Locus of Control: Internal or external?

locus of control

The locus of control is a force that touches each of us – and a powerful force that plays in all of humanity. But what exactly is it and how can we alter it to better suit our lives?

The term might sound complicated, but it’s actually quite simple. This phrase seeks to differentiate two ways of thinking. First, is the belief that some people are able to control the outcome of their lives. The opposing belief is that outside factors have the greatest effect, and people can’t determine their situation.

Locus of Control – In Detail

This idea comes from personality psychology. It basically describes how some people believe they control the outcomes of their lives through their own actions or how others think 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’s useful because it directs our behavior towards certain (or all) events that occur in our lifetime.

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

Internal Locus of Control

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“I am the master of my future.” – Credit: Pexels

An internal 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 because it’s related to increased success, and motivation. THey are also 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

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“Nothing is in my control.” – Credit: Pexels

An external control stems from the idea that the outcomes of life are beyond our control. Whether good or bad, uncontrollable factors in the environment dictate events. You might hear people compared to fate and luck.

For example, they would assume they did not receive a job promotion because they did not have adequate connections. Or, they failed their last test because the questions were about the material the teacher did not assign.

Operating under a high external locus of control is generally not thought of as productive. People with an external locus of control blame others for their failures. They also link any success to mere chance. They don’t deeply analyze situations and typically blame others for their problems. All of this often makes these people avoid taking 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

People can’t simply say they are “one side” or the other. Professionals have created multiple scales to assess the topic. The first scale is the Forced-Choice Scale for adults by Rotter in 1966. This 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, nowadays, it mainly focuses 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 looks at how behavior impacts illness, the prevention of illness, and medical compliance.

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). This means, that knowing a patient’s locus of control is useful for medical treatment.

Believing in luck for health outcomes potentially interferes with healing, because these patients are not as likely to follow treatment plans given by their doctors. Physicians and patients can make informed treatment decisions by incorporating locus of control scales as part of the diagnostic process.

Apply Locus of Control to Other Real Life Situations

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

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Elderly and children often have higher external control.

Certain groups reflect a tendency towards internal and external control.

Age is also significant. 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, 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 have higher external control. Discrimination skews the individual’s conception that they don’t 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.

How to Develop an Internal Locus of Control

If an external control is holding you back, it’s worth developing better 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.


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, 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