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Locus of Control – How do you Determine the Path of Your Life?

Locus of Control – How do you Determine the Path of Your Life?

Updated on May 16, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Locus of Control - Meaning, Types, Theories, Impact, Application & More

Key Takeaways

  • Locus of control is the extent to which you can control and influence the various incidents of your life.
  • There are two types of locus of control – the internal locus of control and the external locus of control.
  • The locus of control was first identified by Julian B. Rotter in 1954.
  • People with an internal locus of control believe that they have the power to influence what happens to them.
  • The external locus of control relies more on outside influences that determine human behavior.

Do you believe in destiny or think that effort and hard work can fetch success in life? Have you thought of controlling the events that happen to you?

Are you aware of your Locus of control?

This is a psychological construct that defines the extent of your influence over the events that happen to you. Sometimes you may control the situation and sometimes not.

This concept symbolizes the focal point that helps to evaluate the experiences and determine success and failure in life.

Continue reading to know how this operates in you and why is an important factor in deciding success and failures in life.

Locus of Control – Meaning

Locus of control is a perception that makes a person understand the extent to which he/she can influence the outcomes of circumstances in their life.

The concept of locus of control orientation was first identified in psychology by Julian B. Rotter in 1954. The locus of control is the center of influence. 

It determines the extent or degree to which one can control the outcomes of various happenings in life.

The concept became popular in social learning theories. Rotter named this concept as “Locus of Control of reinforcement.”

He tried to bridge the gap between cognitive and behavioral psychology.

Rotter believed that learning occurs as a combination of various cognitive and behavioral forces. One force cannot operate in isolation. 

Behavior is determined by reinforcements (rewards and punishments) and by the beliefs about what actions cause the behavior.

These beliefs help to identify the actions and attitudes that people adopt to influence the circumstances in their everyday life.

In this way, the locus of control is of two types – an internal locus of control and an external locus of control. 

People with a strong internal locus of control believe that they have the power to influence the happenings of their life.

They believe that behavior is guided by their individual efforts and decision-making.

While those with an external locus of control believe that behavior is influenced by outside factors such as good luck, fate, or any other external factors.

Many times when you face challenges in life, you question your ability to control the issue at hand? You try to understand whether you have any control or influence over the outcome of the event. 

If you think you have a certain amount of influence, it means you are operating with an internal locus of control. 

But, if you believe that outside forces helped you to achieve things in reality, you’re inclined toward an external locus of control.

The locus of control influences your behavior and actions. It motivates you either to take action in a certain situation or to leave it as it is and wait for things to take a turn on their own.

The psychology behind locus of control

According to the APA dictionary of psychology, locus of control is defined as “a construct that is used to categorize people’s basic motivational orientation and perceptions of how much control they have over the conditions of their lives.

If you are having an internal locus of control, you’ll perceive the life event as controllable. You will be motivated to take some action that can help to take charge of the situation.

On the flip side, if your external locus of control is strong, then you will assign your success or failure in a specific situation to some outside factors. 

Philip Zimbardo defined locus of control by saying that “It is a belief that whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal locus of control) or on events outside our personal control (external locus of control).”

It needs to be considered that the locus of control operates in a continuum. Your locus of control can never be fully internal or external. 

In most situations, your behavior and actions are equally based on your inner power and also outside influences.

For example, a student achieving good marks in an exam will have both loci of control acting on the outcome. 

Maybe he has put in great efforts (internal control) and also had good luck (external control) by his side that helped him to achieve what he has accomplished.

This is the reason we say that both hard work and destiny can carve a life of your choice. Locus of control helps to determine success and failures in life.

Our lives are full of events and we ascribe the outcome of these events to some internal or external forces. Locus of control plays an important role. It evaluates the various forces that influence the person. 

A specific location or center point actually describes the impact or outcome of what happened to us. Nothing in life is entirely out of control or fully within one’s control. 

Thus, in most circumstances, the person shows an inclination towards a particular locus of control.

Maybe, in reality, both the internal and external locus of control operates together, or one, a little more than the other.

Internal locus of control

Internal locus of control is defined as a belief that you can control whatever happens to you. It means your personal actions are influencing the outcome.

People with an internal locus of control think that they have full control over the events and incidents that impact their lives. 

These people feel self-confident and powerful. They think that their individual actions have either led to success or failure.

Internal locus of control assigns personal responsibility for one’s deeds and actions.

People with an internal locus of control believe that whatever may happen to them, they can easily control the outcome by any means. 

In the face of challenges, they know they can overcome them without support from others. 

Self-trust is more when you have a good internal locus of control.

Internal locus of control gives you the inner strength to fight odds in life, thus unknown situations also appear less threatening.

What does the internal locus of control look like?

