How much we feel in control in each area of our lives predicts life satisfaction and even the likelihood of positive outcomes (Galvin, Randel, Collins, & Johnson, 2018).
Our beliefs regarding control impact our motivation, behavior, and the potential for success in work and outside.
Individuals who feel they are in the driver’s seat, rather than being controlled by their environment, often experience elevated life satisfaction, persistence, conscientiousness, and psychological wellbeing (Zeigler-Hill & Shackelford, 2020).
This article explores the importance our locus of control plays in our lives and introduces several questionnaires, tests, and resources to help therapists become more aware of clients’ sense of autonomy.
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Is Identifying the Locus of Control Important?
The locus (or whereabouts) of control experienced by an individual defines the extent to which they “perceive they control events and outcomes in their lives” and how much they believe their actions drive the rewards they receive (Galvin et al., 2018, p. 1).
The social learning theory, from which the idea of the locus of control originally arose, suggests that we learn by observing what goes on around us, leading us to form beliefs that specific behavior results in predictable outcomes (Rotter, 1966).
Individuals who feel a high degree of control over the events and outcomes in their lives have an internal locus of control. Typically, they believe they are in control of their fate and that results reflect the amount of energy they exert (Galvin et al., 2018).
The continuum of locus of control can be represented as follows (modified from Shojaee & French, 2014):
And it matters. The locus of control and related beliefs affect our cognition and behavior and, as such, have a vital role to play across multiple areas of our lives. While an internal locus of control is typically beneficial, too much can have potential downsides, such as being overly self-reliant and failing to ask for help (Galvin et al., 2018).
Research continues to confirm the importance of the locus of control in the workplace. Findings suggest that having a strong internal locus of control has a positive effect on our state of mind and our work, including (Galvin et al., 2018):
- Satisfaction with work
- Commitment to the organization
- Task performance
As such, employees’ perceptions and beliefs surrounding control are an essential consideration in organizational sciences and a valuable factor in creating an environment in which staff flourish.
Interestingly, research suggests that those who perceive their control as internal are sometimes less able to deal with workplace stress, possibly due to not needing a rigid structure in the organization (Galvin et al., 2018). On the other hand, individuals with an external locus benefit more from formalized ways of working, including job structures, highlighting the complexity involved in the perception of control.
Anxiety is a normal human response to potential threats, but in excess, it can become debilitating.
While anxiety helps individuals prepare for what is to come in the short term, prolonged, high trait anxiety is a chronic condition that is detrimental to daily life (Zeigler-Hill & Shackelford, 2020).
When confronted with stress, individuals with an internal locus of control adopt problem-focused coping strategies that can act as a buffer against burnout and foster the perception of maintaining ownership over their lives (Galvin et al., 2018).
Those who internalize control tend not to seek additional support when confronted with obstacles. This failure to recognize their need for help may be damaging both to themselves and the task in question and results from a belief that success lies within their hands (Galvin et al., 2018).
With less need for extrinsic motivation from their supervisors, they may see support as superfluous. As a result, they are more inclined to take their own actions and rely on themselves to deliver the required results.
Research suggests that an internal locus of control is beneficial to mental health. Indeed, Shojaee and French (2014) explored its effects on six essential components of wellbeing:
- Purpose in life
- Positive relations with others
- Environmental mastery
- Personal growth
The study found that an internal locus of control is beneficial to all of the six mental wellbeing factors and helps develop positive personal characteristics. Furthermore, a strong external locus of control has been linked to increased depression and heightened suicide rates (Shojaee & French, 2014).
2 Best Locus of Control Questionnaires
Multidimensional Health Locus of Control scales
Despite some concerns regarding the underlying factorial validity, the 18-item Multidimensional Health Locus of Control scales (MHLC) remain widely used in health psychology (Kassianos, Symeou, & Ioannou, 2016).
The MHLC comprises three scales – Internal Health Locus of Control, Powerful Others Health Locus of Control, and Chance Health Locus of Control – and builds on Levenson’s (1974) IPC scale. Each of the six items per scale is scored on a range between strongly agree and strongly disagree (Moshki, Ghofranipour, Hajizadeh, & Azadfallah, 2007).
The following sample statements are taken from forms A and B, used for locus of control regarding general health:
- If I get sick, it is my own behavior that determines how soon I will get well again.
- Most things that affect my health happen to me by accident.
