Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:38

Locus of control, learned helplessness, and the tyranny of choice

Video transcript

- An important element of social cognitive theory is the idea of personal control, or whether we feel that we are controlling or being controlled by the environment around us. And we usually talk about personal control in terms of having an internal or an external locus of control. So let's say you've just taken an exam, and you found out that you did really poorly. What would your reaction be? Would you tell yourself that you should have studied harder? Maybe spent some more time looking over the material. Or would you say that maybe the test was really unfair, the teacher was being too hard? If you chose the former, if you said maybe you should have studied harder, you would be exhibiting an internal locus of control, meaning that you feel that you can control your own fate or your own destiny. But if you chose the latter, if you maybe said that the test was unfair, you would be exhibiting an external locus of control. Meaning that you perceive there to be outside forces beyond your personal control that help to control your fate, so maybe things like chance or luck. And there's been a lot of research on the effects of having an internal or external locus of control, and I think the results are really interesting. Because it turns out that individuals with an internal locus of control achieve more in school and work. They tend to act more independently, and are better at coping with different life stressors. They even have better health, and low rates of depression. Individuals with an external locus of control tend not to do as well in school, and they also tend to have higher rates of depression. But when I think about external locus of control, I often wonder about the order in which things occurred. Does believing in chance or luck really lead people to have higher rates of depression? Or could it be that people who feel helpless and oppressed are more likely to feel that control is external to them. And so I kind of feel like it's a chicken egg problem, it's kind of hard to know which thing came first. And it can also be kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because not having control tends to deepen peoples' feelings of resignation. And this is something that we refer to as learned helplessness. And there's a pretty famous experiment that is associated with this. So imagine that we have two groups of dogs, and in the first group, the dogs were conditioned to know that when a tone sounded, they were going to receive an electric shock. But the dogs also realized over time that there was a button in their cage, and that they could push that button and that that would stop the electric shocks. The dogs in group two were conditioned the same way, so they learned that when a tone sounded they were going to be shocked. But unlike group one, they didn't have any way of controlling those shocks. They didn't have any way to turn them off. And after this, the dogs from these two groups were placed in new enclosures. And this cage had two sides that were separated by a very low partition in the middle. So once again, the dogs in these two groups are given electric shocks, but how they react to these shocks is actually very different. The dogs in group one, who have learned that they could escape the electric shocks through an action of their own, in this case, pushing a button, learned to escape the new electric shocks by jumping over the small barrier. The dogs in group two had a really different reaction. They didn't try to escape the shocks. They didn't try to jump over the barrier. Instead they just sat there and whimpered. So even though they could have escaped the shocks, they didn't try to, they didn't make the effort. And this led the researchers to conclude that uncontrollable bad events can often lead to a lack of control, or a perceived lack of control, and that this could, then, lead to generalized helpless behavior. And while we always have to be really cautious when taking animal models and comparing them to humans, I feel like there's a lot to learn from this study about what happens to people when they're not able to take control of things in their environment. So think about people who have very little control over their lives, those in poverty, or people who are homeless or in prison. Or even those with disabilities and elderly people in nursing homes. All of these people have lost some, or all of their ability to control many of the situations around them. And this can actually result in them experiencing a lot of negative health symptoms, like increased rates of depression and increased stress. In fact, research that's been done in nursing homes, has shown that increasing peoples' control over basically anything can have positive outcomes in terms of their well-being. Things like the ability to move chairs around or control the lights, or having the TV remote. Even these very little things can increase the health and well-being of people in these situations. They're more alert, they're happier, they're more active. So this research shows that having even a little bit of control over our lives is preferable to no control. But is it possible for people to have too much control? Well, it actually turns out that having too many choices can actually negatively impact our cognition and our behavior. And this is often referred to as the tyranny of choice. And this actually happened to me recently, when I went to the supermarket, and found out that they were out of the face wash that I normally buy. And because of this, I actually had to spend time walking up and down the aisle looking at all the different choices, and it was actually kind of terrible. There were just too many options, there were too many different brands, there were too many different ingredients. And this is kind of embarrassing, but I actually wound up leaving, I actually wound up going to CVS because I couldn't make a decision. But I actually don't feel too bad, because it turns out that my behavior is actually justified, at least according to some consumer research. There was a study that was done where people were split into two groups, and one group had to choose one kind of chocolate out of 30 brands, and the other group had to choose one kind of chocolate out of 6 brands. And what they found was that those who had to choose one out of six were way more satisfied with their final decision. But those who had to pick one out of 30 different options, were way less satisfied. They weren't as confident with their final choice. But what is actually happening when people are faced with too many choices? Well, one thing is information overload. There's just too much information for people to take in from their environment, and it winds up feeling pretty overwhelming. And this can often lead people to feel what's referred to as decision paralysis, or just this inability to make a decision. You feel paralyzed by all of the different choices. And this can also lead to increased regret over the choices that someone has made. They're simply not as confident that they made the right decision. And so the takeaway from all of this is that personal control is really important. An increase in the control that people have over their environments, even by a little bit can have a huge effect on their well-being. At the same time, having too much control over our lives in the form of too many choices, can actually have a pretty negative impact on our well-being.