Research findings suggest that people with a more internal locus of control are non-conforming and less obedient in nature. 

They prefer to live life on their own terms and conditions. For them, conformity means giving up on personal responsibility.

People with an internal locus of control also resist social conventions that they think are not worthy.

They stick to their beliefs firmly. They know that they have the ability to control the tough situations in life.

These people always take responsibility for their actions. With greater problem-solving abilities, they have personal control over the outcome. 

Moreover, they are highly productive, and have a greater intrinsic motivation to self-actualize and reach their heist potentials based on their abilities.

External locus of control

External locus of control refers to a person’s belief that they do not have any control over the outcomes of incidents that happen in their lives. There are some outside forces like fate, luck, religious influence, or any social influence that regulates their actions and behavior.

A person with an external locus of control thinks that they do not have any control over the events influencing them. 

Their own behavior doesn’t determine the outcome. It is the outside factor that acts upon them and they behave like puppets in the hands of someone or something.

These individuals think that whatever happens in life has a chance factor.

It’s all about luck and fate that play an important role. The external locus of control relies on outside forces that influence the outcome.

For example, if a student qualifies for a medical entrance examination, he may think that it was due to luck or chance.

They do not think that their effort or hard work was enough to give the desired results.

What does the external locus of control look like?

A person with a high external locus of control has more blaming tendencies. They attribute outcomes (success and failures) to external circumstances.

The person is conforming and obedient as well. 

They prefer to follow the rules blindly because they think it is their duty to follow what others are saying or doing. They also lack the self-confidence to move on with their life.

Rotter also believed that your locus of control determines whether your behavior will be punished or reinforced. 

With an external locus of control, you’ll punish the outcome by leaving the effort that you were putting in initially to accomplish the task. This happens because you’ll lose motivation to continue further.

Since you think that outcome is influenced by outside factors, you’ll not feel the motivation that is needed to succeed in a task. 

Rotter also noted that students who have an external locus of control always consider luck, fate, or the biased nature of others to influence their success or failure.

Sometimes, they think that no matter what they do, their success or failure has nothing to do with effort and hard work. It is the outside circumstances that will make all the difference.

These people also have poor self-esteem. They deflect their feelings onto someone else or the situation and remain unhappy all the time.

Internal vs. External Locus of control

The differences operate on generalized expectancies for internal vs. external locus of control. In the above section, we have discussed a lot about the two types of locus of control. 

In this section, let us focus on the major differences between internality and externality.

Internal locus of controlExternal locus of control
The person believes that the outcome of an event is influenced by their own efforts.The outcome of an event is not in their control. It is influenced by outside factors like luck, support of well-wishers, biased ideas, and even religious influences.
Takes responsibility for their deeds.Blames others for their misfortunes and problems.
Not easily influenced by others or conforms to the opinions of others.Can easily be influenced by others.
A person with an internal locus of control is self-reliant and confident.These individuals are not self-reliant and lack confidence as well.
Performs well at tasks where autonomy and independent thinking are possible.Can work well in groups as they can conform to the opinions of others better.
People who have an internal locus of control believe that they have the power to control the situation they might be in.They think that everything in life is a matter of outside influences. Nothing can be controlled by the person.
Self-efficacy and ability to stand tall in trying times.External locus of control can make the person feel depressed and hopeless in trying times since they think that they cannot do anything to overcome the stress in life.
They have more personal control.Suffers from learned helplessness.
They put a lot of effort into doing tasks that help to achieve what they want.They do not put the effort into doing things right. Mostly, they sit idle and wait for things to take shape on their own.
The internal locus of control is self-regulated.The external locus of control is regulated by events and circumstances in life.
Achieves more success in the workplace and elsewhere because they are goal-oriented and have a wider vision of life.Achieves less success because of poor self-confidence. Their goal is not well-directed and their vision of life lacks clarity.
Internal vs. External

Theories of locus of control

The locus of control can be explained in relation to two psychological theories of learning. They are as follows:

1. Self-efficacy theory was contributed by social learning theorist Albert Bandura.

2. Attribution style theory was given by Weiner in 1986.

Sometimes the personality of a person also influences the locus of control. People with are self-confident and believe in their abilities show an internal locus of control.

On the flip side, those who are casual, non-serious types with low self-trust have an external locus of control.

They think that no matter whatever they do, they will not be able to bring any difference in their life.

1. Self-efficacy theory and locus of control

The concept of self-efficacy was given by Albert Bandura.

He believed that if a person believes that he can do something to achieve his goals; he will put more effort to achieve what he has desired.

To be precise, self-efficacy is your belief about your competence to influence, if not control the events that happen to you.

Sometimes if you have talent but lack self-efficacy, you may not achieve desired results.

