: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/161c/b7ac92d7571042bb11ebdaaa 1175be8079f8.pdf
Ryan, M.E., & Francis, A.J. (2012, August). Locus of Control beliefs mediate the relationship between religious functioning and psychological health. Journal of Religious Heath, 51, 774-785. doi: 10.1007/s10943-010-9386-z
John Haase is a Provisionally Licensed Professional Counselor with a Doctorate in Theology at Mind Spa in Cheyenne Wyoming and Helena Montana. Mind Spa is the premier counseling center for mental health therapy and counseling. We have a robust team to help individual adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families.