Locus of Control and COVID-19  

The benefits of shifting our internal narrative in times of crisis. | By: James Lake, MD

An unprecedented era of loss of control and uncertainty

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing enormous stress for countless millions of people in all world regions. There has been no crisis of comparable magnitude within living memory. Individuals, communities, and entire populations are acutely aware of "loss of control" over their health, their finances, and their daily activities. The impact of "loss of control" on our mental health is made even worse by uncertainty over the future that is unprecedented in modern times. Widely shared feelings of "loss of control" and uncertainty are causing enormous anxiety and despair.

It is not yet clear how long the pandemic will last, or what the magnitude of its impact in terms of loss in human lives, threats to the geopolitical stability of nations, and harm to the social and financial status of untold millions will be in the coming weeks, months, and years. There are dire predictions that COVID-19 may be ushering in a "new normal." At the same time, more optimistic scenarios are projecting full financial recovery in the near-term. In this post, I review the concept of "locus of control" and comment on its role in shaping attitudes and behaviors that influence health and mental health, and discuss implications of differences in locus of control on the way individuals, communities, and countries are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Locus of control theory: an overview

While we cannot control the dire circumstances that we are facing as individuals and as nations, and we cannot predict what the future will bring, we do have the capability to lessen the intensity of our anxiety and despair by changing our internal narratives. This is the domain of "locus of control," a concept introduced over 50 years ago. Locus of control has to do with the degree to which people "believe" they-as opposed to external circumstances-have control over events that affect their lives.

According to the model, personality styles exist on a continuum with "internality" at one end and "externality" at the other end. Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe that every action has consequences and that the outcomes of their actions reflect their own abilities and the way they act in the world. They believe that events that happen to them are a consequence of their own choices and actions, whether or not they choose to have control over them.

In contrast to individuals with an internal locus of control, individuals with a strong external locus of control interpret events in their lives as influenced not by their actions or abilities but by circumstances beyond their control. Individuals with a strong external locus of control rely on concepts like "luck" and "fate" to frame their experiences. By the same token, while some circumstances are probably beyond the ability of most humans to know about or control, other circumstances are within our reach to influence. Because individuals with a strong internal locus of control interpret circumstances as being within their ability to control, they are more confident in their ability to influence their futures, and hence more resilient in the face of extreme circumstances.

In reality, for most people, a mix of internal and external factors influence beliefs about events that affect the course of life, depending on their health and mental health problems and their socio-economic circumstances. Such "bi-locals" may be better able to manage stress than individuals on either end of the spectrum because they make proactive choices while continuing to rely on assistance from others.
Locus of control and health

Health locus of control has to do with how individuals think about and react to their health and health care decisions. The findings of many studies support that an internal locus of control positively correlates with improved physical and mental health and quality of life (Maltby, Day and Macaskill 2017) (see full citation in references). It is reasonable to infer that the locus of control has a direct bearing on understanding the wide range of attitudes and behaviors being displayed by individuals in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as reported differences in health outcomes between individuals and ethnic groups.

In other words, given the same circumstances, individuals with a strong internal locus of control may fare better than those with a strong external locus of control, because they may be more likely to make choices such as maintaining safe social distancing, wearing a face mask, or frequent handwashing, reflecting the belief that their actions influence the outcome of the pandemic. Hence, a strongly held internal locus of control might enhance emotional resilience and result in attitudes and behaviors that could potentially lessen the risk of becoming infected with or spreading the virus.

Regional and ethnic differences

Research findings support that regional differences in locus of control exist, and these differences influence how different populations deal with natural disasters and other crises. One study attributed the greater loss of life in tornadoes in Alabama compared to Illinois to the more widely held external personality styles of Alabama residents resulting in fewer precautions in the face of an impending tornado (Sims & Baumann 1972). 
In addition to inter-individual and regional variations in locus control, research findings suggest that broad differences in locus of control may exist between different cultures. For example, ethnic Japanese people tend to be more external, Whites in North America and Europe tend to be more internal, and African-Americans tend to be more external, while findings on the locus of control in people of Hispanic origin are ambiguous.

Bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread anxiety and despair among countless millions of individuals and has derailed institutions and companies that humans depend on for social and financial stability. "Locus of control' is a model that describes how internalized narratives about "control" or the lack thereof shape attitudes and behaviors during normal times and in times of crisis. Differences in the locus of control manifest as disparate attitudes and behaviors in response to crises.

Although we cannot control the dire circumstances that we are facing as individuals and as nations, we can lessen the intensity of anxiety and despair by changing the way we "see ourselves" in the context of a world that is spinning more out of control day by day. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, differences in locus of control at the levels of individuals, communities, and cultures will shape expectations, beliefs, and actions, potentially resulting in significant differences in the risk of infection and mortality, as well as differences in psychological resilience in the face of uncertainty.

Maltby, J.; Day, L.; Macaskill, A. (2017). Personality, Individual Differences and Intelligence (4th ed.). Harlow: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

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