If you think that you’re not capable of doing things the way they should be done, your locus of control will be external.

But if self-efficacy is more, then your locus of control will be internally inclined.

There is a very strong connection between self-efficacy and locus of control. 

If you think that your job performance or outcome is caused by your actions, you are using an internal locus of control.

Self-efficacy will improve if you know how you can restructure your efforts to achieve your goals in life.

2. Attributional style theory

The concept of locus of control is based on social learning theory.

It means that behavior will either be reinforced or it would be stopped on the basis of your locus of control. This concept is known as attribution theory.

For example, if you ever find a love note in your partner’s wallet that was meant for you but was never given to you, will you try to search the wallet every day for more love notes of a similar kind? Obviously, No 

This is because you will attribute this particular event just as luck by chance. This has nothing to do with your wants and desires.

Attribution theory describes the locus of control on the basis of three different attribution styles. They are

  • Internal vs. External
  • Stable vs. unstable
  • Global vs. specific.

If a person believes in global attribution, he/she will assign the cause of the incident to some general contexts that are the same in all circumstances. 

For example, if a person has fear of public speaking, this fear will manifest in all situations that demand speaking in front of many people.

Whether it is a college seminar or an office presentation, the fear will be the same. 

Moreover, if someone attributes a particular life event as stable and not changing often, then the internal locus of control will be stronger. The person will know that they have the power to control the situation.

But if the life circumstances are changing frequently, then the external locus of control gets strengthened. 

This is because the person believes that they will not be able to overcome the issues at hand. Maybe, the situation was in no way controllable.

Locus of control and personality factors

Several pieces of research went into understanding the relationship between locus of control and personality factors.

The big five personality factors are known to influence locus of control to a great extent.

It has been found that emotional stability (neuroticism) has a strong connection with an internal locus of control.

It means that people who can regulate their emotions are more stable in nature. They have learned to forget and forgive. 

In trying times, these people will have more power to handle tough situations in life. Their internal locus of control will help them to believe that situations may be tough but not impossible to control.

If you are a conscientious person, your behavior will be positively related to your internal locus of control.

When you know you can control the outcome, you’ll put in more effort to bring a difference in your life.

On the flip side, external locus of control can lead to depression, mood swings, anxiousness, etc. 

The person feels agitated and helpless if they find that everything is uncontrollable and out of hand. This leads to learned helplessness.

Seligman found a high correlation between learned helplessness and external locus of control in 1975.

He found that depression brings a negative mindset where the patient feels that their life is controlled by external negative forces. Nothing is controllable in life. 

They believe that their actions will never bring any positive life change. Thus, they remain in gloom and sad feelings forever. 

Another research suggested that calm people show higher levels of internal locus of control. They are self-aware and know what is required to bring positive life changes.

If a person is able to detect, manage, and overcome stress-related factors in life successfully, their internal locus of control will be strong. 

Locus of control examples

There are many people who believe that they can carve a life of their choice. But still, others are there who may think that events in life take a definite course on their own. 

In reality, they do not have any control over what happens to them. 

Internal and external locus of control operates in all walks of life. It happens in the field of education, workplaces, and relationships. 

Let’s analyze some of the real-life events where the locus of control decides success and failures in life.

  • You appeared for a competitive examination and scored very well. If you assign this success to the hard work, effort, and patience that you have shown; then you’re using the internal locus of control. But, if you think that your success was due to luck, or the situation was conducive to success, then you’re relying on an external locus of control.
  • An employee got a pay hike in his annual appraisal session. If he believes that it was his personal success story, he is relying on an internal locus of control. Whereas if he thinks that his superiors were kind enough to bestow this credit to him, then it’s the external locus of control working in place.
  • A patient diagnosed with hypertension knows that proper diet and maintenance drugs can help to remove his problems. It means it is possible to control the outcome of this illness with lifestyle changes. Thus, he does regular exercise and follows a salt-free diet to minimize complications. Here, the patient is following an internal locus of control to help overcome the issues. But, if he holds a belief that his mother has hypertension and it’s a genetic disposition, he may not do anything to overcome the problem.

Other everyday scenarios of locus of control

  • Sometimes, you may find yourself blaming others for your failure. Here you’re using an external locus of control.
  • If you suffer a car crash and ascribe this to the poor road condition and not your high-speed driving, you’re again using an external locus of control.
  • You recently got fired from your job and assigned this incident to poor work performance and lack of soft skills. Here, you’re using an internal locus of control to understand that whatever happened was your fault. You took the responsibility for your failure.
  • A victim of emotional manipulation in the hands of his/her spouse may ascribe this to fate and bad luck. The person thinks that the situation is uncontrollable and they cannot do anything to change their plight. Thus, the external locus of control is in place.
  • A student who uses an internal locus of control believes that poor grades in examinations are due to a lack of effort and dedication. 

