How much control do we really have over our lives?
Many psychological theories have attempted to answer this question. One such explanation is the locus of control.
Locus of control is a concept created by psychologist Julian Rotter (1954). Rotter was interested in social learning and why some behaviors stick while others languish.
Locus of control is an underlying structure of Rotter’s social learning theory, but as a standalone theory, it has had significant applications in education, health, and clinical psychology. It has driven research in motivation, learning, depression, and addiction.
In this article, we look at the research into locus of control and offer seven worksheets and two recommended books to provide a comprehensive overview of this topic.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you deal effectively with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees, no matter the situations they have to face.
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What Is the Locus of Control in Psychology?
The concept behind locus of control is fairly simple. Our lives are full of actions and outcomes. Each of us will ascribe a certain locus of control over these outcomes. The theory states that we will place the location, or locus, either externally or internally.
If we place the locus of control externally, we are likely to blame the outcome on fate, luck, or happenstance. If we place the locus of control internally, we are likely to believe our own actions determine the outcome.
Rotter (1966) stated that where we place that locus will either reinforce or punish our actions. An internal locus of control will lead to a reinforcement of that behavior, and the behavior will continue. An external locus of control will cause the behavior to extinguish – why would we continue to try if the outcome is outside of our control?
However, Rotter (1975) was careful to state that we should conceptualize this as a continuum between external and internal, rather than an either/or categorization. In general, healthy adults rarely believe that everything is either entirely out of our control or entirely within it.
In fact, individuals who employ a blend of both internal and external loci in their reasoning report higher levels of happiness (April, Dharani, & Peters, 2012).
Internal vs External Locus of Control: 3 Examples
Here are three examples of how our locus of control may influence the way we view an outcome and the behaviors that follow.
We will call these two people Isaac the Internalizer and Everett the Externalizer.
Isaac and Everett are both up for a promotion.
Isaac, with his internal locus of control, believes that his hard work will get him the promotion. He also believes that if he doesn’t get it, he just needs to work harder.
Everett, on the other hand, feels that the promotion is largely outside of his control and that external forces, whether they are just chance or the boss’s whims, will determine whether he will get the promotion. Although he may not work as hard to obtain the promotion, if he doesn’t get it, Everett may be easier on himself than Isaac.
There is a big test coming up, and Isaac and Everett are at the library.
Isaac believes his score will directly reflect the amount of studying that he did, and since he wants a good grade, he applies himself and studies hard.
Everett has an external locus of control and believes that the grade may well reflect the teacher’s bias. He believes that studying too hard is a waste of time.
Isaac’s doctor tells him he has the potential to develop Type II diabetes.
Isaac has heard that it’s possible to control this outcome with diet, so he decides to cut out all sugar and try to eat more vegetables.
Everett gets the same diagnosis, but he believes that it’s all genetic. He comes from a family with a history of diabetes and feels that the outcome is inevitable. He doesn’t try to change his diet because he doesn’t think it will make any difference.
Popular Theories About the Concept
Following is a discussion of how locus of control relates to other psychological theories. Two theories that are related but differ in subtle ways include self-efficacy and attribution style.
Another important theory is personality and how it affects our locus of control. And finally, in order to stay relevant, the theory of locus of control must take into consideration cultural factors, such as how oppression and discrimination may affect our perception of control.
Self-efficacy, a concept proposed by social psychologist Albert Bandura (2010), is the measure of how capable an individual feels about achieving their goals.
Bandura showed that no matter how talented a person may be, if they do not believe they are capable, this belief will have a strong effect on their ability to succeed. Individuals with high self-efficacy will have higher levels of persistence and give up less easily than those with low levels of self-efficacy (Schunk, 1990).
Self-efficacy and locus of control are related, but they are not the same. An individual with an internal locus of control may feel their health outcomes are caused by their behavior, but they may not feel capable of achieving their goal.
For example, a person may know that they can increase muscle mass by doing certain exercises but may feel that they won’t succeed because they don’t have the knowledge to create an exercise plan. Also, locus of control includes an appraisal of the surrounding environment, whereas self-efficacy is ultimately a self-reflective construct.
Attributional styles & locus of control
Locus of control is a theory of learning. Importantly, this means that the behavior in question, whether it’s sticking with an exercise plan or studying for a test, will either be reinforced or halted based on the perceived locus of control.
