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.

The “Japanese Miracle” & “Culture’s Consequences”: Cross-Cultural Research Gains Ground

Imagine your country is number one.

Number one in economic growth.

That’s what Japan was experiencing between the end of WWII and the Cold War.

While the country was still behind the United States, it became the world’s second-largest economy after its defeat in WWII.

Termed the “Japanese Miracle,” Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman were so interested in this economic boom that they wrote a book about it.

In Search of Excellence was written in the early ‘80s. It concluded that the Japanese outperformance of the Americans in terms of growth was due to differences in culture.

Culture and cultural studies were finally becoming a focal point to more than only those who studied social sciences. Big corporate CEOs were starting to see cross-cultural research as a tool for success in business.

Culture’s Consequence

In walks Hofstede.

As we discussed last week, Hofstede had discovered differences in culture while analyzing the outcomes of a company-wide survey for IBM.

In doing so, he offered the first scientifically-founded analysis of cultural differences in the workplace.

In 1980, he also published a book, Culture’s Consequences. By the turn of the century, Hofstede’s work had been cited more than 2000 times, with no empirical work as influential in the fields of psychology or culture.

According to Hofstede’s research, nations differed in four cultural dimensions.

The dimensions denoted sets of values, scaled from one extreme to the other. After surveying the populous of various cultures, each nation was valued between these two poles.

One dimension involved “Uncertainty Avoidance” – to what degree a culture’s members are comfortable/uncomfortable in unknown, surprising, or situations that differed from their cultural norm.

This dimension suggests which cultures maintain tradition and fear change and which are open to risk-taking and innovation.

The dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance was discovered when Hofstede looked at the survey’s responses to questions about work-related stress.

An example of a work-related question in the survey:

How often do you feel nervous or tense at work?

Answers ranged from “I never feel this way” to “I always feel this way.”

Another correlating question asked whether one should break company rules if doing so was in the best interest of the company.

Further, employees were asked if they had long-term plans to stay with the company.

The Results

The survey found that some cultures appreciated change, and these were the same cultures that were less affected by stress.

Those cultures that avoided change and were more affected by stress were often also more bound by rituals, laws, bureaucracy, and tradition.

For example, Latin American cultures are layered in procedures and rules and are considered “uncertainty avoiding” cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk about more of the dimensions discovered by Hofstede.