Why does the locus of control matter? (Impact)

Locus of control is an agency that helps you to determine your success stories or failed attempts. Sometimes, this agency helps you to better yourself in every way. 

If you know your shortcomings, you’ll be able to control the circumstances that may influence you.

Your locus of control does the following things for you:

  • It regulates your response in various situations in life.
  • Locus of control determines success and failure in various circumstances.
  • Your locus of control decides whether you take action to control the situation or you keep it as it is.
  • The locus of control is like a personal monitoring system. It gives you an idea about your personality preferences such as attitude.
  • People with an internal locus of control are independent-minded. They know their strengths and weaknesses much better. This motivates them to work hard and achieve more success in life.
  • If you have an internal locus of control, you will be satisfied with your work and can climb the success ladder easily.
  • External locus of control destroys self-efficacy. You may not have the desired confidence to do whatever you have wished for.

How do you know which locus of control regulates your life and living?

Locus of control determines how you view life in general. It determines your attitudes and outlook towards things that happen to you or around you.

If you are using an internal locus of control, your outlook will be as such –

  • I think I have the power to change things that happen to me.
  • Others cannot change and influence my thoughts until I wish to change them.
  • Life is not luck by chance but a living of choice.
  • Humans can control things happening to them if they wish to.
  • I am powerful enough to carve a future of my choice.
  • You will always get what you deserve just by hard work and effort.
  • If I have set my life goals firmly and put in enough effort, I can achieve whatever I have wished for.
  • There is nothing known as fate or luck. It’s only dedication and hard work that writes big success stories in life.

If you are using an external locus of control, you’ll have an outlook like this –

  • There is always a lucky charm in whatever you do.
  • I cannot control every situation that I come across.
  • The events in life happen on their own. I cannot influence the outcome in any way.
  • I will not get what I deserve.
  • My achievements are not in my control. It happens because it ought to happen.

How does locus of control work? (The expectancy shifts)

According to Julian Rotter (1966), the locus of control works according to a concept known as expectancy shifts.

It means that you’ll be motivated to act and perform a specific task over and over again if you know that the outcome will be rewarded or reinforced.

This is a common learning principle that suggests that behavior that is reinforced is more likely to be repeated in the future.

Rotter explained two types of expectancy. They are:

  • Typical expectancy shifts
  • Atypical expectancy shifts

Typical expectancy shift

In the typical shift, a belief sets in that success or failure in a task (outcome) will determine what action will happen next. 

For example, if you think that you will win over a tough situation easily and it really happens a number of times, your expectancy to overcome problems in future situations will increase. 

This will lead to an internal locus of control. You know your action will bring positive outcomes as desired.

Atypical expectancy shifts

The atypical expectancy shift is based on a belief that success or failure will have no impact on the action that precedes the next. 

It means that success or failure can have different outcomes. For example, if a student gets three different scores in a game, all refer to success but not in similar ways.

This concept led to a hypothesis that typical expectancy shift leads to an internal locus of control and atypical shifts relate to an external locus of control. 

Thus, attributing success and failure to luck by chance happens in atypical shifts, causing an external locus of control.

Applications of locus of control

The theory of locus of control can be used in various fields of applied psychology and mental health.

  • Health psychology – to understand people’s health-related behavior
  • Educational psychology – to determine the learning styles of students 
  • Clinical psychology applications of locus of control are found in depression and learned helplessness.
  • In industrial and organizational behavior – the locus of control helps to understand the work habits of people, motivation levels, and why employees with an internal locus of control leave jobs where independent work styles are not appreciated.
  • In advertising and consumer research
  • Positive psychology – ways in which a person can influence the events in their lives.

The video link shared below shows how internal and external locus of control determines success and failure in life. Do check out for a better understanding of the concept.

Summing Up from ‘ThePleasantMind’

Locus of control usually takes a midway path. It means we cannot rely on a particular locus of control (internal or external) fully. 

Sometimes, it depends upon the situation and other variables occurring in the situation.

There are times in our life when things can really take a bad shape and it appears fully uncontrollable.

The concept well explains why certain behaviors grow and evolve and remain stable over time while others never seed at all. Sometimes, locus of control is used to explain self-awareness.

How far you understand yourself will determine success and failure in life. 

If you attribute a specific outcome to unknown forces, you will never do anything to change your behavior. Maybe you will never look out for self-growth and prosperity.

But if you trust yourself and believe that you have the power to influence your fate or destiny, you will take decisive actions for change.

You’ll become more self-dependent and confident.

Some minute subtle changes in mindset and perception can help you carve a life of your choice.

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