PSU study: Kids from wealthier families feel more control over lives

March 22, 2018

The higher a child's family income, the more likely he or she is to feel control over their life, according to a new Portland State University study.

Building on previous research that has shown that kids who feel more control experience better academic, health and even occupational outcomes, the findings underscore how the kids who most need this psychological resource may be the least likely to experience it.

The study by Dara Shifrer, a sociology professor in PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was published online this month in the journal Society and Mental Health. It's titled, "The Contributions of Parental, Academic, School, and Peer Factors to Differences by Socioeconomic Status in Adolescents' Locus of Control."

Using data from 16,450 U.S. eighth graders surveyed for the National Education Longitudinal Study in 1988 and 1990, Shifrer examined which measures of socioeconomic status -- parents' education, family income, race and parents' occupation -- have the greatest influence over a child's locus of control and why.

Locus of control describes the degree to which people feel control over their lives. People at one end of the scale, with external control, believe they are powerless and credit their successes and failures to other people, luck or fate. On the other end, people with internal control see their destiny as largely in their own hands.

Shifrer concluded that kids with higher socioeconomic status were more likely to have an internal locus of control, in large part because their parents discuss school more often with them, their homes have more books and other resources, they receive higher grades, they are more likely to attend a private school, their friends are more academically oriented, and they feel safer at school.

"We know income shapes the way people parent, shapes the peers that kids have, shapes the schools they attend," she said. "It's not just kids' perception -- their lives are a little bit more out of control when they're poor."

Shifrer said the study gives social scientists a better understanding by which family income influences child development.

Shifrer does acknowledge that there are some limitations to her study, which uses data from the early 1990s.

However, the data is one of the few large national datasets that measures adolescents' locus of control, according to Shifrer. She said it is unlikely that its measure of locus of control is outdated, but suggests that the disparities in internal control could be even more stark today with increasing inequality and shifts in parenting norms and social media use.
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Portland State University

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