A Cross-Cultural Look at How One’s Sense of Control Influences Life Satisfaction & Well-Being

You have a dream: you want to become a famous singer.

You’re driven by an internal locus of control, meaning you believe you control your fate.

So, you take singing lessons, seek out every opportunity to perform, and invest time and money into building your skill.

You believe that if you try, you’ll make it. Destiny is in your hands. You are responsible for your own self-fulfillment.

Now, imagine you have that same dream – to become a famous singer – but you’re driven by an external locus of control; you believe your fate is predetermined. Your destiny is out of your hands and is directed by your environment.

Although you hone your craft as well, you don’t seek out opportunities to achieve your destiny, as you believe it will come to you.

If it’s ordained in the stars, you will be self-fulfilled in time.

Which locus of control do you imagine results in a more positive subjective well-being?

Internal Locus Results

It makes sense that the way you view your own personal control over your life might impact satisfaction and well-being, and various studies confirm this.

According to the study, “Locus of control and subjective well-being – a cross-cultural study”:

“Internal locus of control has been linked with academic success (Gifford, Briceño-Perriott & Mianzo, 2006), higher self-motivation and social maturity (Nelson & Mathias, 1995), lower incidences of stress and depression (Garber & Seligman, 1980), and longer life span (Chipperfield, 1993). Psychological and physical well-being has also been shown to be moderated by perceived control (Brandstadter & Renner, 1990).”

Being that those with an internal locus believe they are the director of their own lives, this sense of control allows them some predictability, as they pursue their goals with the vision that they can achieve a specific outcome through their efforts. They’re optimistic about reaching the end goal and feel a sense of power over their own lives.

This is one reason why those with an internal locus – more often than not from individualist societies – tend to clock more positive results regarding satisfaction and subjective well-being.

However, the internal locus is a double-edged sword. Individualist societies often see higher suicide rates than collectivist societies, which may be a result of unmet ambitions and a lack of communal support.

External Locus Results

Opposite the internal locus, those with an external locus believe they have no control and, thus, there’s no predictability. Their lack of power results in anxiety, a more pessimistic view of their ability to create change, and lower subjective well-being.

A quote from that same study:

“External locus of control is correlated with higher levels of stress (Garber & Seligman, 1980), and Grob (2000) notes that stress is often caused because an individual perceives the situation as beyond his or her coping abilities; with ongoing stress having a negative effect on subjective well-being…It is noted that internals actively manipulate their environments, thus acting to take control of events and to change dissatisfactory conditions (Kulshresta & Sen, 2006). In contrast, externals feel powerless to control their successes or failures (Nielsen, 1987) and, thus, are unable to remove themselves from dissatisfactory situations (Kulshresta & Sen, 2006).”

One way in which those with an external locus – more often than not from collectivist societies – combat this insecurity is to build a strong support system structure.

This is one reason collectivist societies are built upon relationships; so that the support is there when the “environment” takes an individual down a dark road.

Both the internal and external locus are cultivated by culture.

Next week, we’ll talk about the ways in which a culture’s locus of control is illustrated in media and daily life.

Primary and Secondary Control: How Cultures Control Their Fate

We’ve been talking about the locus of control over the past few weeks.

Specifically, we’ve discussed the external locus – believing outcomes are determined by environmental factors – and the internal locus – believing fate is in our hands.

Regardless of whether someone has an external or internal locus, each tries to control their fate but in different ways and to varying degrees.

They do so by primary or secondary control efforts, the first of which is active, and the second of which is passive.

Let’s take a look at how these active/passive traits unfold in the workplace.

Primary Control

Those from individualist cultures often demonstrate an internal locus of control.

Individualists believe they control their own fate.

Being as such, they demonstrate active primary control.

Primary control is a trait found in those who directly intervene in affairs, in order to command control over his/her environment or standing

For instance, Sally wants a promotion, so Sally does whatever she can to get what she wants. She works late hours, beats deadlines, invests time into learning new skills, meets and exceeds expectations. She may even try to grease the wheels with superiors and use her networking skills to expand her reach.

Sally doesn’t just wait for the job to fall into her lap. She believes success comes with work, and that if she demonstrates primary control over her environment, she will achieve her end goal.

Sally uses primary control to command her fate.

Secondary Control

Being that those with an external locus – most often from collectivist cultures – do not believe they control their fate, you might think they don’t try to at all.

But they do. Passively.

Secondary control is a trait found in those who align themselves with individuals or groups with established power.

Collectivists prefer secondary control, as their cultural values lean hard on avoiding conflict and the submission of personal control.

For instance, Dan wants to be well-regarded within the company. His colleague, Steve, is already well-regarded. Steve is also part of The Elite, an exceptional group within the company.

So, what does Dan do to get a leg-up? Dan befriends Steve. He works on becoming a member of The Elite. In doing so, he is molding relationships and changing the way higher-ups and colleagues regard him within the company.

Although the individual isn’t as active as Sally in controlling his fate, he is still trying to command passive control by building his image and the right relationships that might aid or change his environment.

Whether someone demonstrates primary or secondary control is largely based on the culture within which they live. But both types of control are seen in all cultures.

Contracts in China: How Relationship-Based Cultures View Contractual Obligations

When you do business in China, you may come across a common contractual clause.

This clause stipulates that if issues arise, the contracted parties will discuss them and the contract may potentially be redrafted.

China is a relationship-based culture.

Someone from a rule-based culture, like most Western societies, will likely take issue with this clause.

Contracts are supposed to be black-and-white. They are supposed to be unambiguous. They are supposed to regulate specifically every aspect of the business relationship.

Contracts exist to effectively end the negotiation stage and begin working together.

The clause makes it clear that the contractual agreement may be renegotiated at any time. That means, for instance, when the parties do face a dispute, it might not go to court in the city in which the contract stipulates, but rather in a city court where the established law may work in the other party’s favor.

So, why even negotiate a contract in China? If it’s so ambiguous, what does the contract stand for?

Relationship-based Values vs. Rule-based Values

The relationship-based culture of China values a mutually beneficial and respectful business relationship. The contract is symbolic as such.

The contract signifies that personal relationships exist amongst the parties, therefore future disagreements may be negotiated.

While in Western cultures, a signed contract might mark the end of the negotiation process, in China – and in other relationship-based cultures – it marks the beginning.

You might think you’ve nailed down prices, but even those can be renegotiated days or weeks after signing.

Although those from Western cultures might see such a contract as pointless, its signing is still very important in relationship-based cultures.

In fact, it’s so important, that a contract signed with a Chinese company traditionally involves a luncheon or ceremony when making it official.

As soon as a contract is signed, it signifies that the two parties – especially the leaders – are publicly friends and will be respectful of their business relationship.

Relationships-to-Home Life

Relationship-based societies also view work life and personal life as inseparable to the point that “personal relations” and “business relations” are concepts that don’t exist in these societies.

That’s because company rules are dominated by relationships, particularly if an employee’s in-group is their family or tribe.

This means that if you have a conflict with an employee, it can often extend to a conflict with his/her family, kin, or any other member of his/her in-group.

Next week, we’ll discuss how this situation might manifest, along with other conflicts that crop up in business in relationship-based cultures.