For example, if a person finds a $20 bill on the street, it is unlikely that they will continue to return to that street again and again looking for more money; instead, they perceive that the locus of control behind finding the money was an external event, namely chance.
Attributional style is also a theory of behavior that includes locus of control as one of three potential causes (Weiner, 1986). Attribution theory includes other factors – whether the cause is global or specific, stable or unstable – in addition to whether the individual perceives that they have control over it.
A global attribution means that the person believes the cause of the event is consistent across all contexts. A specific attribution is just the opposite: it only happens in a particular context. Whether an outcome is stable or unstable describes if it is consistent across time or only attributable to a single point in time.
Weiner (1986) gives the examples that ability is stable and internal, whereas mood is unstable and internal. Task difficulty may be seen as stable and external, while luck is seen as unstable and external. The perceived amount of control over each of these may vary from person to person.
Similar to locus of control, our attribution style will affect our behavior. Imagine, for example, that your brother is visiting, and he blows up at you over something small, yelling and storming out.
If you attribute his behavior to internal, stable, and global causes, you perceive that your brother’s personality causes him to act this way in all contexts and all the time. If you attribute his behavior to internal but unstable and specific causes, you may think that he is in a foul mood, that this is out of character, and something must have set him off.
Given these two appraisals of the same situation, we will behave differently. We are less likely to be forgiving if we feel the person has control over their behavior. We may be more likely to let it go if we think it’s a onetime event rather than something that happens no matter the situation.
Locus of control & personality theories
Much of the research into locus of control and how it relates to personality has been in the realm of work satisfaction and health outcomes (Strauser, Ketz, & Keim, 2002; Spector & O’Connell, 1994).
The Big Five personality traits (emotional stability, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) have each been shown to have varying levels of impact on outcomes in these realms. These traits have been examined for their relationship with locus of control and how the interaction may affect work-life and health (Ng, Sorensen, & Eby, 2006; Boysan & Kiral, 2017; Mutlu, Balbag, & Cemrek, 2010).
In general, emotional stability (formerly known as neuroticism) and conscientiousness have strong positive relationships with an internal locus of control. Believing that their behavior contributes directly to the outcome of a situation will naturally lead to hard work if the individual also has the desire.
Conversely, those with an external locus of control have been shown to have higher levels of stress and even depression (Benassi, Sweeney, & Dufour, 1988). It stands to reason that if someone feels they are at the mercy of outside forces and their life is not in their hands, this could lead to anxiety and learned helplessness.
The idea of learned helplessness and its relationship to an external locus of control was introduced by Martin Seligman (1975).
He advanced the hypothesis that individuals with depression have a state of mind that reflects a type of helplessness, meaning that they don’t believe that their actions will have any positive effect on the outcomes of their lives. This type of thinking may reflect an external locus of control, because they have little faith in themselves (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978).
Cultural humility and locus of control
A factor that has not been addressed much in literature is how an individual’s locus of control may be shaped by systems of injustice, like institutionalized racism and gender discrimination.
An external locus of control is often described as attributing outcomes to such things as luck, fate, or chance. But what if an individual doesn’t get a promotion because their boss is discriminating against them? What if a couple cannot get a loan to buy a house because of their sexual orientation or race?
For oppressed or marginalized groups, there is an objective threat to their ability to control the outcomes of their lives. Their perceived differences in loci of control may reflect these systems of oppression, rather than a lack of self-determination (Sue, 1978).
Research into locus of control and its effects on an individual’s outcome has encouraged programs that help people move toward a greater feeling of internal control (Twenge, Zhang, & Im, 2004).
It’s generally believed that those with higher levels of internal locus of control also tend to have better outcomes (Rotter, 1966; Lefcourt, 1982; Twenge et al. 2004). But before we apply blanket programs that treat all individuals the same, it is important to recognize that these programs often overlook systemic issues that may truly affect an individual’s level of control (Brown, Rosnick, & Segrist, 2017).
3 Fascinating Research Findings
Health and motivation
During the COVID-19 pandemic, experts encouraged social distancing as a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Itani and Hollebeek (2021) found that an internal locus of control positively correlated with a willingness to social distance, showing that if individuals believed that their own behavior had a positive outcome on their health, they were more willing to comply with recommendations.
