Locus of Control *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, psychologist Julian Rotter developed an inventory to measure locus (location) of control. Since then, hundreds of studies have been done on this topic. What is locus of control? How does it relate to our behavior?

Locus of control is the perceived source of control over our behavior. People with internal locus of control believe they control their own destiny. They tend to be convinced that their own skill, ability and efforts determine the bulk of their life experiences. In contrast, people with external locus of control believe that their lives are determined mainly by sources outside themselves fate, chance, luck or powerful others.

Your life is profoundly influenced by whether you perceive control over your life as predominantly internal or external. Locus of control influences the way you view yourself and your opportunities.

As an example, college students with strong internal locus of control believe that their grades are determined by their abilities and efforts. These students believe, "The more I study, the better grades I get." They change their study strategies as they discover their deficiencies. They raise their expectations if they succeed, and they worry when they think they have no control over their assignments.

In contrast, college students with strong external locus of control believe that their grades are the result of good or bad luck, the teacher's mood or God's will. They are more likely to say, "No matter how much I study, the teacher determines my grade. I just hope I'm lucky on the test." Believing that luck essentially averages out, after they do well on a test, they lower their expectations. Likewise, when they fail a test, they are optimistic that the next test score will be better. These externals are less likely to learn from past experiences, and they have difficulty in persisting in tasks.

With all the studies done in this area, research findings have shown the following characteristics to be more typical of internals.

  1. Internals are more likely to work for achievements, to tolerate delays in rewards and to plan for long-term goals.
  2. As indicated above after experiencing success in a task, internals are likely to raise their behavioral goals. In contrast, externals are more likely to lower their goals.
  3. After failing a task, internals re-evaluate future performances and lower their expectations of success. After failure, externals raise their expectations.
  4. Internals are better able to resist coercion.
  5. Internals are more likely to learn about their surroundings and learn from their past experiences.
  6. Internals experience more anxiety and guilt with their failures and use more repression to forget about their disappointments.
  7. Internals find solving their own bouts of depression easier. Likewise, they are less prone to learned helplessness and serious depression.
  8. Internals are better at tolerating ambiguous situations.
  9. Internals are less willing to take risks.
  10. Internals are more willing to work on self-improvement and better themselves through remedial work.
  11. Internals derive greater benefits from social supports.
  12. Internals make better mental health recovery in the long-term adjustment to physical disability.
  13. Internals are more likely to prefer games based on skill, while externals prefer games based on chance or luck.

The development of locus of control is associated with family style and resources, cultural stability and experiences with effort leading to reward. Many internals have grown up with families that modeled typical internal beliefs. These families emphasized effort, education, responsibility and thinking. Parents typically gave their children rewards they had promised them.

In contrast, externals are typically associated with lower socioeconomic status, because poor people have less control over their lives. Societies experiencing social unrest increase the expectancy of being out-of-control, so people in such societies become more external.

As children grow older, they gain skills that give them more control over their environment. In support of this, psychological research has found that older children have more internal locus of control than younger children.

Many but not all psychologists believe that internals are psychologically more healthy than externals. According to one psychologist who analyzed many locus of control studies, "There is good reason to believe, on the basis of the research reviewed, that external control orientation and abnormal personal functioning are correlated." However, the outlook is far from hopeless for those who have predominantly external locus of control. The locus of control orientation can be modified by psychotherapy and by life experiences.

* Adapted from Simons, Irwin and Drinnin's Psychology: The Search for Understanding, West Publishing, 1987, pages 493-495.

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