Locus of Control: Internal or external?

Do we have control over what happens to us? To what extent can we influence the events that occur throughout our lives? The term locus of control seeks to differentiate two ways of thinking—the belief that some people are able to control the outcome of their lives versus the belief that outside factors have the greatest effect, and individuals cannot determine their situation. An internal and external locus of control are forces at play in all of humanity. Keep reading to find out why.

locus of control
locus of control

What is Locus of Control?

It is a concept of personality psychology describing the tendency for people to believe they control the outcomes of their lives internally through their own actions or that external forces outside of their control influence life’s events. The term was developed in 1954 by psychologist Julian Rotter. Rotter founded this term under the premise that behavior is affected by the expected results of behavior. Positive consequences motivate an action, while negative consequences discourage it. It is useful because it directs our behavior towards the events that occur in life.

No one has an entirely internal or external locus of control. There is a spectrum which varies depending on the individual and the situation. However, most favor one view over the other and make the majority of their decisions through that perspective.

Internal Locus of Control

An external locus of control is based on the idea that an individual has control of their life. Their actions are the primary influence for both good and bad outcomes. For example, someone with a strong internal locus of control would claim their job promotion is due to hard work or that the A+ on their last test was because they dedicated countless hours studying.

A high internal locus of control is optimal, as it is related to increased success, motivation, and people with a high internal locus of control are less affected by the opinions of others. They accept responsibility for their successes and failures even in the case of unfavorable outcomes.

Internal Control Personality Characteristics

  • Hard working—always putting in effort to achieve goals
  • Confident—recognizing the skills and knowledge required to overcome challenges
  • Physical healthy—considering it their active obligation to eat healthily, partake in regular exercise, and remaining diligent in keeping up with medical appointments  
  • Responsible—holding themselves accountable for successes and their mistakes or failures  
  • Positive—feeling happiness, peaceful, and relaxed about the future because increased control over life leads to minimal stress
  • Independent—not relying on others for success
  • Studious—valuing knowledge and the skills it contributes to overcome obstacles
  • High self-esteem—respectful of oneself and confident in abilities

External Locus of Control

An external control stems from the idea that the outcomes of life are beyond personal control. Whether good or bad, uncontrollable factors in the environment dictate events. It is often compared to fate and luck. For example, someone with an external control would assume they did not receive a job promotion because they did not have adequate connections or that they failed their last test because the questions were about material the teacher did not assign.

Operating under a high external locus of control is generally not perceived as productive. People with an external locus of control blame others for their failures, yet attribute success to mere chance. They do not deeply analyze situations and typically blame others for their problems. This creates the inclination to refrain from action.

External Control Personality Characteristics

Those with an external control also display a particular set of personality characteristics.

  • Insecure—not confident in their own abilities and continually doubting they can accomplish difficult goals. Low self-esteem.
  • Dependent—reliance on other people for tasks they are capable of doing without assistance
  • Hopeless—feeling emotions like “what’s the point” or as if any response to a life event is futile
  • Passive—resigning effort to surmount challenges because their actions won’t make a difference in the outcome
  • Indecisive—events are not analyzed to the fullest causing difficulty to make concrete decisions  

Measuring Locus of Control

It is not as simple as pronouncing a propensity for an internal or external way of thinking. Professionals have formulated multiple scales to assess the topic. The first scale is the forced-choice scale for adults by Rotter in 1966. Rotter’s scale is a series of 29 questions, like choosing between “There are certain people who are just no good” or “There is some good in everybody.”

Originating in 1961, Bialer’s scale assesses children and has supported much research in child behavior. However, it scales today mainly focus on health psychology including the Health Locus of Control Scale and the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control Scale.

Locus of Control and Health Psychology

Health psychology studies the psychological and cognitive processes in health and wellness. It is concerned with how behavior impacts illness, the prevention of illness, and medical compliance. It is applied in daily life as it pertains to health psychology.

Psychologists proposed that health is contingent on three factors: internal factors, powerful others such as a doctor, or luck. Studies indicate that patients with an external locus of control are susceptible to “loneliness and helplessness and unfavorable fight with diseases” (Pourhoseinzadeh et al., 2017). Knowing a patient’s locus of control is useful for medical treatment. Believing in luck for health outcomes potentially interferes with healing, as these patients are not as likely to comply with the treatment plans formulated by their doctors. Physicians and patients can make informed treatment decisions through incorporating locus of control scales as part of the diagnostic process.

