Why it all seems out of our hands

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Are you a subject or an object? A player or a pawn? It all depends on your locus of control. This may sound like an obscure psychological concept, but it's one of the most important aspects of personality. It determines what you believe controls your fate. "Internals", or those with an internal locus of control, accept personal responsibility for what happens to them, while "externals" believe that luck or other factors determine their fate.

So locus of control is at the centre of classroom practice: teachers must encourage children to see the consequences of their actions.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, recently completed a survey of thousands of young people, a study she started in the 1960s. She found that young people today are much more likely to believe their fate is out of their hands; they have a more external locus of control than young people in the early 1960s.

Her research shows that we have moved a long way from the psyche of the 1950s, when it was fashionable to believe that anyone could make it if they tried hard enough. Your destiny was in your hands; a liberating and transformative belief. But people now are much less likely to believe that anyone can be a success. Instead they are convinced there is little they can do to change themselves, or the world around them. This dramatically affects the nature of politics, crime rates, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, our mental and physical health, even our weight.

Seeing yourself as a victim of forces beyond your control explains, for example, the decline in voter turnout, particularly in the young, who are more likely to abrogate responsibility for their lives compared to older generations. Why bother to vote if you don't believe your actions will make a difference? Why bother to diet if you can sue fast-food chains for making you fat? Why take personal responsibility for your behaviour when it's really the fault of your parents for not bringing you up correctly?

This profound change in recent generations produces a paradox. Objectively we have more control over our lives than ever before. Technology and markets mean choices for travel, consumption, communication and entertainment that our grandparents never dreamed of; reduced prejudice based on race, gender and sexual orientation have released the historically disadvantaged to direct their lives and make their own choices; social rules and etiquette are less strict. So, theoretically, we should be celebrating our own control over our destiny rather than rejoicing in "victim" status.

Yet no politician today could get elected on a manifesto of personal responsibility. Finding someone else to blame for your problems, and promising to get you what you want without you having to work hard, is the key to electability. Could a failure of recent political leadership be the cause of the modern triumph of victimhood?

Perhaps our wealthy and comfortable society has divorced people from the consequences of their actions. You can take drugs and not work hard at school because the wealthy state will still find you a job, or give you welfare and provide free medical care to treat your illness. Why bother to look after yourself and work hard? This is the dilemma at the heart of an increasingly pampered society: how to get people to take responsibility for themselves while at the same time providing a safety net when they don't.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals in London. His new book The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press, pound;12.99) is published on March 10. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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