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. 

IntroductionExternal Locus of Control is a psychological concept that refers to an individual’s belief that external factors, such as luck, fate, or powerful others, primarily control the outcomes of their life rather than their own actions and decisions. Understanding this concept is essential in psychology, as it influences an individual’s behavior, coping strategies, and overall well-being.
Key ConceptsLocus of Control: Locus of Control is a continuum ranging from external to internal. External Locus of Control represents the belief that outcomes are determined by external factors, while Internal Locus of Control signifies the belief that one’s actions and decisions shape their fate.
Attribution Theory: Attribution theory explores how individuals attribute the causes of events, with external locus individuals attributing outcomes to external factors.
Learned Helplessness: Individuals with a strong external locus of control may experience learned helplessness, where they believe they have no control over their circumstances, leading to passivity and lack of effort.
Self-Efficacy: This concept, introduced by Albert Bandura, relates to an individual’s belief in their ability to influence their life’s outcomes and is closely tied to locus of control.
Impact on BehaviorExternal Locus of Control can significantly influence behavior and decision-making:
Passivity: Individuals with a strong external locus of control may become passive, feeling that their actions have little impact on their lives.
Risk Avoidance: They may avoid taking risks, as they believe luck or external factors are more influential than their own efforts.
Dependency: External locus individuals may rely on others or seek external validation more frequently.
Coping Strategies: Their coping strategies may involve seeking help or relying on external sources of support during challenging times.
Origins and DevelopmentLocus of Control beliefs can develop through various factors:
Early Experiences: Childhood experiences, parenting styles, and the presence of role models can shape an individual’s locus of control.
Cultural and Societal Factors: Cultural and societal norms and values can influence whether a society promotes internal or external locus beliefs.
Trauma and Adversity: Traumatic experiences and repeated failures can reinforce external locus beliefs.
MeasurementLocus of Control can be measured using psychological assessment tools such as Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale, which presents scenarios to gauge an individual’s beliefs about control over events.
ApplicationsUnderstanding locus of control has practical applications in various fields:
Education: Educators can consider students’ locus of control beliefs when designing teaching strategies.
Clinical Psychology: Therapists may address locus of control in therapy to help clients develop a healthier sense of control.
Workplace: HR professionals can consider locus of control when assessing employees’ adaptability and leadership potential.
Personal Development: Individuals can use this awareness to make proactive changes in their life and career.
Challenges and ConsiderationsChallenges related to locus of control include:
Change: Shifting from an external to an internal locus of control can be challenging but is possible with intervention and self-awareness.
Cultural Sensitivity: Cultural differences should be considered when interpreting locus of control beliefs.
Complexity: Locus of control is a multifaceted concept, and individuals may exhibit varying degrees of external and internal beliefs.
Future TrendsFuture trends related to locus of control may involve:
Personalized Interventions: Tailoring interventions and therapies based on an individual’s locus of control beliefs.
Technology: The role of technology and digital experiences in shaping locus of control may be explored.
Education: Educators may continue to adapt teaching methods to accommodate diverse locus of control orientations among students.
Well-Being: The connection between locus of control and mental health and well-being may be further explored.
ConclusionExternal Locus of Control is a psychological concept that reflects an individual’s belief that external factors predominantly determine the outcomes in their life. This belief can significantly influence behavior, decision-making, and coping strategies. Understanding locus of control is valuable in various domains, including education, clinical psychology, and personal development, as it provides insights into how individuals perceive and respond to the world around them. Recognizing the malleability of locus of control beliefs and their impact on individuals’ lives remains essential for fostering personal growth and well-being.

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.

Case Studies

  • Business Leadership: In the business world, leaders with an external locus of control may struggle to take responsibility for their company’s performance. They might attribute success or failure to market conditions or luck rather than their leadership decisions.
  • Startup Founders: Entrepreneurs with an external locus of control might believe that the success of their startup is entirely dependent on external factors like investor funding or market trends, leading to a lack of initiative in adapting to changing circumstances.
  • Tech Startups: In the tech industry, companies that blame external factors like competition or regulations for their inability to innovate may stagnate. Those with an internal locus of control are more likely to proactively seek solutions.
  • Cybersecurity: Organizations that rely solely on external factors, such as government regulations or third-party security software, to protect their data may be more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Those with an internal locus of control would prioritize internal security measures.
  • Product Development: Tech companies that believe their product’s success is solely determined by consumer preferences and not by their development efforts may fail to iterate and improve their offerings.
  • Market Entry Strategies: Companies entering new markets may blame external factors, like cultural differences, for poor sales rather than taking proactive steps to understand and adapt to the local market.
  • Customer Service: Businesses with an external locus of control may attribute customer complaints to external factors like “difficult customers” rather than examining their own service quality and processes for improvement.
  • Tech Adoption: When introducing new technology in a company, employees with an external locus of control may resist change, believing that the technology will not significantly impact their work or that it will be problematic due to external factors.
  • Data Privacy Compliance: Organizations that view data privacy compliance as a burden imposed by external regulations may not take proactive steps to protect customer data until faced with legal consequences.
  • Tech Investments: Investors who rely solely on external market conditions to guide their tech investments may miss opportunities or make poor decisions when market conditions change unexpectedly.

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.

Key Highlights about External Locus of Control:

  • Definition and Concept: An external locus of control refers to the belief that external factors, circumstances, or forces are responsible for the events and outcomes in one’s life. It contrasts with an internal locus of control, where individuals believe they have control over their own actions and destiny.
  • Beliefs and Perception: Individuals with an external locus of control perceive that their life events and circumstances are beyond their control. They attribute outcomes to luck, fate, destiny, or external influences, rather than their own actions or efforts.
  • Impact on Behavior: This belief system can lead to specific behaviors and tendencies:
    • Feeling powerless or lacking hope during challenging situations.
    • Attributing personal successes to luck rather than their own abilities.
    • Avoiding setting goals or making plans, expecting external factors to disrupt them.
    • Displaying passivity, waiting for opportunities to come without proactive efforts.
    • Embracing conspiracy theories or exhibiting paranoia to explain events.
    • Believing that skills and talents cannot be developed over time.
  • Effects and Implications:
    • Positive Aspects: In certain situations, an external locus of control can provide a sense of protection against events beyond an individual’s control, like dealing with a difficult boss.
    • Negative Aspects: Generally, an external locus of control is associated with less desirable outcomes:
      • Reduced self-efficacy: Individuals doubt their abilities and may not take necessary actions.
      • Learned helplessness: A cycle of failures and challenges leads to a belief that their actions have no impact, contributing to stress, anxiety, and depression.
      • Limited goal-setting: A reluctance to set and pursue goals due to the belief that outcomes are predetermined.
  • Relation to Psychological Theories:
    • Self-efficacy theory: External locus of control hinders self-efficacy, which is the belief in one’s capacity to achieve goals.
    • Personality theories: Research suggests a link between locus of control and work satisfaction, mental health, and stress levels. External locus of control is associated with higher stress, anxiety, and depression due to learned helplessness.

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.


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.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

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.

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 in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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