What Disney’s Inside Out tells us about locus of control.

In week 2 of this 52 week challenge, I picked apart my pessimism and learned that having an internal locus of control (that is, a sense of control over oneself and one’s destiny) is correlated with optimism. This is so because those who feel like they can control their lives are assured they’ll make good choices for themselves. That’s a pretty soothing thought.

I, on the other hand, have an external locus of control. I believe that circumstances dictate a lot about how my life is going to go. Not that I’m an extremist in this belief — my test results in Week 2 indicated that I’m nudged a little more toward the external side of things, but I’m not hopelessly lying on the floor in despair.

Inside Out will absolutely be a recurrent theme in this challenge.

As I’ve been noodling around in my research on locus of control, however, I’ve come upon something interesting. Although the bulk of the literature is in favor of an internal locus of control for its benefits of self-reliance, optimism and courage, there are noted downsides to an internal locus of control. The inverse also holds true: Even though having an external locus of control results in internet excoriation for having a “victim mentality,” there are indeed benefits to having an external locus of control.

Although this might not be necessary, if you haven’t seen Disney’s 2015 film Inside Out: spoilers ahead. (That said, I don’t recap the film below, so you might not get as much out of this if you haven’t seen it.)

The characters of Joy and Sadness are instructive here. Joy believes that she can fix the wholesale destruction of self that Riley undergoes after the family moves to the Bay Area. She works tirelessly to make sure that every memory Riley has is a happy one. But the move proves to just be too much for even the ebullient workaholic that is Joy. She can’t keep a lid on Sadness, nor can she venture outside of Riley’s head to fix the sad situation of moving away from a beloved hometown when you’re in grade school.

There’s nothing she can do. And it hurts like she can’t believe.

When Joy, whose can-do attitude exemplifies the internal locus of control, realizes she can’t fix a problem, she crashes. She doubts herself, and painfully so. She deflates profoundly and feels like a failure.

Sadness, on the other hand, recognizes that sometimes things are bad. She reacts, sometimes with (comical) despair, but she also doesn’t take it on as a personal failing. When Bing Bong despairs that Riley will forget him, Sadness is a comfort to him. She reassures him that feeling down about something you can’t control is a reasonable response.

I’m pretty glad I don’t cry candy tears. That seems complicated.

Joy can’t grasp this, and is flabbergasted when Bing Bong feels better after having a cry. She’s wired to seek the good feels, and she’s got a plan to get them. Roadblocks that prove to be too large, however, cause Joy a big crash.

That’s ultimately what some of the research I’ve been doing has hinted at. In little asides here and there, several sources I read suggested that, while those with internal loci of control were higher achievers overall, they suffer profoundly when they can’t actually control a situation.

What’s more, in this paper, having an external locus of control (as measured by survey asking respondents if they believe in chance or fate) had some protective measures when it comes to coping with the death of a spouse. The researchers concluded:

As predicted, high externals experienced a considerably smaller decline in satisfaction in the years preceding and following the deaths of their spouses than did low externals. In addition, although high externals began at lower levels of life satisfaction, they reported more satisfaction in the year of the loss than those who scored low on this dimension. The latter advantage for high externals, however, was found only in the year of the loss.

Essentially, although folks with an external locus of control generally expect worse out of life, that is protective when tragedy actually does strike.

So if there is benefit to having an external locus of control when the tough times come, why would I want to change that in myself?

Well, it’s possible that I won’t. It’s possible that I’ll research and write and set goals and achieve them and do all of the things that correlate to an internal locus of control and… it never comes. (How’s that for optimism?)

But let’s say it could and does come. Let’s say I internalize my locus of control and ditch the learned helplessness for the learned optimism. Does that mean I’m setting myself up for a big fall?

There’s no way to know, but somehow I doubt it. The anxious doubter that lives in my chest is hard to silence and may never entirely move out. Moreover, my goal here is not to become a caricature of an optimist. I just want to be a little sunnier. A littler more positive about what’s to come. There’s no moving me from Sadness to Joy because I’m neither. I’ve got all five of those little emotion people in my head too. I just want Joy to take the wheel a little more, not for Sadness to get dumped into that scary memory hole.

Edited to correct Bing Bong’s name.