The New Johari Window #3: Locus of Control
Just as the internal locus of control is very American (a country that has never experienced a successful invasion from an external army), the external locus is prevalent in societies that have often experienced massive, traumatizing invasions—and this includes most non-American societies in our world. Repeated, intrusive life events leave one skeptical about the capacity to influence that which is occurring around us. There is an old saying that life is a bit like “sitting on the edge of the dock, trying to control the flight of the seagulls fluttering around us.” A colleague of mine, who comes from a country in Eastern Europe which was invaded eight times during the 20th Century, strongly aligns with this saying. He feels like he can control very little in his life. He can’t control the people or events who are fluttering (like seagulls) around his head. My colleague finds it absurd to plan for the future. When I asked him (soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union) what he hoped his son would do when he grew up, my colleague said that he had “no idea” and no longer even had “hopes” for his son. He knew (or at least assumed) that these hopes would soon be shattered by massive world events over which he (and his son) have no control. Those of us who live in the United States gained a more intimate sense of this pessimism (or at least a passive perspective on life) after the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. We glimpsed a reality which frightened us. We weren’t in control. We probably will never again, as a society, feel like we can control either our personal or collective destiny—or at least be certain of our personal and collective security.
The external locus of control, at one level, seems more “realistic” than the internal locus. It is very European and Asian—and is often pessimistic (or at least cautious). We are told to be reflective rather than rash, to observe before plunging in. Instead of declaring the usual American imperative: “Don’t just stand there, do something” we are given the opposite instruction: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” We must understand the situation before plunging in and trying to change everything. The widespread European critique of the US invasion of Iraq exemplifies this perspective. An external locus, however, also evokes a troubling dynamic of “self-fulfillment.” When we are passive and wait for external events to direct us, then, sure enough, the outside world begins to have a profound impact on our lives. We accept a deterministic world view in which everything operates like a finely crafted Swiss Watch. We soon lose any sense of personal agency or personal responsibility.