Can Your Perceived Locus of Control Make You Healthier?

The Power of Perceived Locus of Control​

This is part three in my series on locus of control. In my first post, I introduced the idea of locus of control and the behavioral patterns of people who exhibit both an external and internal locus of control. In my second post, I described the biological basis of your need for control. And in this post, I’m going to discuss the effect that your perceived locus of control can have on both your psychology and physiology.


Your perceived locus of control has tangible psychological and physiological implications. To illustrate this point, I’d like to share with you an example that illustrates just how powerful your perceived locus of control is. In a now-famous study by Judith Rodin, Ph.D. of Yale University and Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D. of Harvard University in the 1970s,

Yale University Professor and Psychologist Judith Rodin, Ph.D.
Harvard University Professor and Psychologist Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D.

they studied the effect that perceived locus of control had on residents of a nursing home. At the beginning of the study, the residents who had been selected for the research were split into two groups. Each group attended a discussion with the facility administrator.

Personal responsibility and perceived locus of control

During the discussion with the test group, the administrator stressed that the residents were primarily responsible for taking care of themselves and their daily decisions on everything from recreational activities to personal grooming. He informed them, however, that the staff was there to support them and help them if they should need anything. For the control group, on the other hand, the administrator stressed that the staff had primary responsibility for taking care of them. Both groups were also given plants to place in their rooms. The residents in the test group were informed that they could take care of the plants if they wanted to, while the control group was instructed that the plants would be taken care of by the staff. As you can see, the different discussions gave each group a very different perceived locus of control.

The residents were then regularly evaluated by the shift nurses who cared for them daily. They were each scored on a variety of criteria, including their happiness, sociability with other residents and staff, active interest in their environment, self-initiating behavior, and physical activity. A physician also reviewed their medical records for the six-month period prior to the start of the research, and for the 6 month period leading up to the end of the 18-month study, and gave them a numerical rating for their overall health. They also kept track of the mortality rates of the two groups during the 18-month timeframe.

​That's hard to believe

The results of their research are quite remarkable. 18 months after the initial intervention (the term they used to describe the initial discussion and introduction of the plants), the residents in the test group scored approximately 25% higher on all of the evaluation criteria except happiness. The test group also graded higher for that category, but the results were not statistically significant, so they couldn’t directly attribute it to the intervention.

I should note that the scores for the test group had not actually improved over the period of the study. Keep in mind these were people who were approaching the end of life. However, the criteria they used measured things that are indicators of quality of life. And since the scores of the test group declined much less dramatically than those in the control group following the intervention, it’s clear that one small change had a significant, positive impact on their lives.

In contrast to the indicators of mental and emotional well-being, the physical health grades of those in the test group did improve over the period of the study, while the health of those in the control group degraded. Mortality rates also showed a remarkable difference. Using the 18 month period prior to the intervention as the baseline, they found the "typical" mortality rate for the entire nursing home to be 25%. During the 18-month period following the intervention, 30% of the control group passed away, while only 15% of the test group died. This difference was statistically significant. However, they couldn’t rule out that it could have been caused, or at least influenced, by other factors as well.

...and that's not all​

A multitude of other research has shown the effects of your perceived locus of control. Having an internal locus of control provides a variety of benefits to your physical and mental health, as well as enabling general success in several different life domains. In his book, Exploring Psychology, author David G. Myers, Ph.D. summarized some of those benefits.

In study after study, ‘internals’ have achieved more in school and work, acted more independently, enjoyed better health, and felt less depressed than did ‘externals’ (Lefcourt, 1982; Ng et al., 2006). Moreover, they were better at delaying gratification and coping with various stressors, including marital problems (Miller & Monge, 1986). One study followed 7551 British people for two decades. Those who expressed a more internal locus of control at age 10 exhibited less obesity, hypertension, and distress at age 30 (Gale et al.,2008).

David G. Myers, Ph.D.Author - Exploring Psychology

In other research, people with an internal locus of control have also been found to be more effective at losing weight and quitting smoking.

While your perceived locus of control is a significant contributor to your overall quality of life, what I’ve described so far does not paint a complete picture of its implications for your life, and how best to utilize that knowledge. To put this topic in more context, it’s important to understand how people typically respond in situations where control is taken from them, and why instinctive need for control isn’t always rational. Those are next the topics I will discuss in this series.

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