Locus of Control

Locus of Control Definition

Who determines one’s fate? Is it the person or outside forces beyond the person’s control? This question lies at the root of the concept of locus of control. People who believe they are in control of their destinies have an internal locus of control (internals). Those who believe that luck and powerful others determine their fate have an external locus of control (externals).

Locus of Control Measurements

Locus of ControlLocus of control is usually measured by questionnaires, just as personality traits are; however, locus of control is more an attitude than a trait—it measures how one thinks the world works. Some researchers have called locus of control a generalized expectancy— in other words, a person’s usual expectation about how things work.

One of the first locus of control measures was Julian Rotter’s Internal-External Locus of Control Scale, first published in 1966 and used in thousands of articles. Rotter’s measure consists of 23 forced-choice pairs; the respondent must choose one of the two statements, one internally oriented and the other externally oriented. For example, one of the pairs is “People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make” (internal) versus “Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck” (external). Most items are general, though a few deal with specific circumstances such as school (“In the case of the well-prepared student there is rarely if ever such a thing as an unfair test”) or world affairs (“By taking an active part in political and social affairs, the people can control world events”). These are both internal items.

The most popular measure of locus of control in children is the Children’s Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External Control Scale. Other scales measure more specialized aspects of control; there has been an especially large amount of research on health locus of control. Several scales (of both general and health locus of control) are multidimensional, as many researchers agree that external control should be divided into control by fate or chance and control by powerful others.

Research on Locus of Control

Research has consistently shown that externality is related to negative outcomes. Externals report lower subjective well-being, are more likely to be depressed, display more anxiety, and cope poorly with stress. Externals have weakened self-control and a lessened ability to delay gratification (meaning that they have a difficult time choosing long-term gains over short-term pleasures, something necessary for many life situations, particularly college!)

Externals also consistently achieve less in school, as shown in two meta-analyses and numerous individual studies. A widely publicized report by James Coleman and his colleagues concluded that internal locus of control was a better predictor of school achievement in minority children than any other variable. Children with an internal locus of control see more reason to study and try hard because they believe it will make a difference; externals believe that it won’t matter, compromising their performance.

Several studies have also linked externality to increased juvenile delinquency. Externality may also lead to a victim mentality, in which people blame others for their problems. Some authors have argued that the victim mentality encourages self-loathing and the expectation of low functioning and achievement.

Externality on health locus of control also leads to negative outcomes such as decreased success in stopping smoking or losing weight. People who are external in locus of control are also less likely to make and keep dentist and doctor appointments; they are also less likely to use birth control consistently. People who truly believe that fate controls everything are less likely to take control of their health.

Locus of Control Differences

Locus of control differs along many dimensions. Men tend to be more internal than women, Whites more internal than minorities, middle-class people more internal than lower-class people, and older people more internal than younger people. These four results suggest that people with more power are more internal.

Locus of control also differs by generation: More recent generations are more external and thus more likely to believe that outside forces determine their fates. This generational shift is so large that the average college student in the 2000s would score at the 80th percentile on the original 1960 distribution (where, of course, the average 1960s college student would score at the 50th percentile). This increase in externality may be at the root of some current trends, such as blaming others for problems. For example, civil lawsuits are more common, and there is anecdotal evidence that students (and their parents) are now more likely to argue with teachers and professors. Externality may also help explain the high rates of anxiety and depression observed in recent years. Many young people are also disinclined to get involved in political action or even vote; voter participation has steadily declined over this period, especially for voters ages 18 to 24.

There are also cultural differences in locus of control. Members of more interdependent and traditional cultures often have a more external locus of control. Stricter adherence to social and religious rules may encourage externality. There has been debate about whether externality may be adaptive in some cases. Many researchers believe that externality is a negative characteristic because it is correlated with poor outcomes. However, other researchers have pointed out that in reality, control is sometimes an illusion and there are some things that people must accept as being out of their control.


  1. Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement [Whole issue]. Psychological Monographs, 80(1), 1-28.
  2. Rotter, J. B. (1971). External control and internal control. Psychology Today, 5, 37-59.
  3. Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., & Im, C. (2004). It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 308, 319.