Apply Locus of Control to Other Real Life Situations

It is relevant in other aspects of life. In all actuality, we implement the characteristics of the concept in almost every behavior. Our sense of control is rooted in our every response to life’s events.

  • Academics— Students with a high internal locus of control earn better grades, dedicate more time to studying, and have greater levels of fulfillment. Counseling tactics for the students with an external locus of control have its benefits.
  • Advertising—Entrepreneurs have improved success in selling products when they cater their advertising efforts towards the of consumers.
  • Sports— Sports psychology has a keen interest in this concept. Athletes with an internal locus of control model mental toughness, lower stressors, resiliency, and they frequently set realistic goals. Studies also show that a coach’s locus of control orientation influences the speeches he or she gives to their team (Sidhu & Arora, 2017).
  • Religion— An internal locus of control is optimal even in religion. While the religious are falsely depicted as having an external control, most operate internally—believing God grants them the responsibility to control their actions.
  • Addiction One’s locus of control orientation complicates addiction. For example, it affects smoking behaviors, as well as whether someone will seek intervention for their addictions. When Gambling, externals are apt to take riskier bets.
  • Politics—People with an internal control exercise their right to vote, whereas those with an external control do not participate in elections as often because they believe their contribution will not make a difference in the outcome.

Demographics of Locus of Control

Certain groups reflect a tendency towards an internal and external control. Age is significant. An external control is especially pronounced in children and in the elderly population. Middle-aged adults have the highest internal control before their internal orientation declines. Until then, an internal control increases with life experience. Elderly adults depict a change in it when health problems increase.

Gender differences are not as clear. In U.S. studies, men and women are nearly equal in their expression of internal control. However, cultural differences do have an effect. Women in other countries might have a higher external control because they view themselves as powerless under the control of men (Zahodne et al., 2015).

Ethnic minorities, those with lower socioeconomic status, and the disabled are predisposed to an external control. Discrimination skews the individual’s conception that they do not hold the power to control their life when surrounded by negative environmental influences.

Core Self-Evaluations

Core self-evaluations are personality traits that represent an individual’s subconscious fundamental evaluations about themselves. It is one of the core self-evaluations, along with neuroticism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Experts from the University of Florida (2002) explain that self-evaluations represent worth and value (self-esteem), locus of control, confidence (self-efficacy), and emotional stability (neuroticism). Scoring high in the core self-evaluations predicts success and life satisfaction.

Locus of Control is a Core Self-evaluation
Locus of Control is a Core Self-Evaluation

How to Develop an Internal Locus of Control

If an external control is a detriment to your success, it is advantageous to develop an internal control. The initial step to shaping an internal locus of control is to target only what we can control. We cannot control all aspects of our environment, and we cannot control other people, but we can control our thoughts and our actions.

Next, adopting an internal control is becoming aware of our choices. It is accepting that we have a choice in how we choose to act. Approach these choices with rational thinking and problem-solving skills. Activities like journaling solutions, brain games, jigsaw puzzles, and physical exercise enhance problem-solving abilities.

Transform “I can’t” statements into “I can.” Identify others with your desired locus of control. Modeling their behavior is constructive, as they provide an example of appropriate behavior in stressful, problem situations—opening a world of possibilities.

References

Pourhoseinzadeh, M., Gheibizadeh, M., & Moradikalboland, M. (2017). The Relationship between Health Control and Health Behaviors in Emergency Medicine Personnel. International journal of community based nursing and midwifery, 5(4), 397–407. with external control have more mental disorders compared with internal ones.

Sidhu, A. & Arora, A.K. (2017). A study of passion and control among athletes and non-athletes. International Journal of Yoga, Physiotherapy, and Physical Education, 2(5), 222-223.

Zahodne, L. B., Meyer, O. L., Choi, E., Thomas, M. L., Willis, S. L., Marsiske, M., … Parisi, J. M. (2015). External control contributes to racial disparities in memory and reasoning training gains in ACTIVE. Psychology and aging, 30(3), 561–572. doi:10.1037/pag0000042