Control

Control, within an academic environment, refers to the belief that students are able to control their own academic outcomes. Control in this context doesn't refer to students' ability to dictate their own learning (such as choosing activities), but rather, to be the vehicles of their own progress, to accept that their successes are caused by their own actions and that they are equally responsible for their failures. But control also involves the belief that even if the goal is not reached, there is something concrete and tangible that can be done to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, our feelings of control can peak and trough and we are all prone to misattributing causes to erroneous factors (such as blaming others for our failures). How we attribute these causes represent the cornerstone of control.

Locus of control and attribution theory

Central to this notion is a concept known as locus of control, developed by psychologist Julian Rotter back in the 1960s (for example, Rotter, 1966). The basic idea is simple enough; if we feel that we can control events, we have the capacity to prevent bad things from happening. For example, if a student feels that they are the vehicle of their own achievement, they feel more confident, dedicated to their studies and display higher levels of motivation. They are also more likely to carefully evaluate setbacks in terms of what they could have done differently, rather than chastise their lack of intelligence or pass blame to others (often, the teacher who they believe to be the main source of their failure). Locus of control is described as either internal ('/ have control over my own outcomes') or external ('/ am the victim of sources beyond my control'). Certain environments have the capacity to strip people of this feeling of control, namely the workplace and the classroom. In school, young people are told what to wear and how to behave, they eat at specified times and move around the school at pre-determined points throughout the day. Most of these factors are necessary for the smooth running of any organisation, but that doesn't alter the fact that they diminish feelings and beliefs about our ability to dictate our own actions. People don't like to believe that they are being controlled or manipulated, and this fact remains the same regardless of age. An interesting aside is that we can actually use this phenomenon to nudge young people towards healthier lifestyles. Research into the effectiveness of campaigns aimed at teenage smokers have found that informing young people that they are being manipulated by big tobacco companies can have a greater chance of success than those emphasising the risk to health - we simply don't like to feel that we are being controlled (Hersey et al., 2005).

The general locus of control concept goes further than just attributing our actions in internal or external ways; it also shapes our perceptions and how we attribute the causes of other people's actions and how these behaviours relate directly to us. Actor Jennifer Lawrence has become a household name since starring in the successful Hunger Games films. Since then, her success has gone from strength to strength, picking up an Oscar on the way. Lawrence is also famous for something slightly less positive - falling over at award ceremonies. By all accounts, it's become quite a talking point in Hollywood with fellow actor Jared Leto even suggesting (perhaps not too seriously) that it's all part of a plan to get on the front pages of tabloid newspapers across the globe. At the 2014 Oscar ceremony, Lawrence was making her way to the stage when she turned and looked into the audience and said 'Why are you laughing? What, is this funny?' She was directing her questions to Leto, who was seated in the front row with his brothers and comedian Ellen DeGeneres. Lawrence didn't know why she appeared to be the target of their laughter and her questions were the first attempt at trying to make sense of the situation; she knew that they were laughing at her, but she didn't know why.

We don't know for sure what was going through Lawrence's mind as she made her way to the stage, but we can assume that she felt uncomfortable at the thought that her friends and fellow actors were making fun of her. Leto later explained that it was DeGeneres who had caused the uncontrolled laughter by joking about the prospect of Lawrence, once again, falling as she mounted the stage. The joke was potentially funny because it related to previous behaviour (falling over). It's unlikely that there was any malice intended, seeing as DeGeneres and Lawrence are close friends, but the behaviour did place Lawrence in a particularly difficult situation, one that led to her responding in a rather confused manner, in front of millions of people.

The situation Lawrence found herself in is far from unique. I suspect we have all found ourselves in the position whereby we believe people are laughing at us or talking about us when we have very little context to formulate an explanation or support our assumption. Nevertheless, we invariably try to take in what we do know and formulate a hypothesis around a logical causal explanation. The less information we have, the higher the likelihood that we are wrong - we have misread the signals, so to speak. When things don't go according to plan (or when something unexpected occurs), people look for reasons why. In our particular context we are going to concern ourselves with attributing causes to events preventing us from reaching our goals, but the same notion can be applied to any situation. The search for reasons why often leads to a behavioural adaptation that can then be used next time in the hope that outcomes will be more favourable. The problem is that the elements we attribute to the setback aren't always the same and different people might look at their past failures and assume that the causes are both something about them (an internal handicap, so to speak) and are unchangeable (or stable). Lawrence attributes her falls to clumsiness or thinking too hard about what she needs to do to avoid falling which, paradoxically, leads to her falling. Of course, the more she falls, the more she'll believe she will fall. These differences in how we attribute cause are known as our attributional style.

 
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