Globally, 5.1% of women and 3.6% of men experience depression, and 4.6% of women and 2.6% of men experience anxiety disorders (World Health Organization, 2017).
Churchill, Munyanyi, Prakash, and Smyth (2020) examined longitudinal data of these gender disparities in mental health and found an intriguing outcome. The researchers examined the scores of over 20,000 Australians on measures of mental health and locus of control.
They showed a significant gender gap in mental health, consistent with the World Health Organization findings. They also showed that women were more likely to have an external locus of control than men. Finally, through regression analysis, they could demonstrate that a unit increase toward internal locus of control would have a more significant effect on this gender gap than any other variable, including employment and marriage status.
Locus of control has been shown to be a key factor in pro-environmental behavior (Peyton & Miller, 1980). Chiang, Fang, Kaplan, and Ng (2019) took this finding a step further and examined the relationship between environmental actions, locus of control, and emotional stability.
They found that the personality factor of emotional stability positively influenced pro-environmental behavior. They also showed through structural equation modeling that emotional stability may be a mediator between an internal locus of control and pro-environmental behavior.
High levels of patience and calm (positive levels of emotional stability) may lead to a greater level of internal locus of control and feelings of hopefulness toward helping the planet.
7 Worksheets & Exercises for Psychologists
To help clients understand how they perceive control, we have created several worksheets.
Worksheets for children
I Can/Can’t Control
This worksheet is a checklist that helps children learn to identify things they can control and things they can’t.
Out of Control or In Control
In this worksheet, children are presented with a list of reactions they might have, such as hitting, pacing, and talking with friends. This exercise requires them to sort these reactions into three columns: Out of Control, In Control, or Both.
Self-Control Spotting Activity
This worksheet gives the child eight different activities to identify and sort as either self-control or not self-control.
What Makes Me Angry
This worksheet helps guide teenagers to see that it is not the person or event that makes them angry, but their thoughts instead.
Control in relationships
Shifting Codependency Patterns
This worksheet for relationships outlines examples of denial, low self-esteem, compliance, avoidance, and control. For each of these patterns, the worksheet provides examples of a codependent reaction and a secure reaction.
Control in life
The Spheres of Personal Control
Helping the client move from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control can increase motivation and energy toward those aspects of life they have control over. This exercise from our Positive Psychology Toolkit© will provide insight into which aspects of life are controllable and which aren’t.
In this exercise, clients are asked to present a challenging situation and then assess what can be controlled or influenced, and what needs to be accepted.
Our 2 Favorite Books on the Topic
1. Choice or Chance: Understanding Your Locus of Control and Why It Matters – Stephen Nowicki
Clinical psychologist Dr. Nowicki has spent his career investigating and writing about locus of control.
This self-help book guides readers to identify their own locus of control and how it may be influencing their lives. This is a good choice for those who would like to dive into the research and find out how it applies to their own lives.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Teach Internal Locus Of Control: A Positive Psychology App – Russ Hill
Because an internal locus of control has been strongly associated with greater wellbeing and more success in work and school, it is no surprise that people want to know if there is a way to become more of an internalizer.
This book teaches a six-step behavioral strategy that will help teach learners how to become more “internal” and feel that they have more control over their lives.
Find the book on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
Locus of control began as an explanation for why some behaviors flourish and grow, while others never take seed.
This theory has had a far-reaching impact in the fields of developmental psychology, health psychology, clinical psychology, and more. At present, it is now seen as an important building block of self-evaluation, a multi-dimensional construct under which self-efficacy, self-esteem, and emotional stability also lie.
When we attribute an outcome in life to external forces beyond our control, we may find ourselves feeling helpless to enact change.
But the truth of our level of control often resides only in our perception of it. Between this real and perceived level of control is a choice to believe in ourselves and our ability to change our fate.
If we believe in our power to control our life, we will be more likely to take chances and feel more confident in our own autonomy. This belief may be taught at an early age, but it can also be shaped throughout life. Through subtle changes of mindset, we can begin to feel more in control of our future.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Realizing Resilience Masterclass© is a complete, science-based, six-module resilience training template for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients overcome adversity in a more resilient way.
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