What Does “Locus of Control” Mean?
Locus of control describes the degree to which individuals believe that outcomes result either from their own behaviour (control resides within them) or from forces that are external to themselves (control resides externally with powerful others or the situation).
A person with an internal locus of control believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything.
Locus of control is viewed as a unidimensional continuum, ranging from external control at one end to internal control at the other. It can be illustrated like this:
|Outcomes (success or failure) determined by factors outside of yourself and/or your influence.||Outcomes (success or failure) determined by your hard work, ability and decisions.|
It is important to note that like other preferences, this is a spectrum. Some people have a wholly internal or wholly external locus of control, but many will have a balance of both views, perhaps varying with the situation. For example, some may be more internal at home but more external at work.
What is an External Locus of Control?
People with a high external locus of control believe that control over events and what other people do, is outside them, and that they personally have little or no control over such things. They may even believe that others have control over them and that they can do nothing but obey.
Rotter (1990) describes the external locus of control as:
“The degree to which persons expect that the reinforcement or outcome is a function of chance, luck, or fate, is under the control of powerful others, or is simply unpredictable.”
So people with an external locus of control tend to be fatalistic – they see things as happening to them without having the ability to do anything about it.
This mind-set tends to make people with an external locus of control more passive and accepting. When they succeed, they are more likely to attribute this to luck, than to their own efforts.
People with an external locus of control are less likely to have what are known as expectancy shifts. That is they will tend to see similar events as likely to have similar outcomes. As a result they step back from events because they assume that they cannot make a difference.
Research has found that younger and older people tend to have a higher external locus of control than people in middle age.
What is an Internal Locus of Control?
People with a high internal locus of control believe in their own ability to control themselves and influence the world around them. They see their future as being in their own hands and that their own choices lead to success or failure.
Rotter (1990) describes the internal locus of control as:
”the degree to which persons expect that a reinforcement or an outcome of their behavior is contingent on their own behavior or personal characteristics”
Their belief in their ability to change things may well make people with a high internal locus of control more confident so that they will seek information that will help them influence people and situations. They will also likely be more motivated and success-oriented. These beliefs may even lead them to be more politically active.
People with a high internal locus of control are more likely to have expectancy shifts. That is, a sequence of similar events are expected to have different outcomes. They tend to be more specific, to generalise less and to consider each situation as unique.
Having an internal locus of control can also be referred to as "self-agency", "personal control", "self-determination", “empowered” etc.
People in middle age tend to have the highest internal locus of control. This comes from the increased ability to influence things going on in their lives and the realization that much of what happens to them is a result of what they do.
Research has found the following trends:
- Males tend to be more internal than females.
- People higher up in organisational structures tend to be more internal.
An external and internal locus of control can be summarised as below:
Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances.
Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by his/her personal decisions and efforts.
Individual has a blaming/victim mentality.
Individual assumes responsibility for his/her own attitude and behaviour.
Individual sees him/herself as disempowered.
Individual sees him/herself as empowered.
You get a promotion at work
You attribute that success to external or environmental factors such as luck, divine intervention, timing or the intervention of other people.
You attribute that success to the hard work and study you put in.
You are denied a promotion at work
You blame outside sources beyond your control, such as the boss showing favouritism towards another employee, fate or political policies such as affirmative action.
You blame yourself for the perceived failure, such as not working hard enough, or not having studied the right degree course.
As mentioned above, locus of control is viewed as a unidimensional continuum, ranging from external control at one end to internal control at the other, but there is another type of control that entails a mix of the two. Individuals with a combination of the two types of locus of control are often referred to as Bi-locals.
Bi-locals can take personal responsibility for their actions, and the resulting consequences, while remaining capable of relying upon and having faith in outside resources. Bi-locals are known to handle stress and cope with their diseases more efficiently by having the mixture of internal and external locus of control.
An example of this mixed system, would be alcoholics who accept the fact that although they may have been predisposed to alcoholism, they brought the disease upon themselves and remain open to treatment, acknowledging that there are people, mainly doctors and therapists, who are trying to cure their addiction, and on whom they should rely.
Getting the Balance Right
Generally, a more internal locus of control is regarded as desirable rather than an external locus of control because people with an internal locus of control will most probably be more successful. This is because they are more likely to:
- Emphasize striving for achievement
- Work hard to develop their knowledge, skills and abilities
- Pay attention to information that they can use to create positive outcomes in the future
- Engage in activities that will improve their situation
- Be inquisitive and try to figure out why things turned out the way they did
- Have a more participative management style
- Get better paid jobs.
It’s important, however, to caution against falling into the overly simplistic view that “internal is good and external is bad”, because this is not always the case. Important subtleties and complexities need to be considered. For example:
- People with a strong internal locus of control tend to be very achievement-oriented and tend to want to control everything. This can lead to difficulties in taking direction. (If you have a strong internal locus of control, make sure you pay attention to the feelings of people around you – otherwise you'll seem arrogant, and people may not want to work with you).
- People with a strong internal locus of control may also put themselves at risk. One of the factors that influences whether we take risks or not is ‘perceived control’. People with a strong internal locus of control may perceive themselves to be more in control than they actually are, with disastrous results. Random events do occur for all sorts of reasons and while someone with a strong internal locus of control may think they can manage these with enough determination and hard work, there are some that they just can't!
