What is the specific meaning and significance of the Locus of Control concept?

The concept of Locus of Control refers to an individual’s belief about the amount of control they have over their own life and the events that occur in it. It is a psychological concept that was first introduced by Julian Rotter in the 1950s and has since become a widely studied and recognized concept in the field of psychology. The term Locus refers to the location or source of control, with individuals falling on a spectrum between having an internal or external locus of control. This concept has significant implications for an individual’s attitudes, behaviors, and overall well-being, making it a crucial concept to understand in order to better understand human behavior and motivation. In this essay, we will explore the specific meaning and significance of the Locus of Control concept and its implications for individuals and society.

Locus of control in social psychology refers to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954, and has since become an important aspect of personality studies.

Individuals with a high internal locus of control believe that events result primarily from their own behavior and actions. Those with a high external locus of control believe that powerful others, fate, or chance primarily determine events.

Those with a high internal locus of control have better control of their behavior, tend to exhibit more political behaviors, and are more likely to attempt to influence other people than those with a high external (or low internal respectively) locus of control. Those with a high internal locus of control are more likely to assume that their efforts will be successful. They are more active in seeking information and knowledge concerning their situation.

One’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) can either be internal (meaning the person believes that they control their life) or external (meaning they believe that their environment, some higher power, or other people control their decisions and their life).


History of concept

Locus of control is the framework of Rotter’s (1954) social learning theory of personality. Lefcourt (1976) defined perceived locus of control as follows: “Perceived control is defined as a generalised expectancy for internal as opposed to external control of reinforcements” (Lefcourt 1976, p. 27). Early work on the topic of expectancies about control of reinforcement had, as Lefcourt explains, been performed in the 1950s by James and Phares prepared for unpublished doctoral dissertations supervised by Rotter at The Ohio State University. Attempts have been made to trace the genesis of the concept to the work of Alfred Adler, but its immediate background lies in the work of Rotter students, such as William H. James (not to be confused with William James), who studied two types of expectancy shifts:

  • typical expectancy shifts, believing that a success or failure would be followed by a similar outcome; and
  • atypical expectancy shifts, believing that a success or failure would be followed by a dissimilar outcome.

Work in this field led psychologists to suppose that people who were more likely to display typical expectancy shifts were those who more likely to attribute their outcomes to ability, whereas those who displayed atypical expectancy would be more likely to attribute their outcomes to chance. This was interpreted as saying that people could be divided into those who attribute to ability (an internal cause) versus those who attribute to luck (an external cause). However, after 1970, Bernard Weiner pointed out that attributions to ability versus luck also differ in that the former are an attribution to a stable cause, the latter an attribution to an unstable cause.

A revolutionary paper in this field was published in 1966, in the journal Psychological Monographs, by Rotter. In it, Rotter summarized over ten years of research by himself and his students, much of it previously unpublished. Early history of the concept can be found in Lefcourt (1976), who, early in his treatise on the topic, relates the concept to learned helplessness. Rotter (1975, 1989) has discussed problems and misconceptions in others’ use of the internal versus external control of reinforcement construct…


Locus of control personality orientations

Rotter (1975) cautioned that internality and externality represent two ends of a continuum, not an either/or typology. Internals tend to attribute outcomes of events to their own control. Externals attribute outcomes of events to external circumstances. For example, college students with a strong internal locus of control may believe that their grades were achieved through their own abilities and efforts, whereas those with a strong external locus of control may believe that their grades are the result of good or bad luck, or to a professor who designs bad tests or grades capriciously; hence, they are less likely to expect that their own efforts will result in success and are therefore less likely to work hard for high grades. (It should not be thought however, that internality is linked exclusively with attribution to effort and externality with attribution to luck, as Weiner’s work (see below) makes clear). This has obvious implications for differences between internals and externals in terms of their achievement motivation, suggesting that internal locus is linked with higher levels of N-ach. Due to their locating control outside themselves, externals tend to feel they have less control over their fate. People with an external locus of control tend to be more stressed and prone to clinical depression (Benassi, Sweeney & Dufour, 1988; cited in Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007).

