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What exactly is 'locus of control'?

Updated on April 11, 2012

Many years ago, when I was very keenly researching various aspects of psychology, I found it difficult to find useful resources or explanations about the locus of control. It was cropping up everywhere, so I knew I had to find out what it was. I did, through studying however, and now it’s just second nature to me!

So, what does the term mean? The locus of control is considered to be an important aspect of our personalities, and it refers to an individual’s perception about their level of personal control over their own behaviour. Do you think that everything you do depends on yourself, or other factors, like fate, or luck? Locus of control is measured along a dimension from high internal to high external. The concept was developed originally by psychologist Rotter (1966), to which she gave it the full name of Locus of Control of Reinforcement. By giving it this name, she was bridging behavioural and cognitive psychology. Rotter believed that behaviour was largely guided by reinforcements and the through rewards and punishments individuals come to form an idea, or belief, of what causes their actions. These beliefs determine the kind of attitudes and behaviours people adopt.

People with a high internal locus of control, perceive themselves as having a great deal of control over their destiny, and are much more likely to take personal responsibility for their life. They believe that what happens to them as a product of their own ability and effort.

People with a high external locus of control perceive their behaviour as being caused more by luck or other external influences. They are more likely to have the “wrong place wrong time” kind of attitude.

Twenge et al (2004) conducted a meta-analysis: they found that locus of control scores had become substantially more external in student and child samples between 1960 and 2002. This correlates with poor school achievements, decreased self control, and depression. There have been increases in levels of violent crime, divorce, and suicide since the 1960s which externals will look at and view as situations that are completely out of their control which could explain why there has been an increase.

The relationship of internal and external locus of control to independent behaviour:

High internals are generally active seekers of information that is useful to them, and therefore they are less likely to rely on the opinions of others.

High internals tend to be more achievement orientated, and so they are more likely to be leaders. Individuals that tend to attribute responsibility for their actions also tend to assume they can cause certain changes in their environment, including the behaviour of those around them.

High internals are better able to resist coercion from others.

Is an internal locus of control desirable?

Well, in general, it appears to be psychologically healthy to perceive yourself as having control over what your outcome will be; it means you are more likely to try hard, and make sensible decisions. Having an internal locus of control is also often referred to as “personal control”, “self-determination” and others. Research has shown that males tend to be more internal than females, as people get higher up in organisational structures (i.e. get more power) they tend to become more internal, and also age appears to be a factor in increasing internal locus of control.

However, it is important not to jump to the direct conclusion that internal is good and external is bad. There are more complex things to be considered. Internals can actually be psychologically unhealthy. Their orientation usually needs to be matched by competence, self efficacy and opportunity to satisfy them. If they lack those three things, they can become anxious and depressed. They need to be given the means to achieve the success. Another thing to consider is that externals can lead easy-going, happy and relaxed lives, despite not feeling like they have utter control over the outcome of things in their lives. But generally, internals do seem to be better off, as being more achievement orientated generally leads them to have better paid jobs, therefore they achieve more success.

Attribution theory: Locus of control

According to the attribution approach, we would expect those whose behaviour is most under the influence of internal factors to be more independent in their behaviour (as I pointed out above). This, in turn, could explain the behaviour of the participants in the Asch and Milgram experiments.

Rotter (1966) did a questionnaire assessing people’s perceptions of control over personal outcomes, their generalised expectancies about rewards they receive, and perceptions of control over entities such as governments. This was all assessing the locus of control.

In addition to the claim about internals being more independent, we might expect that the difference in independent behaviour between internals and externals might be greater when the external pressures to conform/be obedient are very strong than when they are weak. Increasing the external pressures should only have much effect on externals that are very influenced by situational factors.

Evidence generally supports the prediction that an internal locus of control leads to more independent behaviour.

Shute (1975) – Investigated the effects of peer pressure on attitudes to drugs. They found that participants with an internal locus of control showed a smaller conformity effect.

Avtgis (1988) – Conducted a meta-analysis (overview) of studies of effects of locus of control on social influence, and conformity or majority influence. Those with an internal locus of control showed a moderately strong tendency to show less social influence and less majority influence.

However, there have been failures to find any relationships between locus of control and majority influence.

Holland (1967)- Did three versions of the Milgram experiment with participants with internal and external locus of control. Overall, 37% of internals were disobedient (i.e., didn’t administer the strongest electric shock), compared to only 23% of externals.

Evaluation of the attribution theory as tested through focusing on locus of control: Positives:

There is so much obedience to authority and conformity because most people are strongly influenced by situational factors – so it is a reasonable claim.

It follows theoretically that individuals influenced mainly by internal factors should show more independent behaviour, and the prediction is supported by Milgram and Asch.

There is some support for the prediction that the difference in independent behaviour between internals and externals should be greater when situational pressures are greater.

Evaluation of the attribution theory as tested through focusing on locus of control: Negatives:

Locus of control, as typically assessed by the Rotter scale, is a very general judgement so it is unlikely that it would allow us to predict accurately the behaviour of such specific situations as Milgram’s and Asch’s.

Arguing that individuals whose behaviour is mainly controlled by internal factors will always show more independent behaviour is very dubious. Psychopaths are likely to administer the shocks in Milgram’s experiments and actually enjoy it; they are driven by internal factors so their obedience is inconsistent with the attribution theory approach.

Several internal and external factors could be involved in Asch and Milgram situations, including independent behaviour, that haven’t been considered.

It focuses on situational factors leading the obedience/conformity and internal factors that could lead to disobedience/failure to conform. However there are situational factors that could lead to disobedience and failure to conform, and internal factors that could lead to obedience and conformity.

Internal and external factors aren’t entirely separate; take addicts for example – they have internal cravings, but their lives are controlled by the (external) thing that they crave.

You may be pleased to know that locus of control is not considered innate, but rather, learnt. You can change your perceptions!


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    • lovelyjubbly profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks a bunch!!

    • DFiduccia profile image


      8 years ago from Las Vegas

      Welcome to HubPages, lovelyjubbly,

      Your presentation was an interesting topic for me. It is well organized, informative, and it included references for me to further my knowledge of this subject. I think you will do well here.

      Thanks for this. Voted Up



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