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.

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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