Internals were believed by Rotter (1966) to exhibit two essential characteristics: high achievement motivation and low outer-directedness. This was the basis of the locus of control scale proposed by Rotter in 1966, although this was actually based on Rotter’s belief that locus of control is a unidimensional construct. Since 1970, Rotter’s assumption of unidimensionality has been challenged, with Levenson, for example, arguing that different dimensions of locus of control, such as belief that events in one’s life are self-determined, are organized by powerful others and are chance-based, must be separated. Weiner’s early work in the 1970s, suggested that, more-or-less orthogonal to the internality-externality dimension, we should also consider differences between those who attribute to stable causes, and those who attribute to unstable causes.

This meant that attributions could be to ability (an internal stable cause), effort (an internal unstable cause), task difficulty (an external stable cause) or luck (an external, unstable cause). Such at least were how the early Weiner saw these four causes, although he has been challenged as to whether people do see luck, for example, as an external cause, whether ability is always perceived as stable and whether effort is always seen as changing. Indeed, in more recent publications (e.g. Weiner, 1980) Weiner uses different terms for these four causes—such as “objective task characteristics” in place of task difficulty and “chance” in place of luck. It has also been notable how psychologists since Weiner have distinguished between stable effort and unstable effort—knowing that, in some circumstances, effort could be seen as a stable cause, especially given the presence of certain words such as “industrious” in the English language.


Scales to measure locus of control

The most famous questionnaire to measure locus of control is the 23-item forced choice items and six filler items scale of Rotter (1966), but this is not the only questionnaire—indeed, predating Rotter’s work by five years is Bialer’s (1961) 23-item scale for children. Also of relevance to locus of control scale are the Crandall Intellectual Ascription of Responsibility Scale (Crandall, 1965), and the Nowicki-Strickland Scale. One of the earliest psychometric scales to assess locus of control, using a Likert-type scale in contrast to the forced-choice alternative measure in Rotter’s scale, was that devised by W.H. James, for his unpublished doctoral dissertation, supervised by Rotter at Ohio State University, although this remained an unpublished scale.

Many measures of locus of control have appeared since Rotter’s scale, some that use a five-point scale, such as The Duttweiler Control Index (Duttweiler, 1984), and some that relate to specific areas, such as health. These scales are reviewed by Furnham and Steele (1993), and include those related to health psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, and those specifically for children, such as the Stanford Preschool Internal-External Control Index, which is used for three- to six-year-olds. Furnham and Steele (1993) cite data that suggest that the most reliable and valid of the questionnaires for adults is the Duttweiler scale. For a review of the health questionnaires cited by these authors, see below under “Applications”.


The Internal Control Index of Duttweiler

A scale with reasonably good psychometric properties has been the Internal Control Index (ICI) of Duttweiler (1984). In her paper on this scale, Duttweiler notes many problems with Rotter’s I-E Scale, including problems with its forced choice format, its susceptibility to social desirability and her observation that studies that subject the scale to factor analysis suggest it is not assessing an entirely homogeneous concept. She also notes that, while other scales existed in 1984 to measure locus of control, “they appear to be subject to many of the same problems” (Duttweiler, 1984, p. 211). She developed the ICI to assess several variables especially pertinent to internal locus: cognitive processing, autonomy, resistance to social influence, self-confidence and delay of gratification. After administration of this scale to 133 students at Gainesville Junior College in Georgia, United States, she found the scale to have good internal reliability, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.85. Unlike the forced-choice format used on Rotter’s scale, Duttweiler’s 28-item ICI uses a Likert-type scale, in which people have to state whether they would rarely, occasionally, sometimes, frequently or usually behave as specified by each of 28 statements.

