To begin understanding the locus of control, you must ask yourself one question: Are you in control of your life, or is life controlling you? That’s a good question, but one seldom asked by many of us in our day-to-day lives. However, as you will read further, the way we perceive the level of control we have in our lives permeates all aspects of our existence and directly impacts how we act, behave, and approach challenges. To understand this concept, we have to take a short trip back in time to 1916.
Locus of Control Beginnings
In October of that year, Julian B. Rotter was born in Brooklyn, New York, the third son of Jewish immigrants. Living his childhood through the Great Depression and his adolescence through the ripple effects of that economic downturn forced Rotter to become deeply aware of two things: The social injustice prevalent during that period and the way that environment affects people and their behavior. In 1941, on the cusp of World War II, Rotter graduated from Indiana University, one of the few that offered a clinical psychology Ph.D. program at that time.
Rotter became passionate about social psychology, a sociology branch that studies the relationship between people’s personalities and values and their social environment and structure. Rotter studied these concepts and developed his own ideas about them, expanding them significantly. While Rotter’s thoughts were just beginning to take shape, the dominant theory for determining people’s behavior was Freud’s psychoanalysis, which emphasized people’s unconscious mind and how deeply-rooted fixations drive our behavior.
In 1954, Rotter published a book titled Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. One concept in his book, which would become one of the most studied concepts in psychology, was the Locus of Control.
The word ‘locus’ comes from Latin, and it means place or location. So, the locus of control can be translated as the place of control. Although it might sound like we are talking about where objective control lies in one’s life, it refers to the individual’s own belief about the causes of their life’s experiences.
In other words, as we go through life, some events are objectively external. They happen to us, and we are just a spectator. On the other hand, some events are driven 100% by our actions, decisions, and attitudes, which are influenced by our values and beliefs. If you take each one of these individually and dissect it, analyze it, and reflect upon it, you will be able to clearly assess who drove the action.
But when you look at your life as a whole, all these events mingle over time into one whole-life experience. Taking a step back and reflecting upon your experience results in a narrower view. Over time, in our minds, the way we attribute our successes or failures becomes a combination of those events and the primary way we believe they have happened. We can no longer distinguish the parts, but we accept the whole. Has life just happened to us, or have we created it ourselves? Does the dissection of each event matter anymore, or has it become a part of our self-belief?
Therefore, the locus of control is how we believe we have had control over the events in our lives. And our belief about the control we have had in the past translates directly to our belief about whether we have control in the present and the future. So, this way of thinking becomes a belief system based on whether we have the ability to control our own lives.
Locus of Control Overview
Let’s take a simplistic example: Let’s say you walk out the door in your neat, perfect suit headed to work. As you walk down the sidewalk, full of joy, a car dashes through a puddle and drenches you in muddy water from head to toe. You curse, of course, but go on with your life. Was that bad luck? Was the driver just an evil man? Could you have done something differently, like paying attention to the street to avoid this accident? Those are the questions to ask.
Now, let’s exaggerate and assume that this scenario happens to you once a week. It’s no longer an isolated event but is now a pattern. Is it a pattern of bad luck following you around, or is it a pattern caused by your constant inattention? You can see how the mind can take you to either side of that continuum.
On the one side, where you assume that all these events are bad luck brought upon you by some maleficent entity, we have what is called an external locus of control. In this situation, you strongly believe that what happens to you and what you experience results from external factors outside of your control.
However, if you assume that you are simply careless by taking the same puddle-filled route every day, when you could, in fact, take a different street and watch for traffic, too, you believe that your decisions and actions have a strong effect on those results. Then we say that you have an internal locus of control.
One critical thing to remember is that objective control is different from the locus of control. There are things in all our lives that are outside of our control completely. However, the way we perceive our ability to control our lives overall defines our locus of control.
As the locus of control became a focal point of psychologists’ studies, Julien Rotter published a research paper in 1966, where he defined a method to assess people’s locus of control. Because this concept is not binary but a scale, he created a test that allows anyone to answer several questions to determine where they stand on the locus of control continuum. Believe it or not, fifty-some years later, this test is still widely used. If you want to assess your own locus of control, visit the official page here: http://www.psych.uncc.edu/pagoolka/LocusofControl-intro.html.
Understanding the Locus of Control
Now, let’s dig deeper into what internal and external locus of control are and how understanding them can help you shift your mindset.
In 1985, psychologist Philip Zimbardo wrote that “a locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).”
The idea here is that not only do we act and behave depending on our place on the locus of control scale, but our motivations are driven by it, too. Imagine that you strongly believed that no matter how much work you put into a project, the people who assess it will almost always reject it because of how they are. In this case, how motivated would you be to put a lot of work into it?