- The main thing that affects my health is what I myself do.
- Often I feel that no matter what I do, if I am going to get sick, I will get sick.
- I can only maintain my health by consulting health professionals.
- It seems that my health is greatly influenced by accidental happenings.
Taken from form C, the following statements are designed to be condition specific:
- As to my condition, what will be will be.
- If I see my doctor regularly, I am less likely to have problems with my condition.
- Most things that affect my condition happen to me by chance.
Over recent decades, the MHLC scales have been applied across various medical domains, including general health, quality of life, menopause, old age, chronic illnesses, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Schepers’s Locus of Control Questionnaire
This 80-item questionnaire (extended from 65 items to improve reliability) is based on the social learning theory and attribution theory. It scores individuals on their degree of internal control, external control, and autonomy (Schepers, 2004; Boshoff & Van Zyl, 2011).
The questionnaire has also proved successful across multiple ethnic groups and offers a valuable instrument for diverse populations.
Now in its fifth edition, the tool has received widespread confirmation of its reliability and continues to be widely used (The JVR Africa Group, 2016).
2 Valid Scales Used by Psychologists
The following two scales are sometimes used together to form a more complete picture of the client, including their wellbeing and locus of control:
Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being
The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being can be used to measure and compare mental wellbeing with the locus of control (Shojaee & French, 2014).
The scales consist of 84 questions (long-form version) or 54 questions (shortened version) that measure autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations with others, and purpose in life. For example (Ryff & Keyes, 1995):
- Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
- In general, I feel in charge of the situation in which I live.
- People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others.
- I like most aspects of my personality.
While not a direct measure of locus of control, the answers provide valuable insight into psychological wellbeing for comparison purposes.
Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale
Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale is widely used in psychological research to score internal versus external locus of control (Shojaee & French, 2014).
Comprising 29 statement pairs, the individual chooses the one that best reflects their beliefs. For example:
- A) Children get into trouble because their parents punish them too much.
B) The trouble with most children nowadays is that their parents are too easy with them.
- A) Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck.
B) People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.
- A) One of the major reasons why we have wars is because people don’t take enough interest in politics.
B) There will always be wars, no matter how hard people try to prevent them.
Based on the answers given, the individual is measured on two different types of locus of control: internal and external (Shojaee & French, 2014).
3 Popular Locus of Control Tests
There are several popular locus of control tests and questionnaires available online, including the following:
Mind Tools – Locus of Control
In this quick-to-complete online questionnaire, the user reads 22 paired statements and selects the statement they prefer.
It is similar to Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale, with statements such as (Mind Tools, n.d.):
- A) Bad luck is what leads to many of the disappointments in life.
B) Disappointments are usually the result of mistakes you make.
- A) Political unrest and war normally occur in countries where people don’t get involved or assert their political rights.
B) No matter how much people get involved, war and political unrest will occur.
- A) You “reap what you sow.” In the end, your rewards will be directly related to what you accomplish.
B) Despite your effort and hard work, what you accomplish will probably go unnoticed.
When you click Calculate My Total, it returns a value of Internal Locus of Control (strong), Internal Locus of Control (moderate), or External Locus of Control (Mind Tools, n.d.).
University of Virginia – Darden School of Business
This handy Locus of Control Instrument contains 20 true-or-false questions.
I usually get what I want out of life.
I need to be kept informed about news events.
If I do not succeed on a task, I tend to give up.
My life seems to be a series of random events.
Once complete, a table helps you calculate your degree of internal versus external locus of control. The score, between 0 and 100, identifies the individual as having a very strong external locus of control, external locus of control, both external and internal locus of control, internal locus of control, or very strong internal locus of control.
Guidance is then provided on interpreting the individual’s score, and advice is given on the impact of controlling your environment.
National Health Service
Created by the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, this downloadable table is an abbreviated version of the Nicholson McBride Resilience Questionnaire. It contains 10 yes–no questions (which could be modified if required).
The scores are based on the answers given to each question, such as
Add two for a ‘yes’ answer for each of the following questions:
- Do you make your own decisions, regardless of what other people say?
- If something goes wrong, do you usually reckon it’s your own fault rather than just bad luck?
Add two points for a ‘no’ answer for each of the following questions:
- Do you find it a waste of time to plan ahead because something always causes you to change direction?
- Are most of the things you do designed to please other people?