Attributional style, or explanatory style, is a concept that was introduced by Lyn Yvonne Abramson, Martin Seligman and John D. Teasdale (Abramson, Seligman & Teasdale, 1978). Buchanan and Seligman (1995) have edited a book-length review of the topic. This concept goes a stage further than Weiner, stating that, in addition to the concepts of internality-externality and stability, a dimension of globality-specificity[clarification needed] is also needed. Abramson et al. therefore believed that how people explained successes and failures in their lives related to whether they attributed these to internal or external factors, to factors that were short-term or long-term and to factors that affected all situations in their situations.

The topic of attribution theory, introduced to psychology by Fritz Heider, has had an influence on locus of control theory, but it is important to appreciate the differences between the history of these two models in psychology. Attribution theorists have been, largely speaking, social psychologists, concerned with the general processes characterizing how and why people in general make the attributions they do, whereas locus of control theorists have been more concerned with individual differences.

Significant to the history of both approaches were the contributions made by Bernard Weiner, in the 1970s. Prior to this time, attribution theorists and locus of control theorists had been largely concerned with divisions into external and internal loci of causality. Weiner added the dimension of stability-instability, and somewhat later, controllability, indicating how a cause could be perceived as having been internal to a person yet still beyond the person’s control. The stability dimension added to the understanding of why people succeed or fail after such outcomes. Although not part of Weiner’s model, a further dimension of attribution was added by Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale, that of globality-specificity (see the article on explanatory style).


Applications of locus of control theory

Locus of control’s most famous application has probably been in the area of health psychology, largely thanks to the work of Kenneth Wallston. Scales to measure locus of control in the health domain are reviewed by Furnham and Steele (1993). The most famous of these would be the Health Locus of Control Scale and the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control Scale, or MHLC (Wallston, Wallston, & DeVellis, 1976; Wallston, Wallston, Kaplan & Maides, 1976). The latter scale is based on the idea, echoing Levenson’s earlier work, that health may be attributed to three possible outcomes: internal factors, such as self-determination of a healthy lifestyle, powerful others, such as one’s doctor, or luck.

Some of the scales reviewed by Furnham and Steele (1993) relate to health in more specific domains, such as obesity (for example, Saltzer’s (1982) Weight Locus of Control Scale or Stotland and Zuroff’s (1990) Dieting Beliefs Scale), or mental health (such as Wood and Letak’s (1982) Mental Health Locus of Control Scale or the Depression Locus of Control Scale of Whiteman, Desmond and Price, 1987) and cancer (the Cancer Locus of Control Scale of Pruyn et al., 1988). In discussing applications of the concept to health psychology, Furnham and Steele also refer to Claire Bradley’s work, linking locus of control to management of diabetes mellitus. Empirical data on health locus of control in various fields has been reviewed by Norman and Bennett (1995). These authors note that data on whether certain health-related behaviors are related to internal health locus of control have been ambiguous. For example, they note that some studies found that internal health locus of control is linked with increased exercise, but they also cite several studies that have found only a weak or no relationship between exercise behaviors (such as jogging) and internal health locus of control. They note similar ambiguity for data on the relationship between internal health locus of control and other health-related behaviors, such as breast self-examination, weight control and preventative health behaviors. Of particular interest are the data these authors cite on the relationship between internal health locus of control and alcohol consumption.

Norman and Bennett note that some studies that compared alcoholics with non-alcoholics suggest alcoholism is linked to increased externality for health locus of control, but other studies have found alcoholism to be linked with increased internality, and similar ambiguity has been found in studies that looked at alcohol consumption in a more general, non-alcoholic population. Norman and Bennett appear a little more optimistic in reviewing the literature on the relationship between internal health locus of control and smoking cessation, although they also point out that there are grounds for supposing that powerful others health locus of control, as well as internal health locus of control, may be linked with smoking cessation.

