What is an internal locus of control?

Those with an internal locus of control believe they have control over what happens in their life. In other words, they believe the interactions they have with their environment will produce predictable results. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe the events in their lives are mostly the result of their own actions.

Understanding an internal locus of control

The concept of a locus of control was first proposed by American psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954.

Then known as the locus of control of reinforcement, the theory posited that the level of autonomy (or control) one had over their life influenced their behavior.

Rotter described his idea in terms of social learning theory and whether the individual believed that rewards and punishments in their life were dictated to them by external factors.

Later work by Rotter in the 1960s defined the locus of control as the degree to which someone perceived an outcome as being the result of their own actions.

Importantly, this perception exists on a spectrum which is still used today.

On one end of the spectrum is an internal locus of control where individuals believe life outcomes are dependent on their own actions and personal characteristics.

Opposite is the external locus of control, where the individual believes that outcomes are determined by forces beyond their control such as chance or fate. 

Characteristics of an internal locus of control

Some of the characteristics of an internal locus of control include:

  • Higher life satisfaction.
  • Less influenced by the opinions of others.
  • The ability to approach challenges with confidence and purpose.
  • The tendency to be happier, healthier, and more independent.
  • Equate hard work and motivation with goal achievement. 
  • Lower stress levels, and
  • Low neuroticism.

Impacts of an internal locus of control

Unsurprisingly, individuals with a strong internal locus of control tend to be more content and find themselves in better-paid jobs.

Those with this mindset possess a strong sense of personal agency, which means they can make deliberate decisions and act intentionally. 

The internal locus of control is also related to aspects of self-determination theory.

The theory, which was first introduced in 1985 by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, posits that individuals are motivated by three high-level psychological needs: competence, connection (relatedness), and autonomy. 

When these needs are fulfilled, they form the basis of intrinsic motivation where the individual engages in an activity for the inherent satisfaction or fun of it.

Unlike those with an external locus of control, they are not motivated by some external reward or punishment. 

Potential negative impacts

Despite the obvious benefits of an internal locus of control, the individual who believes they are the sole masters of their destiny will experience disappointment sooner or later.

Since these individuals believe they can control the outcome of any situation, they work hard to reach their objectives and strive to ensure there is no room for error.

Left unchecked, this can result in perfectionist tendencies which may be projected onto co-workers or friends and family.

When an inevitable failure occurs, those with an internal locus of control may also experience low self-esteem and anxiety because they attribute the loss to an action they performed or a decision they made.

Some may even be incapable of considering that an external factor was behind the failure.

Key takeaways:

  • Individuals with an internal locus of control believe the events in their lives are mostly the result of their own actions.
  • Some of the characteristics of an internal locus of control include higher life satisfaction, lower stress levels, and low neuroticism. Individuals also tend to be goal-oriented, happier, healthier, and more independent.
  • Despite the clear benefits of an internal locus of control, the individual who believes they are the sole masters of their destiny will inevitably experience disappointment. This can cause perfectionism and associated anxiety and low self-esteem.

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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