Category Archives: locus of control

Taking the Mick Out of Murphy’s Law


In 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base, a team of military engineers were studying the effects on the human body, of “sudden deceleration,” using a speed sled on rails & brave volunteers. The lead researcher, Capt. Edward A. Murphy, annoyed with the imprecision of one of his technical assistants, remarked that if a device could be fitted incorrectly, this clown would do it. Later, Dr. John Paul Stapp, who survived a 40-G [sic] deceleration in the sled, told reporters that, “the good safety record on the project was due to a firm belief in Murphy’s Law.”

So, how did the 20th Century dissing of one schlemiel in the California desert morph into the pessimistic worldview now implied by the idiom, “It’s Murphy’s Law, isn’t it?” uttered whenever [as the 18th Century Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote] “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”?

Well, as long as we’ve wandered back to the British Isles, let’s consider the far older [but unattributed] expression, “It’s sod’s law, innit?” In post-1950s dictionaries [both British & American] the two phrases are listed as interchangeable. But dey’re not really, are dey now? Cuz your British lexicographer was until recently reluctant to codify pejorative references to the Irish, even referring to a certain AKC breed of dog as a “red setter,” lest offense [and, presumably, reprisals] be taken. [Compare this to the linguistically insouciant Yanks, who t’row scores of Hooligans into Paddywagons every March 17th, for da love o’ Mike!] Mind you, there also are no “German Shepherds” in the UK; there are instead “Alsatians,” n’est-ce pas? [“Don’t mention the War!”]

Cultural nuances aside, though, there are important locus-of-control differences in the lessons to be drawn, between Sod’s and Murphy’s Laws. The former posits “a perversely malignant universe,” in which “dropped toast always lands buttered-side-down,” and bad things happen to good people. It is essentially Nihilistic. Murphy’s Law, on the other hand, suggests the adoption of a “belt & suspenders [or braces, as the Brits would have it]” approach to human endeavors. There may be no such thing as a “fail-safe” plan; so there should be at least one back-up plan. Written down & rehearsed [since, once the limbic system is lit up, hippocampus-mediated problem-solving will go off-line.] Yeah, sure, that plan might not work, either. Score one for the Nihilists. But, then again, it just might. Worth a try, yeah?

For Lent, I’m trying to give up seeing the world in Sod’s Law terms. I still believe in Murphy’s Law, of course. I know, for instance, that at the end of an hour-long, free-range adventure in the woods, Lili will still feel the need to “leave a message” for her canine correspondents on the lawn of the public schoolyard. Never let the other guy have the last “word,” is her motto. Luckily, though, this time she was “only taking the Mick” [Google it]; and no deployment of a New York Times blue plastic bag was necessary. [But I always carry at least one in my pocket, pace Capt. Murphy.]

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Filed under limbic system, locus of control, semiotics

"What Was I Thinking?"


My currently fave BBC 1 radio presenter, the young-but-sage Dubliner Annie Mac, was hosting a Bank Holiday Weekend show, reading texts from listeners recounting their shenanigans. “Annie, I woke up in a wheelie bin [trash can on wheels] this morning,” wrote one reveler. Annie deadpanned this response: “Now, what made you think that was a good idea? Surely, you would have been more comfortable, lying face-down on the lawn. Ah, well, you’ve survived it; and now it’s an anecdote.”

Brilliant! Here’s why I love what she’s done there. Without appearing to be goody-two-shoes preach-y about the perils of demon drink, she has deftly imputed internal locus of control to the texter-in. Rather than focusing on how he came to be so “trashed” that [presumably] his so-called friends decided to “bin” him, she [Poetically] implies that the decision to pass the night in a garbage can was his; and questions the wisdom of that. Under the rubric of “If you can’t be good, be careful,” she points out that he could have lessened his pain & suffering by stretching out, in the recommended Recovery Position, on some soft grass. [Coincidentally, last week the Manchester Guardian ran a feature on 10 common, potentially lethal, misconceptions about rendering first aid; and one was to “lay a drunk person on his/her back.” Several show-biz fatalities were cited, as evidence that this is a Bad Idea.]

