- Locus of control was initially described by American psychologist Julian B. Rotter. Locus of control is a psychological concept describing the extent to which people believe they have control over their life experiences.
- Rotter studied the extent to which people believed their life outcomes were contingent on what they did (internal control) versus events outside their influence (external control).
- In other words, did the individual believe they were in control of their own destiny? Or did they believe their destiny was controlled by a more powerful actor such as fate, luck, chance, or a god?
Understanding locus of control
The full name Rotter gave to this idea was the Locus of Control of Reinforcement. He believed that behavior was largely influenced by rewards and punishments that the individual uses to form beliefs about what causes their actions. Those beliefs, in turn, determine the attitudes and behaviors the individual ultimately adopts.
The locus of control continuum
In 1966, Rotter published a scale designed to measure both internal and external locus of control. However, the use of the term “scale” is somewhat of a misnomer because it forced participants to choose between two alternatives for every situation. Many critics have suggested that Rotter’s scale is too restrictive and simplistic in measuring locus of control.
Today, most accept that the locus of control exists on a continuum. No single person exhibits a 100% internal or external locus of control, though many people will tend to favor one approach over the other.
To better explain the fluidity of the continuum, it may be helpful to describe the characteristics of each extreme in more detail.
Internal locus of control
- More likely to take responsibility for their actions.
- Tend to perform better when allowed to work at their own pace.
- Face challenges with confidence.
- Tend to work hard to reach their goals with a strong sense of self-efficacy.
- Tend to be less influenced by the opinions or actions of others.
External locus of control
- Associate any success with luck or chance.
- Believe they cannot change a negative situation through their own efforts.
- Feel hopeless or powerless during difficult situations.
- Tend to give up, relinquish control, and accept their fate. This is known as learned helplessness.
- Blame external forces for their life circumstances.
Which locus of control is more desirable?
Reading the previous section, it may be safe to assume an internal locus of control is far more desirable than an external locus of control. Generally speaking, individuals with a dominant internal locus of control tend to be happier and more grounded. Having said that, it’s important to resist the urge to label one as “good” and the other as “bad”.
An internal locus of control is associated with self-determination and personal agency, but an individual who experiences a negative outcome may feel depressed or anxious. For example, a sports player who loses a game may have trouble reconciling their poor performance with a strong feeling of being in control. This dissonance can affect their self-esteem and impact their performance in future games.
Conversely, the less desirable external locus of control can be useful in situations that are genuinely outside the control of the individual. The sports player may use an external locus to reframe their loss as simply being defeated by a stronger opponent. Provided the individual performed to the best of their abilities, an external locus of control may enable them to feel less stressed and more relaxed about future encounters.
- Locus of control is a psychological concept describing the extent to which people believe they have control over their life experiences. It was first described by American psychologist Julian B. Rotter.
- Locus of control may be internal or external. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe they are in control of their own destiny. Conversely, those with an external locus of control believe their destiny is controlled by luck, chance, fate, or a higher power.
- Locus of control exists on a continuum, with most tending to prefer one extreme over the other. An internal locus of control is seen as more preferable. But in certain situations, an external locus can help the individual better navigate their thoughts and feelings.
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