Locus of Control

Locus of control is a personality variable that reflects a person’s general beliefs about whether he or she is in control or whether external forces are in control. Individuals who believe they are in control are called internals, whereas people who believe that external forces (luck, fate, or powerful others) are in control are called externals.

Studies of locus of control originate from the field of social psychology—specifically within the framework of social learning theory developed by J. B. Rotter (1954, 1966). The concept of locus of control addresses assumptions about one’s responsibility for good or bad events. Internals attribute events in their lives to their own actions, motivations, or competencies, whereas externals attribute events to outside forces such as luck, chance, or powerful others.

Misconceptions about Locus of Control

Researchers have expressed concern about the theoretical and measurement issues involved with locus of control, claiming that the concept has been overgener-alized and oversimplified. There is a misconception that internality is invariably associated with positive elements and that externality is associated with negative events. In reality, however, people cannot exercise control over all events or situations—hence, we should try to alter what can be changed but accept what cannot be changed. Therefore, it is more meaningful to distinguish objective work control from people’s beliefs and perceptions about control. Locus of control is a personality variable that concerns whether a person believes he or she can control certain types of events, whereas a control perception concerns whether a person can influence a particular event at a specific time.

In 1982, Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder proposed two categories of control, primary and secondary. Primary control consists of actions that a person takes to change the world or attempts to adapt the world to the person. Secondary control involves changing the self to fit the external environment. This two-process model of perceived control discusses not only the sources of control (i.e., locus of control) but also the direction or motivation of control.

Measurement of Locus of Control

Julian Rotter’s Internal-External Locus of Control Scale, published in 1966, is the most commonly used and cited locus of control instrument. It comprises 23 items. Since the early 1980s, more than 30 locus of control measurement scales have been developed and adapted to different domains or work settings, such as the Work Locus of Control Scale, developed by P. E. Spector in 1988, and the Vocational Locus of Control Scale, developed by Genevieve Fournier and Chantale Jeanrie in 1999. These researchers found that their locus of control scales are better predictors of situation-specific behavior than Rotter’s scale.

The Importance of Locus of Control as a Stress Moderator

The concept of locus of control has been examined in many disciplines, including psychology, education, and medicine. Internal locus of control has been found to moderate stressful life events and may alleviate emotional distress among cancer patients.

In the field of industrial/organizational psychology—specifically, in research on job stress and well-being—Spector used his control model of stress to explain that control helps to filter perceptions of situations and influences whether situations are appraised as threatening. A person who perceives low control is more likely to appraise situations as job stressors. In Spector’s 1986 meta-analysis, he stated that internal locus of control is related to a lower perception of work role stress (role conflict and role ambiguity) and less physical and psychological strain.

The moderating role of locus of control between job stressors and job strains has been well established. For example, work locus of control has been found to be a stress moderator in certain professions in Western and Chinese societies, a finding noted by Oi-ling Siu and colleagues in 1998 and 2002 and by Spector in 1988.

Cross-Cultural Studies of Locus of Control and Perceived Control

Several studies have compared locus of control among country samples. Asians appear to believe that they have less personal control than Americans and those from other Western countries. For example, in 2002, Spector and his colleagues studied work locus of control across 24 nations. They found that Asian samples (e.g., Japan, Hong Kong, China) scored more external on the Work Locus of Control Scale than samples from other regions of the world, including North America and Europe.

In 2004, Spector and his colleagues argued that Asians scored more external on locus of control and appeared to be more passive than Americans because the research was conducted mainly with U.S.-developed constructs and scales, which assess primary control. Spector and his colleagues expanded the notion of control beliefs by developing scales to assess secondary control beliefs and the new con-struct of socioinstrumental control beliefs (i.e., control through interpersonal relationships). They suggested that views of Asians as passive avoiders of control at work may be incorrect, a result of overlooking socioinstrumental control.

Locus of Control and Positive Health Psychology

In the 21st century, locus of control is considered one of the human virtues that promote eustress, a positive psychological response to a stressor. Internals are believed to be more likely to appraise demands as opportunities rather than threats, and they are more likely to select problem-solving forms of coping as a first choice rather than emotion-focused coping mechanisms. As a result, it is uncommon for internals to report immune-system dysfunctions and related illnesses.


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  2. Rothbaum, F., Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1982). Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 5-37.
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  4. Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80(1).
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  7. Spector, P. E. (1986). Perceived control by employees: A meta-analysis of studies concerning autonomy and participation at work. Human Relations, 39, 1005-1016.
  8. Spector, P. E. (1988). Development of the Work Locus of Control Scale. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 61, 335-340.
  9. Spector, P. E., Cooper, Sanchez, et al. (2002). Work locus of control and well-being at work: How generalizable are Western findings? Academy of Management Journal, 45(2), 453-466.
  10. Spector, P. E., Sanchez, J. I., Siu, O. L., Salgado, J., & Ma, J. (2004). Eastern versus Western control beliefs at work: An investigation of secondary control, socioinstrumental control, and work locus of control in China and the U.S. Applied Psychology, 53, 38-60.

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