that my roommate seems to have such a difficult time taking responsibility for his life?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that my roommate seems to have such a difficult time taking responsibility for his life? We have shared an apartment for over a year now, and every time something goes wrong in his life, he blames it on fate instead of realizing that he has some control over what happens to him. I’m a firm believer that we make our own lot in life, and to blame everything on “fate” just seems like a cop-out to me.

A: It’s clear that you and your roommate have very different perspectives that affect how you approach daily living, and the differences you describe may be related to your perceptions of control. The degree to which people feel “in control” over matters affecting their lives tends to influences their attitudes, behaviors and decisions.

Essentially, there are two broad categories of control perception – internal and external. When individuals possess an internal perception of control, they approach life with the belief that their actions or inactions determine life outcomes and consequences. They are resigned to the notion that what they “do” will somehow make a difference. Therefore, they may work hard toward the achievement of personal goals – committed to the realization that their success or failure is directly related to the amount of effort they put forth. Under conditions of success, these individuals will revel in a sense of personal accomplishment, attributing positive outcomes to their own efforts and dedication.

However, those with an internal sense of control will also be the first to engage in self-blame during times of failure. Because their belief in personal control is so strong, these individuals underestimate (or fail to recognize) the many life circumstances that are beyond one’s control. Instead of realizing that, despite their best efforts, things may not always turn out to their liking, these individuals may become hyper-critical toward their perceived personal shortcomings and inadequacies. In short, they’re hard on themselves, leading to feelings of frustration, irritability and inner conflict.

In contrast, people with external perceptions of control are very much the opposite. Instead of approaching life from the “driver’s seat,” these individuals adopt a passive, “passenger-like” role to living. Because they rely on the “winds of fate” as the determining factor of life’s outcomes, they willingly accept whatever benefits or liabilities come their way. They tend to discount or minimize their own personal effort as having a meaningful impact on positive or negative events, reasoning that they have no control over what cards they’ve been dealt. This “come what may” outlook often results in an overall lack of personal motivation toward the accomplishment of goals – as they passively await whatever fate has in store for them.

Operating from the premise of “whatever will be will be,” these individuals are far better emotionally equipped to “roll-with-the punches” than their internally controlled counterparts. Instead of considering failures as reflections of their own shortcomings, they are likely to conclude that things were simply “not meant to be.” This reasoning excuses them from shouldering responsibility for negative outcomes.

Many conflicts may arise in social relationships were opposing perceptions of control exist. The lack of accountability displayed by externally controlled individuals can become a tremendous source of resentment and displeasure for individuals who believe that one must take responsibility for one’s own life. On the other hand, externally controlled individuals often endure stress and pressure from interactions with those that take matters into their own hands.

To adopt an outlook that represents one extreme or the other can be both beneficial and problematic. The drive and determination that leads to the accomplishments of the internally controlled can be offset by their harsh and punitive self-criticism when facing failure. And the ease at which the externally controlled coasts through difficult times may be offset by an overall lack of initiative and accountability.

We all arrive at our perceptions of control through various means (family upbringing, religious/philosophical values, etc). But in reality, life is a mixed-bag. Some events come about as a result of our actions or inactions, while others are undoubtedly outside the realm of our personal control. The healthiest among us are those that acknowledge these distinctions and adapt their temperaments accordingly. In order to navigate our complex existence, (paraphrasing the iconic quote) – we must possess the ability to accept the things we can not change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.