An overall score over 20 suggests the person who completes it takes control of their life and has an internal locus of control.
Locus of Control Resources from PositivePsychology.com
We have many worksheets, tools, and psychoeducation materials to help individuals understand, maintain, and build their degree of self-control. Some of these are part of our Positive Psychology Toolkit, an online library of over 370 exercises, guides, and interventions available to the mental health wellbeing community.
- 5-4-3-2-1 Stress Reduction Technique
When stressed, we become focused on the detail, lose sight of the bigger picture, and feel out of control. This grounding exercise uses mindful attention to the five senses to connect yourself to the here and now.
- Dealing With Uncontrollable Circumstances
Increasing the client’s sense of control is often one of therapy’s goals. Accurate self-knowledge is one of the pathways to investing time and energy in actions and events we can control while avoiding wasting time on those we cannot.
- The Spheres of Personal Control
We have little control over how others act or think in most cases. Becoming more aware of the limits of personal control can be helpful for self-regulation and goal achievement.
- Caring About the Right Things
We often focus and attempt to control what is unimportant in life. Living in line with personal values can encourage us to focus on what we really care about, make the right choices, and prioritize our actions. Use this valuable worksheet to regain control of what is essential.
- Self-Control Spotting Activity for Children
Self-control can be difficult for adults but, at times, seemingly impossible for children. This exercise helps children understand what is inside and outside their control, and what they can do about each.
- Control–Influence–Accept Model
It is important to assess a challenging situation quickly and effectively to understand whether it can be controlled or influenced. Initially designed for business settings, this powerful model helps users break down a problem and understand their potential approach instead of wasting time on unproductive worry.
A Take-Home Message
Locus of control “is defined as a person’s tendency to see events as being controlled internally or externally” (Shojaee & French, 2014, p. 969). Crucially, it defines a person’s belief about whether they are truly self-independent or under the control of others.
Internalizers feel responsible for what happens in their lives and own the outcome, while externalizers believe that fate, chance, and luck (external influences) decide what occurs in their lives.
The degree of internal and external locus of control, which can be situationally dependent, affects how much a person believes that the likelihood and size of the reward is driven by how they address situations and overcome difficulties.
An internal locus of control has many benefits, not least improved psychological wellbeing, but it also appears to offer a degree of protection from depression and harmful behavior. As a specific example, while an employee with a strong internal locus of control may at times be too self-reliant, typically they are more satisfied by work, are more committed to what they are doing, and may even perform better at the tasks they are given.
There are several ways to score the locus of control. Why not try them out and use some of our resources to see where additional focus can help maintain or build a more situationally appropriate locus of control?
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- Boshoff, E., & Van Zyl, E. S. (2011). The relationship between locus of control and ethical behaviour among employees in the financial sector. Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship, 76(2).
- Galvin, B. M., Randel, A. E., Collins, B. J., & Johnson, R. E. (2018). Changing the focus of locus (of control): A targeted review of the locus of control literature and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(7), 820–833.
- Kassianos, A. P., Symeou, M., & Ioannou, M. (2016). The health locus of control concept: Factorial structure, psychometric properties and form equivalence of the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control scales. Health Psychology Open, 3(2).
- The JVR Africa Group. (2016, July 13). Measuring locus of control: Introducing the 5th edition of the Locus of Control Inventory. Retrieved July 23, 2021, from https://jvrafricagroup.co.za/news/measuring-locus-control-introducing-5-th-edition-schepers-locus-control-inventory
- Levenson, H. (1974). Activism and powerful others: Distinctions within the concept of internal–external control. Journal of Personality Assessment, 38(4), 377–383.
- Mind Tools. (n.d.). Locus of control: Are you in charge of your destiny? Retrieved July 23, 2021, from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_90.htm
- Moshki, M., Ghofranipour, F., Hajizadeh, E., & Azadfallah, P. (2007). Validity and reliability of the multidimensional health locus of control scale for college students. BMC Public Health, 7, 295.
- Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80, 1–28.
- Ryff, C., & Keyes, C. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719–727.
- Schepers, J. M. (2004). Overcoming the effects of differential skewness of test items in scale construction. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 30(4), 27–43.
- Shojaee, M., & French, C. (2014). The relationship between mental health components and locus of control in youth. Psychology, 5(8), 966–978.
- Zeigler-Hill, V., & Shackelford, T. K. (2020). Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. Springer.