- There can be times when having an external locus of control can be an advantage, particularly in situations where people need to be considerate and more easy-going. People with an external locus of control can lead more easy-going, relaxed and happy lives than those with an internal locus of control.
- People with an internal locus of control can be psychologically unhealthy and unstable. An internal orientation usually needs to be matched by competence, self-efficacy and opportunity, so that the person is able to successfully experience the sense of personal control and responsibility. Overly internal people who lack competence, efficacy and opportunity can become neurotic, anxious and depressed.
- People with an internal locus of control tend to take more responsibility for their actions, whether those actions, or the end results, are good or bad. They do not accept outside influence for the outcomes, no matter what that is. They tend to be hard on themselves and constantly analyse what they did wrong. For example, if a person with an internal locus of control did not get back to work in time from lunch, because of a traffic jam, they would think they should have eaten in the office or not gone to lunch altogether. The results of the action are theirs and theirs alone to bear. A downside of an internal locus of control is that, in accepting responsibility, the person has to also accept blame for failures.
- On the other hand, a person with an external locus of control looks at everything around them as part of the success or failure. They are team players and believe in the team aspect more than those that focus on the internal locus of control.
- When it comes to assessing ourselves, having a locus of control that is too strong can be damaging and inaccurate – people with an internal locus of control that is too strong might give themselves more credit than they deserve for doing well, and people with an external locus of control, who don’t encounter any negative feedback, might also overpraise themselves.
- When it comes to blame, if you have a strong internal locus of control, you are more likely to take action, but then to beat yourself up for failing. For example not sticking to a diet. If you have a strong external locus of control, and you have been told that you are not good enough to do something, you naturally would feel like you could not change things in your life and would wallow in that fact without action. For example, not even trying to go on a diet.
Ideally, one should aim to have a healthy combination of the internal and external views in your life in order to avoid feeling like a loser and be able to better direct blame and reward. Learning a balance and adjusting your locus of control is something that can be done at any age and any stage of life.
It should be clear then, that our locus of control is closely linked to our sense of self-worth. Having too much of either view can lead to damage and feelings of worthlessness, depression and hopelessness. It is best to view your life as in your control, but also accept that other factors will play a part. This will help avoid unjustified blame in any area of life and control.
More About Locus of Control
The concept of ‘Locus of Control’ was developed originally by Julian Rotter in 1954. It has since become an important aspect of personality studies.
The full name Rotter gave the construct was “Locus of Control of Reinforcement”. In giving it this name, Rotter was bridging behavioural and cognitive psychology. Rotter's view was that behaviour was largely guided by "reinforcements" (rewards and punishments) and that through contingencies such as rewards and punishments, individuals come to hold beliefs about what causes their actions. These beliefs, in turn, guide what kinds of attitudes and behaviours people adopt. This understanding of Locus of Control is consistent, for example, with Philip Zimbardo (a psychologist) who said:
“A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)."
For Rotter's “Locus of Control Scale visit: http://www.mccc.edu/~jenningh/Courses/documents/Rotter-locusofcontrolhandout.pdf
Can we Change our Locus of Control?
The short answer is yes.
Although locus of control is often seen as a stable, underlying personality construct, this is not in fact accurate. Theory and research indicates that locus of control is largely learned. There is evidence that, at least to some extent, locus of control is a response to circumstances. Using psychological and educational interventions, it is possible to produce shifts towards an internal locus of control.
A factor which affects our locus of control is the stability of the causal factor. There are four common causes – ability, task difficulty, effort and luck and each relates to how stable or unstable their external or internal locus of control is, as shown in the diagram below:
|Four Common Attributed Causes|
If we use the example of someone who has failed an exam, the table above shows that
- A person with stable internal locus of control will likely assume that failure is due to a lack of their ability.
- A person with unstable internal locus of control will likely assume that failure is due to a lack of effort.
- A person with stable external locus of control will likely assume that failure is due to the fact that the examiner set an exam that was way too hard.
- A person with unstable external locus of control might say they were just unlucky.
Understanding the preference and the stability of the cause being discussed is helpful. You can use this knowledge in the following ways:
- If you want to build rapport with someone, then you need to attribute to similar causes.
- If you want to challenge someone, then you need to get them to consider alternative causes or change their locus of control.
- If you want someone to take more control of their lives, act in a more healthy way or become more successful at what they are doing, then you need to encourage them to take a more internal locus of control.
How can I Develop an Internal Locus of Control?
There are a few things you need to do to develop an Internal Locus of Control. They are to:
Recognize that you always have a choice. Making no choice is actually a choice in and of itself, and it's your choice to allow other people or events to decide for you.
Set goals for yourself and note how, by working towards and achieving these, you are controlling what happens in your life. As you do this, you'll find that your self-confidence quickly builds.
Develop decision-making and problem-solving skills so that you can feel more confident and in control of what happens. With these tools, you'll find that you can understand and navigate through situations that would otherwise damage you.
Pay attention to your ‘head-talk’ – that little voice in your head that constantly talks to you. When you hear yourself saying things like, "I have no choice" or "There's nothing I can do", step back and remind yourself that you do, in fact, have some degree of control or influence. It's your choice whether you exercise it or not. Of course, sometimes the control you have is only over your own attitude to the situation. In this case, although you may not be able to change the circumstances, you can choose not to be a victim. Some sessions of Cognitive Behavioural therapy might assist you to do this.