By implication, she suggests that the reveler might now be having a bit of retroactive fear [as in, “Bloody hell! I could have died from that!”] and humiliation [as in “Bloody hell! I just told an audience of millions how stupid I am!”]; but she reframes his shenanigans as a Lucky Escape: an event not to be repressed or dissociated [as in, “That was not me, I’m not like that.”], but to be told and retold, until the ostensibly Crazy Fox’s behavior is understood well enough to answer the question: “What was I thinking?”

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Filed under crazy like a fox, locus of control, understanding shenanigans

Slip Slidin’ Away


“You know the nearer your destination the more you’re slip slidin’ away,” said the Bard of New York, Paul Simon. I first heard the song on my car radio in 1978, driving out of Gate 8 of the Naval Academy, having just paid off my [for those times] staggering grad school loan debt, feeling a great sense of relief and accomplishment…only to realize that I, like the woman in the song, was still “think(ing) of things that might have been.” I advise against dwelling on the road(s) not taken, since, as the song says, it is highly correlated with having a “bad day.”

This morning’s woodland adventure featured the more literal form of slip slidin’ away, since it had bucketed rain last night, and I had chosen the least non-slip of my 3 pairs of Wellington boots. I was reminded of a walk two years ago, just before flying off to Detroit [long story] to take the California Board of Psychology licensing exam, and thinking, “Boy, this would be a highly inconvenient day to take a serious tumble in these unfrequented woods.” Didn’t fall, made the flight, passed the test, got the license, still no nearer the destination of living on the Other Coast. This afternoon, I am flying Over There, to see not one but two daughters [since the Chicago-based one is moving to San Francisco this summer]; and the same thought occurred to me, in a particularly steep & muddy patch of the path: “What if I fall down [and brake my crown, with Lili tumbling after]?”

See, this is a Locus of Control meditation. To what degree are we destined to fall, move West, have kids, join the Navy? [You know, whatever.] My own limbic system is pre-set to fear that I will take the “wrong” road, get lost, wind up at a deadend. So, I often choose to believe that I have no choice [to cut down on all that anger-mediated-cortisol, nar’mean?]. The price I pay, though, is to endure the intrusion of An External Plan-Maker’s Agenda on me. What am I, Fate’s plaything? [Oops! Cortisol.]

Got to dash, now [Southwest and tide wait for no person, as it were]; but ponder a bit on the next Big Fork in the Road you’re facing, and notice whether you attempt to shift the onus of the decision onto Someone Else. [You car’s SatNav, your horoscope, the I Ching, what your Loved Ones really want you to do without actually telling you point blank…]

Incidentally, this picture was taken on the first day after the big snow melted, and doesn’t really look like the inches of oozing mud we slogged through today. “But what was I to do? It was the only picture I had with any mud in it.” [She said, externalizing the locus of control again…]

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Plot-twists in Your Storyline


Okay, so you’ve faced the fact that something unforeseen, unintended, and probably unfortunate is going down in your life. Well spotted. Now what?

Anger, is what. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth, or paying close enough attention. It is what to do with/about the anger, that I want to address…right after I declare how angry I am at two Post-modern Antipodeans from the 70s, White & Epston, who rebranded the ancient & universal practice of chronicling the ups & downs of the story of one’s life, to try to make sense of it [to answer Alfie’s (1966) question, “What’s it all about?”] as “Narrative Therapy,” as if it were their intellectual property. Mostly intrusion is up my nose, about this narrow redefinition of what almost everyone does, every day (even if they’re not in psychotherapy): tell someone [even if it’s only Dear Diary] wha’ happened today, in a narrative format. Nar’mean?

“What did you do at school today?” ask the concerned parents.”Ahh, nuttin’. We just had oral review.” It’s still a narrative.

But let’s say what your 5th-grade class did today was study the oyster, including the requirement to eat one [which your personal & family culture proscribes], and you refused, and were sent to the Principal’s office, occasioning humiliation and fear. As you tell your narrative to your parents, they have the power to influence the storyline, for better or worse. “That’s outrageous! How dare they impose their parochial, regional folkways on a Navy kid! We’ll send a note of protest to the Principal, insisting that you be exempted, without prejudice, from eating a mollusk.” Or…”What makes you think you can defy your teacher? When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Want to guess how the narrative unfolded for me? It was huge! It became a leitmotif of my storyline. My parents backed me to the hilt, and no mollusks were consumed [by me, or, indeed, any other squeamish classmates].

