The Difference Between Internal And External Focus, And Why It Matters


Sam McNerney

September 30, 2014

If our Paleolithic ancestors visited 2014, they’d notice a few changes.

We’re mostly agrarian. We mostly live in buildings. We spend most of our days in small spaces staring at screens. Also, there are seven billion of us-up from a few hundred thousand-and a few of them inhabit a small capsule that flies around the planet. And those tiny rectangles everyone stares at? They’re capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man, but most people use them to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.

And yet, I’m willing to bet that if our ancestors moved to New York City or Hong Kong and landed a desk job, they’d encounter an even bigger difference: The mismatch between how much information the mind can consciously process (not a lot) and how much information it is exposed to (a lot).

We don’t realize it, but we moderns are using a brain that evolved for an environment that no longer exists. If the past is a foreign country, it was a mentally peaceful one.

The confusing part is that despite warnings about the perils of information overload, we continue to multitask, obsessively check email, and text and drive. It’s like a statistician who enjoys playing the slots. He knows the house always wins, but near misses and occasional wins lure him back for more.

Is there a way to manage information overload? Or must we return to the savannah? Daniel Levitin is a psychologist who warns about information overload, but he thinks that the answer is the former, and he has written a big book explaining why. The Organized Mind clocks in at nearly 400 pages, but Levitin has wisely organized the tome into small, digestible sections.

I’d like to talk about one, “Organizing The Business World: How We Create Value.” In it, Levitin makes a helpful distinction between “internal locus of control” and “external locus of control” and explains why it matters.

Internal Locus of Control

People with an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for (or at least can influence) their own fates and life outcomes. They may or may not feel they are leaders, but they feel that they are essentially in charge of their lives… Individuals with an internal locus of control will attribute success to their own efforts (“I tried really hard”) and likewise with failure (“I didn’t try hard enough”).

External Locus of Control

Those with external locus of control see themselves as relatively powerless pawns in some game played by others; they believe that other people, environmental forces, the weather, malevolent gods, the alignment of celestial bodies–basically any and all external events exert the most influence on their lives… Individuals with an external focus of control will praise or blame the external world (“It was pure luck” or “The competition was rigged”).

Why The Distinction Matters

Here’s the most interesting tidbit.

The locus-of-control construct is measurable with standard psychological tests and turns out to be predictive of job performance. It also influences the managerial style that will be effective… This means that managers should be alert to the differences in motivational styles, and take care to provide individuals who have an internal locus of control with autonomous jobs, and individuals who have an external locus of control with more constrained jobs… By attributing shallow motives to employees, bosses overlook the actual depth of their minds and then fail to offer their workers those things that truly motivate them.

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This article originally appeared in 250 Words and is reprinted with permission.

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