Locus of control refers to an individual’s overall beliefs regarding whom or what is in control over events that occur in his or her life. People may attribute their chances of success and failure to either external or internal causes. Development of locus of control likely stems from a combination of family background, culture, and past experiences. People with an internal locus of control may come from families that focus on effort and responsibility. On the other hand, those with an external locus of control may come from backgrounds where there is lack of life control. Since the locus of control construct was first introduced, it has undergone considerable explanation, and several theories about locus of control have arisen.
Locus of Control Types
Internal Locus of Control
People with an internal locus of control often believe that they are in control of their own destinies and happenings in their lives. People with an internal locus of control likely see a relationship between the effort they put into an endeavor and the outcome. People with an internal locus of control feel that events that happen to them are a result of their own work and effort. The benefit of an internal locus of control is that people feel in control of their life situations and responsible for what happens to them. Thus, they may be likely to work hard in order to do well in educational and vocational areas.
External Locus of Control
People with an external locus of control are more likely to believe that their fate is determined by chance or outside forces that are beyond their control. People with an external locus of control see environmental causes and situational factors as being more influential than internal ones. These individuals would more often see luck rather than effort as determining whether they succeed or fail. A benefit of this viewpoint is that people with an external locus of control may be better able to cope with failure or trauma because they do not blame themselves for what happens to them. However, an external locus of control may be harmful in that it may lead to feelings of help-lessness and loss of personal power.
Explanation of Construct
From a traditional psychological perspective, an internal locus of control is considered indicative of a healthy, adaptive, and self-determined approach to life. An external locus of control would be associated with apathy, passivity, and pathology. It is important to realize that the locus of control construct was developed within the perspective of a Eurocentric worldview. As a result, the construct assumes that individual control and choice are to be highly valued. The assumption that an internal locus of control is to be preferred to an external locus of control assumes that individualism and self-determination are inherently valuable. Thus, the Eurocentric locus of control construct pathologizes worldviews that de-emphasize individual choice and control. Moreover, the Eurocentric conception of locus of control ignores the role that discrimination and oppression play in undermining opportunities and choices of members of marginalized communities.
Cultures with a collectivistic worldview, as found in some African American, Asian, Latino/a, and Native American cultural groups, may value commitment to relationships above individual concerns and identify with a larger social group more so than do individualistic cultures. For example, in some Asian cultural settings, a family and group orientation is valued above individual needs. From this perspective, cooperation with the goals of family or community would be considered more important than self-determination. Members of such a culture may be likely to endorse an external locus of control, since external forces such as family and societal expectations play a prominent role in their lives. Thus, in this context, an external locus of control would indicate not pathology, but rather a socially sanctioned respect for the influence and expectations of family and society.
It is therefore important to recognize the culture-specific perspective inherent in the traditional conceptualization of locus of control, which views internal locus of control as optimal. For individuals who do not identify with the dominant cultural worldview, it may be inappropriate to apply the traditional use of locus of control as an indicator of psychological health, as attributes that are normal and healthy within the dominant cultural context could be considered indicative of pathology in individuals from a nondominant culture.
For marginalized groups, external locus of control may be a result of a realistic perception of limitations caused by racism, discrimination, or socioeconomic status. For example, for individuals who regularly experience discrimination based on their race, it would be accurate to attribute difficulties they experience to external forces. From the traditional standpoint, such external attributions would indicate a lack of self-determination rather than recognition of discrimination. Consequently, the individual’s experience of discrimination would be invalidated, and the external locus of control resulting from such experiences may lead to an assumption of pathology on the part of the individual.
Consideration should be taken when applying locus of control concept to multicultural populations. Locus of control should be understood as a concept that is embedded in a European American cultural worldview, and limitations of applying it with more collectivistic cultures should be recognized. Marginalized individuals might endorse greater levels of external control, not as a result of psychopathology or lack of self-determination, but as a result of actual experiences of discrimination and limitations placed on them by society.
Julian Rotter first described the concept of locus of control in the 1950s. Rotter was viewed as one who was able to bridge the gap between behavioral and cognitive psychology when he developed the locus of control construct. Rotter theorized that behavior was significantly directed by the use of reinforcements, such as punishments and rewards. These punishments and rewards subsequently shaped the way people interpret the results of their own actions. The original locus of control formulation classified generalized beliefs concerning who or what influences things along a bipolar dimension of control between internal and external.
Other theorists, including Hanna Levenson, developed alternative theories of locus of control. Whereas Rotter explains locus of control as being bipolar, Levenson’s model asserts that there are three dimensions: internality, chance, and powerful others. Internality is similar to Rotter’s internal locus of control, in which people believe that they are in control over events that happen to them. Those who endorse chance would attribute events to luck. And those who consider control to be in the hands of powerful others would attribute events to others who have more power and control. According to Levenson, one can endorse each of these dimensions of locus of control independently and at the same time.
Expectancy, which concerns future events, is a critical aspect of locus of control. Locus of control is grounded in expectancy-value theory, which describes human behavior as determined by the perceived likelihood of an event or outcome occurring and the value placed on that event or outcome. Expectancy-value theory states that if individuals value a particular outcome and believe that taking a certain action will produce that outcome, then they are more likely to take that action.
Self-efficacy is a concept introduced by Albert Bandura and refers to an individual’s belief in his or her ability to perform a certain task at a given time. Self-efficacy and locus of control are related; people may believe that they are in control of how some future events turn out, and they may or may not believe in their own ability to perform a certain task. For example, athletes may believe that they have control over how well they perform (internal locus of control), but they may not have the belief that they are capable of putting in the training to succeed (low self-efficacy).
Attributions are explanations that people give to explain why some event has occurred. Like locus of control, attributions can be classified—among other ways—as either internal or external. Attribution theory has been utilized to explain the difference between highly motivated individuals and low achievers. Attribution theory explains high achievers as being willing to take risks to succeed and low achievers as avoiding success because they believe it is based on luck and will not happen again.
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