What Is Locus Of Control? Locus Of Control In A Nutshell

  • 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?

ConceptLocus of Control is a psychological concept that refers to an individual’s belief about the extent to which they can control or influence events in their life. It represents a continuum, with two main orientations: Internal Locus of Control and External Locus of Control. These orientations influence how individuals perceive and respond to situations, challenges, and outcomes in their lives.
Internal Locus of ControlPeople with an Internal Locus of Control believe that they have a significant degree of control over their lives and outcomes. They tend to attribute their successes and failures to their own efforts, decisions, and abilities. They feel empowered and are more likely to take initiative and responsibility for their actions. – An internal locus of control is associated with higher self-esteem, greater motivation, and a proactive approach to problem-solving.
External Locus of ControlIndividuals with an External Locus of Control believe that external factors, such as luck, fate, or other people’s actions, largely determine the outcomes in their lives. They often feel that they have limited control over their circumstances and that their efforts may not significantly influence the results. This orientation can lead to feelings of helplessness, reduced self-efficacy, and a tendency to blame external factors for both successes and failures.
DevelopmentLocus of control beliefs can develop over time through a combination of personal experiences, upbringing, culture, and societal influences. Early childhood experiences and parenting styles can play a role in shaping an individual’s locus of control orientation. Individuals may also develop different loci of control for various aspects of their lives, such as career, health, or relationships.
Impact on BehaviorLocus of control can significantly influence behavior:
Internal Locus of Control: Individuals with an internal locus of control are more likely to set and pursue personal goals, take risks, and persist in the face of obstacles. They tend to be more optimistic and proactive.
External Locus of Control: Those with an external locus of control may be more passive, less likely to take risks, and more prone to feelings of resignation or dependency on external sources of help or luck.
ApplicationsLocus of control is relevant in various fields:
Education: Understanding students’ locus of control can help educators tailor teaching methods to their beliefs.
Healthcare: It can influence patients’ adherence to treatment plans and their ability to cope with illness.
Workplace: It can impact job satisfaction, motivation, and leadership styles.
Cognitive BiasPeople with an internal locus of control may exhibit a Self-Serving Bias, attributing their successes to internal factors (e.g., skill or effort) and their failures to external factors (e.g., bad luck). Those with an external locus of control may exhibit a Learned Helplessness bias, believing that their efforts won’t make a difference, leading to reduced motivation and initiative.
Changing Locus of ControlLocus of control is not fixed and can be influenced by various interventions, including therapy, education, and personal development efforts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to help individuals shift from an external to an internal locus of control by challenging and modifying maladaptive beliefs.

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

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.
  • 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

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.
  • 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.

Internal vs. External locus of control

As we saw, in the internal locus of control, a belief that our actions can influence certain life situations helps people look for ways to improve life by trying to expand and focus on things that can be controlled.

This, in turn, helps people who believe in internal locus of control to be internally-driven. Thus, they will look for rewards that are not coming necessarily from the environment or other people.

But instead on the internal representation. This leads people with a strong internal locus of control to reframe obstacles and bad situations into opportunities to overcome to achieve greater happiness.

On the opposite side, people who believe in an external locus of control seek external rewards in the form of what other people think and how things look from the outside.

This makes people who believe in the external locus of control can’t control situations, and they keep focusing on others rather than strengthening their internal understanding of the world.

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 examples

So how does a person with an internal or external locus of control act? We have provided examples for each across some common life scenarios below.

Internal locus of control example

For the internal locus of control, allow us to introduce a sales manager called Paul. 

Work promotion

One day at work, Paul is summoned to the manager’s office and told that a select few of the sales team will be promoted.

Whilst there is no guarantee that Paul will be promoted, he has faith in his strong work ethic and knows from experience that he has the ability to secure valuable accounts for the company.

Paul also understands that if he is not one of the employees chosen, he will continue in his role and work harder to secure a promotion the next time one is offered.


Some weeks later, Paul visits his doctor for a routine appointment and to follow up on some blood tests.

The results show increased activity of some liver enzymes and also elevated levels of LDL cholesterol. 

Paul then discusses his results with the doctor and discovers that the former may be a result of excessive alcohol consumption and the latter from poor dietary choices.

Based on the doctor’s advice, Paul cuts down on his drinking and chooses healthier foods to reduce his risk of disease later in life.

Recruitment test

Some years later, Paul decides to apply for a position at another company.

During the recruitment process, he learns that one component requires him to take a test that examines his verbal ability, quantitative aptitude, logical reasoning, abstract reasoning, and numerical reasoning.

Paul has little advanced warning of the test or indeed its content, but he studies hard and researches the various skills the text will assess.

This, he believes, will give him the best chance of moving to the next stage of the recruitment process.

External locus of control examples

For the external locus of control example, let’s introduce Ethan and run through the same scenarios again from a different perspective.

Work promotion

When Ethan is summoned to the manager’s office after Paul, he considers the prospect of promotion to be beyond his control.

Ethan believes that his boss has one or two favorite staff which are more likely to receive a pay rise.

In the event Ethan does not receive a promotion, he will likely be easier on himself than Paul because he never entertained the possibility of it happening in the first place.


Ethan is slightly older than Paul, so when he goes for his annual doctor’s visit, he is told that he may develop Type II diabetes in the next few years.

With a family history of diabetes, however, Ethan feels that this particular health outcome is inevitable. He also knows that he has a sweet tooth and as a result, does not attempt to change his eating habits.

Recruitment test

When Ethan is fired from his job he is forced to apply for another. Like Paul, Ethan is required to complete a test that assesses his credentials as a sales manager.

Unlike Paul, Ethan does not study for the test or determine which skills will be assessed because he believes it to be a waste of time.

Approaching retirement age, Ethan predicts that the recruiter will simply hire the youngest recruit or the one with the most up-to-date qualifications.

Key takeaways:

  • Locus of Control: A psychological concept describing the extent to which individuals believe they have control over their life experiences, developed by Julian B. Rotter.
  • Internal Locus of Control: Individuals with this belief feel they have control over their life outcomes, take responsibility for their actions, work hard to achieve goals, and face challenges with confidence.
  • External Locus of Control: Individuals with this belief attribute life outcomes to external factors like luck, chance, or fate, feel helpless during difficult situations, and may give up or accept their fate.
  • Locus of Control Continuum: It exists on a spectrum, with most individuals tending to favor one approach over the other, rather than exhibiting a 100% internal or external locus of control.
  • Desirability of Locus of Control: While an internal locus of control is generally seen as more preferable, both internal and external loci of control can have advantages in certain situations. Internal locus promotes self-determination, but external locus can provide relief in situations beyond one’s control.

Locus of Control Examples:

  • Internal Locus: Illustrated by “Paul,” who takes control of his work promotion, health, and recruitment test situations, believing in his ability to influence outcomes.
  • External Locus: Illustrated by “Ethan,” who feels promotions are beyond his control, resigns to his health issues, and believes the recruitment test outcome will be decided arbitrarily.

To Recap:

  • 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.

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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