Media Briefings


  • Published Date: August 2013

The loss of a loved one, being promoted at work or becoming ill have little effect on people’s beliefs about cause and effect in life events. That is the central finding of new research by Professor Deborah Cobb-Clark and Dr Stefanie Schurer, which analyses data on more than 8,000 individuals aged 16 to 80-plus over a four-year period.

Their study, published in the August 2013 issue of the Economic Journal, examines the evolution of personal beliefs about cause and effect over time – sometimes referred to as fatalistic beliefs or ‘locus of control’ – and whether key life events can explain changes in these beliefs.

They find that the fatalistic beliefs of working-age adults (aged 25-59) remain surprisingly stable over a four-year period, whereas the very young (those under 25 years old) and the elderly (over 60) experience small changes. Critically, however, changes in beliefs are not the result of life experiences for any age group.

Professor Cobb-Clark explains:

‘Whether the life event was positive – such as being promoted at work or having a baby – or negative – such as the loss of a partner or a job – we find that a person’s attitude towards life does not change.’

The research also finds little evidence to support the hypothesis that the continuous re-occurrence of negative life events – such as sudden unemployment, worsening finances or illness – lead to an individual believing that they are helpless.

The authors calculate the hourly wage change that would be predicted given the changes in people’s fatalistic beliefs. They find that the money-equivalent of the effect of a series of employment-related life events on fatalistic beliefs implies a reduction in hourly wages of just 60 euro cents for men and 70 euro cents for women. The effect of a series of health shocks experienced over four years on fatalistic beliefs is associated with a drop in hourly wages of 40 euro cents for men and 80 euro cents for women.

Dr Schurer comments:

‘Previous academic studies found a link between individuals feeling that life was outside their control once they experienced a number of personal setbacks.

‘Yet we find no evidence of people believing their life is not within their own destiny even after continuous disappointments.’

Professor Cobb-Clark adds:

‘In recent years, economic research has focused on an individual’s personality type and how personality has an impact on their economic achievement in life.

‘There is now increasing evidence that interventions by parents, schools or government policy that focuses on personality traits can lead to economically more successful outcomes in later life for individuals.

‘Our research suggests that personality in adulthood is surprisingly stable, which suggests that interventions need to be targeted at younger individuals.’


Notes for editors: ‘Two Economists’ Musings on the Stability of Locus of Control’ by Deborah A. Cobb-Clark and Stefanie Schurer is published in the August 2013 issue of the Economic Journal.

Deborah Cobb-Clark is the director of the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne. Stefanie Schurer is a senior lecturer in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University.

Their study uses data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email:; Twitter: @econromesh); Eoin Hahessy (media and engagement manager, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne) on +61 432 213 616 (email:; Deborah Cobb-Clark via email: or Stefanie Schurer via email: