- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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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