Locus of control is a concept in personality psychology that “refers to the degree to which individuals believe they can control their own lives” (Keenan, 2022, p. 1). Nießen et al. (2022) stated that individuals with an internal locus of control “generally believe that events are contingent upon their own actions” (p. 3), whereas, according to Rotter (1966), individuals with an external locus of control generally perceive events to be “the result of luck, chance, fate”, or “as under the control of powerful others” (p. 1), such as their boss or a politician.

For example, someone with an external locus of control might say: “I did poorly on that test because my teacher sucks!” vs. someone with an internal locus of control might think: “I did poorly because I didn’t study.” Which category you fall into might have consequences on your health and wellbeing, including your self-esteem, workplace relationships, and parenting style.

History of locus of control

1954

Psychologist Julian Rotter “suggested that our behavior was controlled by rewards and punishments” and that “the consequences of our actions helped determine our beliefs about the likely results of future behaviors” (Rotter, 1954, as cited in Cherry, 2021, p. 8).

1966

Rotter published the I-E scale, which is an assessment tool used to measure a person’s locus of control. This scale “conceptualized locus of control as a unidimensional continuum, with an extreme expression of internal locus of control beliefs at one pole and an extreme expression of external locus of control beliefs at the other” (Nieben et al., 2022, p. 3).

1966 to present

Psychologist Bonnie Strickland studied the relationship between locus of control and social activism since as early as 1965 (Keenan, 2022). In 1977, Strickland studied how locus of control impacted health and fitness (Keenan, 2022). Throughout the 1970s she worked with Steven Nowicki to develop I-E scales for specific age groups (preschool, child, and adult). Since the popularization of Rotter’s concept, personality researchers have studied the impacts of locus of control on academic performance, interpretation/use of constructive performance feedback, and spiritual beliefs among many others (Keenan, 2022).

Research on Locus of Control

Research on locus of tells us some really important things.

INDIVIDUALS WITH INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL ARE FOUND TO HAVE:

  • greater confidence (i.e., general self-efficacy)
  • greater ability to keep focused on (boring/difficult) tasks (i.e., perseverance)
  • perform well academically achieve more professionally act more independently
  • are healthier
  • better able to cope
  • experience less depression
  • greater self-esteem
  • optimism
  • Emotional Stability
  • spend more time on intellectual and academic activities
  • tend to be more successful at school and work
  • greater job satisfaction and job performance
  • greater life satisfaction
  • higher subjective well-being
  • are more likely to take responsibility for their actions

When working with parents and children, most studies have found that parents with authoritatively warm, supportive parenting styles were associated with internal locus of control in children, whereas controlling parenting was associated with children’s externality (Carton et al., 2021). Based on the above research findings, examining our parenting style might have major implications for the health of our children. Whether thinking about our children, our closest relationships with others, or our relationship with ourselves, examining our locus of control comes with the opportunity to improve our wellbeing. Keenan (2021) stated: “At its furthest extreme, an external locus of control is known as learned helplessness (a refusal to take action to improve one’s circumstances). Such individuals take no action to change their circumstances because they do not believe anything they do can make a difference” (p. 11).

Your locus of control can influence not only how you respond to the events that happen in your life, but also your motivation to take action. If you believe that you hold the keys to your fate, you are more likely to take action to change your situation when needed. If on the other hand, you believe that the outcome is out of your hands, you may be less likely to work toward change” Cherry, (2021), p. 4-5.

Of course, things like economic status, disability, racism and experiences of race-based discrimination will have an effect on your locus of control. Cherry (2021) stated:          

“it is also important to remember that internal locus of control does not always equal “good” and external locus of control does not always equal “bad.” In some contexts, having an external locus of control can be a good thing—particularly when a situation poses a threat to self-esteem or is genuinely outside of a person’s control” (p. 11).

If you are interested in learning more about yourself and your own locus of control, you might consider connecting with a counsellor to help you along your journey.

About the author: Julia Siedlanowska is a counselling intern at Crossroads Collective, working virtually and in-person in Langley, BC. She has a long history of relationship building through her past work as a theatre professional and voice coach, and has been interested in human thoughts, emotions, and behaviours since she can remember. She is currently completing her Masters Degree in Counselling Psychology. Contact Crossroads Collective to book an appointment.

References

Carton, J. S., Ries, M., & Nowicki, S. (2021). Parental Antecedents of Locus of Control of Reinforcement: A Qualitative Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.565883

Cherry, K. (2021). Are You in Control of Your Destiny, or Are You at the Mercy of Chance?. Retrieved 19 September 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-locus-of-control-2795434#citation-3

Keenan, M. (2022). Locus of control. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.

Nießen, D., Schmidt, I., Groskurth, K., Rammstedt, B., & Lechner, C. M. (2022). The Internal–External Locus of Control Short Scale–4 (IE-4): A comprehensive validation of the English-language adaptation. PLoS ONE, 17(7): e0271289. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0271289

Rotter, J.B. (1954). General principles for a social learning framework of personality study. In: J. B. Rotter, ed., Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 82-104. doi:10.1037/10788-004

Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. 80(1): 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0092976

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