Norman and Bennett argue that a stronger relationship is found when health locus of control is assessed for specific domains than when general measures of locus of control are taken. Overall, studies using behavior-specific health locus scales have tended to produce more positive results (Lefcourt, 1991). Moreover, these scales have been found to be more predictive of general behavior than more general scales, such as the MHLC scale (Norman & Bennett, 1995, p. 72). Norman and Bennett cite several studies that used health-related locus of control scales in specific domains, including smoking cessation (Georgio & Bradley, 1992), diabetes (Ferraro, Price, Desmond & Roberts, 1987), tablet-treated diabetes (Bradley, Lewis, Jennings & Ward, 1990), hypertension (Stantion, 1987), arthritis (Nicasio et al., 1985), cancer (Pruyn et al., 1988) and heart and lung disease (Allison, 1987).

They also argue that health locus of control is better at predicting health-related behavior if studied in conjunction with health value, i.e. the value people attach to their health, suggesting that health value is an important moderator variable in the health locus of control relationship. For example, Weiss and Larsen (1990) (cited in Norman & Bennett, 1995) found increased relationship between internal health locus of control and health when health value was assessed. Despite the importance that Norman and Bennet (1995) attach to use of specific measures of locus of control, there are still some general textbooks on personality, such as Maltby, Day and Macaskill (2007), which continue to cite studies linking internal locus of control with improved physical health, mental health and quality of life in people undergoing conditions as diverse as HIV, migraines, diabetes, kidney disease and epilepsy (Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Whyte correlated locus of control with academic success of students enrolled in higher education courses. Students who tended to be more internally controlled believed that hard work and focus would result oftentimes in successful academic progress and they performed better academically. Those students who were identified as more externally controlled, believing that their future depended upon luck or fate, tended to have lower academic performance levels. Cassandra B. Whyte further researched how control tendency influenced behavioral outcomes in the academic realm by examining the effects of various modes of counseling on grade improvements and the locus of control of high-risk college students.


Organizational psychology and religion

Other fields to which the concept has been applied include industrial and organizational psychology, sports psychology, educational psychology and the psychology of religion. Richard Kahoe has published celebrated work in the latter field, suggesting that intrinsic religious orientation correlates positively, extrinsic religious orientation correlates negatively, with internal locus. Of relevance to both health psychology and the psychology of religion is the work prepared by Holt, Clark, Kreuter and Rubio (2003), in preparing a questionnaire to assess spiritual health locus of control. These authors distinguished between an active spiritual health locus of control orientation, in which “God empowers the individual to take healthy actions” and a more passive spiritual health locus of control orientation, where people leave everything to God in the care of their own health. In industrial and organizational psychology, it has been found that internals are more likely to take positive action to change their jobs, rather than merely to talk about occupational change, than externals (Allen, Weeks & Moffat, 2005; cited in Maltby et al., 2007).


Familial origins

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. Societies experiencing social unrest increase the expectancy of being out-of-control, so people in such societies become more external.

The research of Schneewind (1995; cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2005) suggests that “children in large single parent families headed by women are more likely to develop an external locus of control” (Schultz & Schultz, 2005, p. 439). Schultz and Schultz also point out that children who develop an internal locus tend to come from families where parents have been supportive and consistent in self-discipline. There has been some ambiguity about whether parental locus of control influences a child’s locus of control, although at least one study has found that children are more likely to attribute their successes and failures to unknown causes if their parents had an external locus of control (see the first of the external links listed below).

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. Findings from early studies on the familial origins of locus of control were summarized by Lefcourt:

“Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus”.