On the other hand, if you strongly believed that it’s up to you to convince your leadership that your project is great, how much more effort would you put into it then?
Internal Locus of Control
People who lean heavily toward the internal locus of control are what we call self-motivated or self-driven people. Because they have this deeply-rooted belief that their own actions determine their destiny, they act accordingly. Probably the best effect of having an internal locus of control, though, is felt when dealing with setbacks or challenges.
People who feel that they are in control of their lives will look at setbacks and challenges resulting from their own behavior, action, or knowledge in general. Having that mentality allows people to shake off the pain of failure and move on, thinking of new ways to affect the results. They will look at the outcome and work their way back to their own processes and awareness because they know that the result is, at least to some extent, derived directly from their actions.
One drawback of having a strong internal locus of control is that people will tend to blame themselves for everything, even when it is objectively not their fault. More often than not, they will suffer from perfectionism. By doing so, they might fail to observe either failure or bad behavior in others and let them slide, thinking that everything lies directly on their shoulders. Also, people in this category might push themselves too hard in some parts of their life, sometimes to the detriment of the other parts.
For example, a person with a strong internal locus of control, who genuinely lacks competence or skill in a certain area, could become anxious or neurotic when their own actions produce bad results. However, being self-driven, they can often overcome this by learning, so long as they develop the right awareness to understand and pinpoint the weakness.
As the study of the locus of control became more popular, various tests concluded that:
- Generally speaking, males lean more toward an internal locus of control than do women.
- As people get older, their locus of control naturally shifts more toward the internal.
- People who reach leadership roles in any capacity tend to be more internal.
External Locus of Control
People who lean heavily toward the external locus of control often live in a permanent state of mind called a victim mentality. Because they do not think that their own actions and decisions directly affect their outcomes—in other words, they do not have control of their lives—the victim mentality takes deep root in their frame of mind, and it defines them. People in this category believe that what happens in their lives is the result of fate or luck or other people’s actions, which they cannot influence. It’s the “nothing in life goes my way” mindset.
Of course, the corollary of this mindset is that people with an external locus of control don’t believe that they can change or affect their lives through their own efforts. As a result of this, they often don’t set goals or take steps toward improving their skills, because deep down, they don’t feel that it matters. They tend to feel hopeless and crumble under the pressure of difficulties, and also experience what is known as learned helplessness. This means that after a while, people will simply give up on making any changes and accept everything as being nothing but fate.
You will see people with an external locus of control doing the same thing, in the same way, all the time, yet expecting different outcomes. This is the result of the deeply-rooted mindset that everything is up to luck, and no change on their part will have an effect on the outcome. Sometimes results vary accidentally, and in those times, externals tend to tap into their confirmation bias. Basically, they use that one isolated event as the sole proof that things can change without themselves changing.
On the other hand, externals do tend to live a more easy-going and relaxed life. Unlike internals who constantly feel that every step of the way is 100% on their shoulders, externals can take a step back and allow life to take them along, one way or another. Put into the right circumstances, externals can live a life free of self-blame and appear aloof to those around them.
Here is a simple matrix that summarizes the differences between these two concepts.
Internal Locus of Control
External Locus of Control
Control is attributed to
Luck / Chance / Fate
No control is attributed to
Conclusion – Locus of Control
The locus of control is one of those things that you don’t really feel or understand right out of the box. It’s only with deep awareness and self-reflection that you can discover your propensity for one side or the other and figure out how it has affected your life.
As I said at the start, nobody is fully internal or external. We all lean one way or the other. Also, don’t associate internal with good and external with bad necessarily. Yes, people with an internal locus of control indeed tend to accomplish more in life, but that is not the only thing that should drive you.
However, I will say that the victim mentality, which is present when people have an external locus of control, is something you need to quash as soon as possible if you feel its presence in your life. The trick here is that you need to develop a sense of awareness and the skill to self-reflect to see it. People with a victim mentality, much like drug addicts, don’t believe that there’s a problem. Because they are victims, they constantly look and point outwards, so true self-reflection is very hard.
I suggest taking the Rotter test and see where you score on the locus of control scale. If you lean toward the external, take some time to yourself and look back upon your life. Reflect and try to dissect your mind. Go deep. Ask people who know you well. Once you accept and become able to see that kind of mindset, you can start shifting it. By practicing squashing that victim mentality, you step farther away from the external locus of control and begin to believe that you can control your own life. The latter is the key to motivating yourself, setting goals, and taking action toward their achievement.
It’s a long road, but it’s not impossible.
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Are you leaning more toward an internal locus of control or external?
- Can you think of some situations in which your locus of control has manifested?
- What are you doing practically to improve the way you view control in your life?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!