What is an external locus of control?

Those with an external locus of control believe external variables or factors are to blame for what happens to them. Locus of control refers to one’s perception of the drivers of certain events in their life

Understanding an external locus of control

Unlike those with an internal locus of control who believe they control their destiny, individuals with an external locus of control believe their destiny is in the hands of some other factor or variable.

In other words, they perceive that the events in their life are outside their control.

When an individual perceives that an external factor is in control, they are more likely to associate outcomes with luck, happenstance, religion, or some predetermined destiny.

This perception causes the individual to stop exhibiting certain behaviors – no matter how beneficial they may be – because of this belief that their actions have no impact on their life.

External locus of control characteristics

Some of the characteristics of those with an external locus of control include:

  • Feeling powerless or without hope during difficult situations. 
  • The tendency to attribute any life successes to luck. 
  • The tendency to avoid setting goals or making plans with the view that external factors will inevitably upset them.
  • Passivity. That is, they sit back and expect beneficial opportunities to present themselves on a silver platter.
  • A compulsion to believe in conspiracy theories that explain why something happens a certain way. This can also manifest as paranoia.
  • The belief that talents or skills cannot be developed over time. This is otherwise known as a fixed mindset.

Impacts of an external locus of control

An external locus of control can be useful in limited scenarios.

For example, employees with this mindset are less likely to be impacted by an abusive superior because they recognize that the manager’s personality is beyond their sphere of influence.

Nevertheless, this mindset is generally seen as less desirable when compared to an internal locus of control. To explain why this is so, consider how an external locus of control relates to other psychological theories.

Self-efficacy theory 

Social psychologist Albert Bandura proposed the idea of self-efficacy in 2010 as a measure of how capable one feels in their ability to achieve their goals. 

Those with an external locus of control – no matter how talented – believe they are not capable of succeeding. In effect, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because they avoid taking the steps necessary to realizing a desirable future state.

Personality theories

Locus of control and how it relates to personality has been studied extensively in the context of work satisfaction and health outcomes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown that an external locus of control is associated with elevated stress levels, anxiety, and even depression.

These mental states arise from learned helplessness. Here, the individual experiences repeated failures or challenges in work or health contexts and mistakenly believes that no action of theirs will result in positive outcomes.

Key takeaways:

  • Those with an external locus of control believe external variables or factors are to blame for what happens to them. 
  • Some of the characteristics of those with an external locus of control include a tendency to feel powerless or hopeless in difficult situations, the avoidance of making plans or setting goals, and a belief that one cannot improve one’s talents or abilities over time.
  • An external locus of control is likely to be undesirable in most circumstances, but it can be useful in situations where the individual is subject to the harmful behavior or actions of others.

Connected Business Concepts

Two-Factor Theory

Herzberg’s two-factor theory argues that certain workplace factors cause job satisfaction while others cause job dissatisfaction. The theory was developed by American psychologist and business management analyst Frederick Herzberg. Until his death in 2000, Herzberg was widely regarded as a pioneering thinker in motivational theory.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His hierarchy, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid, helped explain his research on basic human needs and desires. In marketing, the hierarchy (and its basis in psychology) can be used to market to specific groups of people based on their similarly specific needs, desires, and resultant actions.

Lightning Decision Jam

The theory was developed by psychologist Edwin Locke who also has a background in motivation and leadership research. Locke’s goal-setting theory of motivation provides a framework for setting effective and motivating goals. Locke was able to demonstrate that goal setting was linked to performance.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

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