As we mature, we sometimes have to “become are own parents,” and back ourselves to the hilt, in the face of criticism, adversity, and unfortunate plot-twists. That is, we need to recall earlier chapters in our narrative, when intrusion, humiliation, fear and pain & suffering were neutralized [made “all better,” or at least ratcheted down to a tolerable level], against all odds. If those instances don’t readily spring to mind, then look harder for them. If they hadn’t occurred at all, you wouldn’t be here now.

This is my Manhattan cat, St. Chuck [1974-1983], whose own storyline included a series of [at least 8] life-threatening plot-twists and miraculous comebacks. He was my loyal companion through a doctoral dissertation, 6 years of Naval service, and the transitions to married and civilian life. As this stop-action photo suggests, the leitmotif of his narrative was fear, which he overcame in his final years…which is a story for another time.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, locus of control, transitional objects, what's it all about?

Attractive Nuisance Doctrine


First let me make a cheap pun at Zanzibar’s expense, and say that because he is usually purring at my elbow when I’m writing this blog, it is his fault that I don’t catch all the typos before hitting “publish.” Like typing “Packer Leader,” when I meant, of course, “Pack Leader,” in the previous post. “If only his eyes weren’t so adorably blue…”

As those of you who have a swimming pool on your property know [and we learned, when we bought Dusk the QuarterHorse], an “Attractive Nuisance” is a term of art in tort law, referring to any animate or inanimate object which poses a threat, “because of its attraction, to children who will be unlikely to recognize its dangerous quality.” [Webster’s 1988 ed.] In Michigan [where tort lawyers abound] we had to buy Attractive Nuisance liability insurance on Dusk, even though she lived at a private riding stable, across town from our home. [In fact, she lived in Sterling Heights, whence cometh Marshall Mathers III. Check it.]

Now let us consider the External/Internal Locus of Control doctrine, which the UK researchers tried to measure in 10-year-olds, with a self-report questionnaire. A girl with a high level of External Locus of Control will tell her parents, “The horse whinnied at me, so I knew it was hungry, so I gave it my Ice Lolly to lick [remember, we’re in the UK], and it bit my hand!” [In Michigan, that would be a Popcicle.] Was a sign posted on the stall door, saying “Do not feed this horse without owner’s permission”? Not good enough. What if the child is too young to read? Tell you what the management at the London Zoo do. They post this surreal but high concept sign with a human hand, out of which a cookie-cutter-[or, biscuit-cutter]-shaped chunk is missing, near the cages of animals whom it is dangerous to feed. Next time I own a horse, I’m posting that sign on the stall door.

What if the horse spared the child, but ate the rod [in this case, the Ice Lolly/Popcicle stick]? Would the family of the young doner of the ill-advised confection be liable for the vet bill, to remove the wood splinters from the horse’s throat? Not bloody likely! The horse would be diagnosed with “Dietary Indiscretion,” and its owner would be charged for its treatment.

So, you see where I’m going with this, right? Up to a certain age, the law attributes External Locus of Control to young ones, and blames bad outcome on others [man & beast]. After that age, though, all bets are off. If, as a teenager, you schmize my horse into eating a dangerous stick [and I catch you at it], you’re guilty of animal abuse. An adult caught feeding a zoo animal will be prosecuted [right after being discharged from the ER]. So, how is this shift from External to Internal Locus of Control supposed to happen? Passage of time? Trial and error? Fairy dust?

I happen to believe it happens by grown-up Pack Leaders [there!] keeping an eye on young ones, and issuing Conative commands to them [such as “Don’t feed the animals, unless you ask first.”], along with a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not. [“Cuz I say so,” does not count as a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not, incidentally.] So, here’s what I’m saying, grown-ups. Man up, and risk the humiliation of a hissy fit from the thwarted young person [or their doting parents], in the name of animal welfare, of child welfare, of public order. Think of these Sound-Bites-of-Why-Not as your own, award winning Public Service Announcements. The more novel and amusing [usually], the more effective they are.

The alternative is the intrusive mission creep of increasingly silly tort avoidance notices from which we now suffer, warning us that a cup of Hot Chocolate “might be hot.” That raw eggs may contain salmonella. That roads may be slippery when wet.

Get working on those PSAs, folks.