Locus of control and age

It is sometimes assumed that as people age, they will become less internal and more external, but data here has been ambiguous. Longitudinal data collected by Gatz and Karel (cited in Johnson et al., 2004) imply that internality may increase up to middle age, and thereafter decrease. Noting the ambiguity of data in this area, Aldwin and Gilmer (2004) cite Lachman’s claim that locus of control is ambiguous. Indeed, there is evidence here that changes in locus of control in later life relate more visibly to increased externality, rather than reduced internality, if the two concepts are taken to be orthogonal. Evidence cited by Schultz and Schultz (2005), for example Heckhausen and Schulz (1995) or Ryckman and Malikosi, 1975 (cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2005), suggests that locus of control increases in internality up until middle age. These authors also note that attempts to control the environment become more pronounced between the age of eight and fourteen. For more on the relationship between locus of control and coping with the demands of later life, see the article on aging.

A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine examined the health effect of childhood “locus of control”. 7,500 British adults followed from birth who had shown an internal locus of control at the age of 10 were less likely to be overweight at age 30. The children who had an internal locus of control also appeared the have higher levels of self esteem.


Gender-based differences in locus of control

As Schultz and Schultz (2005) point out, significant differences in locus of control have not been found for adults in a U.S. population. However, these authors also note that there may be specific sex-based differences for specific categories of item to assess locus of control—for example, they cite evidence that men may have a greater internal locus for questions related to academic achievement (Strickland & Haley, 1980; cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2005).


Cross-cultural issues in locus of control

The question of whether people from different cultures vary in locus of control has long been of interest to social psychologists. Japanese people tend to be more external in locus of control orientation than people in the U.S., whereas differences in locus of control between different countries within Europe, and between the U.S. and Europe, tend to be small (Berry, Poortinga, Segall & Dasen, 1992). As Berry et al. (1992) point out, different ethnic groups within the United States have been compared on locus of control, with blacks in the U.S. being more external than whites, even when socio-economic status is controlled (Dyal, 1984; cited in Berry et al., 1992). Berry et al. (1992) also point out how research on other ethnic minorities in the U.S., such as Hispanics, has been ambiguous. More on cross-cultural variations in locus of control can be found in Shiraev and Levy (2004). The research in this area indicates how locus of control has been a useful concept for researchers in cross-cultural psychology.



Self-efficacy is another related concept, introduced by Albert Bandura. Although someone may believe that how some future event turns out is under their control, they may or may not believe that they are capable of behaving in a way that will produce the desired result. For example, an athlete may believe that training eight hours a day would result in a marked improvement in ability (an internal locus of control orientation) but not believe that he or she is capable of training that hard (a low sense of self-efficacy). Self-efficacy has been measured by means of a psychometric scale and differs from locus of control in that whereas locus of control is generally a measure of cross-situational beliefs about control, self-efficacy is used as a concept to relate to more circumscribed situations and activities. Bandura has emphasized how the concept differs from self-esteem—using the example that a person may have low self-efficacy for ballroom dancing, but that if ballroom dancing is not very important to that person, this is unlikely to result in low self-esteem.

Psychiatrist and expert on trauma and dissociation, Colin A. Ross, MD, describes the inappropriate self-blame that characterizes many adult survivors of childhood trauma as “the locus of control shift.” This theory is pivotal in his therapeutic sessions with near-psychotic people at the Ross Institute for Psychological Trauma.

It is important to appreciate that differences do exist between internal locus of control and self-efficacy. Smith (1989) has argued that the Rotter scale to assess locus of control cannot be taken as a measure of self-efficacy, because “only a subset of items refer directly to the subject’s capabilities” (Smith, p. 229). Smith noted, in his empirical study, that coping skills training led to increases in self-efficacy, but did not affect locus of control as measured by Rotter’s (1966) scale.


Summary, critique and the future

Locus of control has generated much research in a variety of areas in psychology. The construct is applicable to fields such as educational psychology, health psychology or clinical psychology. There will probably continue to be debate about whether specific or more global measures of locus of control will prove to be more useful. Careful distinctions should also be made between locus of control (a concept linked with expectancies about the future) and attributional style (a concept linked with explanations for past outcomes), or between locus of control and concepts such as self-efficacy. The importance of locus of control as a topic in psychology is likely to remain quite central for many years.

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