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Filed under leading a pack, locus of control, pro bono publico, semiotics

Bad Fairy at the Christening


Backstory to Sleeping Beauty: two Good Fairies offer upbeat predictions for baby Aurora; then a Bad Fairy [name of Maleficent] predicts that on the girl’s 16th birthday, she’ll prick her finger with a spindle and die. A 3rd Good Fairy softens the malediction from “die” to “fall asleep.” Then they put the baby into a witness protection program [changing her name to Briar Rose]. You remember the rest.

So here’s the malediction du jour from BMC Medicine 2009, 7;46: based on a decades-long study of 16,496 kids, all born in the UK, in the same week of April, 1970. When they were 10 years old, several tests & measurements were administered. Less subjectively, their Body Mass Index [as well as that of their parents] was obtained by “a qualified nurse.” The Social Class of their parents was calculated, based on Dad’s line of work [if any]. Their teacher filled out a “modified Rutter B” questionnaire [which assessed each kid for how “worried,” “miserable,” “tearful,” and/or “fussy” they were]. Hands up, if you ever were assigned Robert Rosenthal’s 1968 educational classic, Pygmalion in the Classroom. If so, you already know how this study is going to turn out; but don’t spoil the surprise for the others.

Then these UK 10-year-olds were given 3 read-it-yourself-and-fill-in-the-answers surveys. The so-called Self-Report test had just 2 items: “I worry alot,” and “I am nervous,” to which the kid could answer “Not at all,” or “Sometimes,” or “Often/usually.” [Let’s cut to the chase on this one, and say that it predicted nowt, bupkes, nada.] Ah, but there followed the 12-item LAWSEQ [“yes,” “no,” “don’t know”] to assess Self Esteem; and the 16-item CAROLOC [“yes,” or “no/don’t know”] to assess External/Internal Locus of Control. The scoring on each test was like golf [not basketball]: lower was better. Did you ever study the “Yea-sayer Effect”? [As the name suggests, some folks Just Cain’t Say “No” on questionnaires. That’s why well-designed surveys throw in some “Yes, we have no bananas” type of questions, just to catch out the “yea-sayers.” Not these two tests, though.]

Okay, so fast-forward 20 years. Of the original cohort, less than half the 30-year-olds [mostly women] chose to contact the researchers, with their self-reported Body Mass Index. Now for the high-concept title of the article: “Childhood emotional problems and self-perceptions predict weight gain in a longitudinal regression model.” And now, for what the data actually show. “The strongest predictors of weight gain were BMI @ age 10 and parental BMI.” “[For women only] External Locus of Control and Low Self Esteem predicted weight gain on a par with Social Class.” “The Rutter B predicted increased BMI [for women].”

So–before we all start wringing our hands like the guests at Aurora’s Christening party, at the “Statistically Proven Fact” that highly-strung 10-year-old girls [or those who Just Cain’t Say No on questionnaires], whose teachers have already pigeon-holed them as Nervous Nellies, are doomed to become overweight 30-year-olds–let’s consider an unexplored bias in the data. As Rosenthal’s [much more robust] results have shown, a teacher’s subjective assessment of each student has a powerful effect–for good or evil–not only on the teacher’s predictions of that kid’s academic and social success, but on the kid’s actual success.

So, here’s my advice to concerned parents of young girls. Listen carefully at those parent-teacher conferences; and if you’re getting the vibe that the teacher has your kid in “negative halo” mode, either change the teacher’s attitude or change which teacher your kid has. I have no doubt that my father’s move-in-October Navy schedule fortuitously rescued me from some toxic negative halo situations [inasmuch as I was an Exceedingly Highly-Strung, ergo annoying, young pupil]. And twice, my parents insisted that I switch teachers, even when we weren’t blowing in or out of town.

Ya gotta be your kid’s Press Agent, and package ’em, like an Oscar nominee. Ya gotta win the Bad Fairies over, and get them to revise their own predictions of your kid’s prospects. Also, it couldn’t hurt to coach your kid to charm it up a little, no? And for those of you waiting for the Up Your Nose nexus here, say it with me: Childhood humiliation [at not being one of the teacher’s faves] leads to anger [often, directed against oneself] and to dumping cortisol, which leads to weight gain…along with other forms of pain & suffering.

But watch out for that 16th birthday, anyway. It’s a risky time for most girls.

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Filed under attribution theory, body image, confounds, locus of control, murky research, stress and cortisol