The term locus of control originated in the social learning approach to behavior change in the early 1960s, and the first publication that explicitly examined this topic appeared in 1962. As originally proposed by Julian Rotter, a clinical and social psychologist, locus of control (LOC) refers to a dispositional tendency to perceive events and outcomes in one’s life as being under one’s own control or as being controlled by sources over which the person has little or no control, such as luck, fate, or other people. Initially, Rotter conceived LOC as being either internal or external. That is, the individuals feel either that they can control events and outcomes in their lives or that they have little control over these occurrences, which are determined more by external circumstances. In the mid-1970s, a further differentiation of external control was proposed by Hanna Levenson, between external control due to luck or fate (e.g., the individual has secured a good job simply because he or she was in the right place at the right time) and external control due to powerful other people (e.g., the job was obtained because the individual was acquainted with important people in the organization). Nevertheless, the primary distinction is still between a generalized tendency to view outcomes as being contingent on one’s own efforts and abilities (internal LOC) versus factors outside one’s control (external LOC).
Functions of Locus of Control
Locus of control has been implicated as playing an important role in a variety of areas in people’s lives, including their health, general well-being and happiness, satisfaction with their jobs and lives overall, and (to some extent) their careers and vocational aspirations and choices. For instance, research has illustrated that people with higher internal-control beliefs tend to take more behavioral control over their health (e.g., engaging in “healthy” lifestyle behaviors), which, in turn, can lead to better health outcomes. In contrast, those with higher external-control beliefs may feel that their efforts to remain fit and healthy are somewhat futile, as their health status is more determined by luck or fate; hence, they may not persist in health-related behaviors, such as diet and exercise. Similarly, as will be discussed later, high internal control has been associated with more effort to succeed educationally and with greater career aspirations, ultimately resulting in the achievement of higher-level occupations that are more satisfying and fulfilling.
One of the reasons believing that one has a high degree of personal control over life’s events is beneficial is that it is related to high levels of optimism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. In fact, some researchers have commented that there is sometimes little distinction between high internal control and self-efficacy, which is defined as a belief in one’s abilities to master the environment. Nevertheless, internal control does differ from self-efficacy in that a person with high internal control may not necessarily feel mastery and in some situations may attribute failure to achieve a goal (e.g., being successful in a career) to personal limitations or lack of effort, whereas a high-external-control individual in the same situation may blame other people or just bad luck. Overall, however, research has illustrated that people who are high on internal control often exhibit higher motivation and hence performance (e.g., on the job) and that internal control is frequently associated with overall better adaptation. High-internal-control individuals are more likely to change their behavior and seem to be more adaptive. Similarly, internal control has been linked with greater persistence, which can enable the individual to persevere in the face of adversity.
Measurement of Locus of Control
Several questionnaire measures of locus of control have been developed and tested in research. Rotter’s Internal-External (I-E) Scale asks respondents to read two statements at a time and choose the one with which they agree more. In each case, one statement expresses internal control, while the other reflects external control over an event or situation. As mentioned above, however, other researchers have reasoned that external-control beliefs may be based on control by other people in one’s environment or luck/fate; hence, other measures have distinguished between these forms of external control. Research comparing various measures of LOC has, unfortunately, found that they do not always converge, and some investigators have concluded that measurement of LOC may sometimes be confounded with two other factors: (1) the desire for control and (2) a perceived ability to exert control (competence or mastery). These problems have constrained understanding of how locus of control independently relates to variables such as motivation and performance (e.g., in a work context).
Locus of Control and Careers
Despite its intuitive appeal and the wealth of research that has been conducted on LOC generally, its application to vocational choice and development has been relatively sparse. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that LOC can influence individuals’ career choices and, to some extent, their career progression. As noted above, individuals with high-internal-control beliefs are likely to believe that their careers are in their own hands and that occupational success will be founded on their own efforts and capabilities. Such individuals tend to pursue higher levels of education, which leads to the acquisition of more challenging, complex (and highly paid) occupations. Furthermore, if work conditions or the job itself are not satisfying, high-internal-control workers are more likely to leave their jobs or organizations, whereas high-external-control individuals seem to be less likely to search out better alternatives when they are dissatisfied with their current positions. There is insufficient research evidence at this point to conclude whether or not individuals who are high on internal control are actually better performers on the job than those who score high on external control, although this might be anticipated if, as mentioned above, there is a positive relationship between internal control and self-efficacy or mastery.
To conclude, the concept of locus of control has attracted the attention of researchers and practitioners for over 40 years, and its relevance to a broad array of life domains has been explored. Despite concerns over its measurement, researchers continue to investigate the role of LOC in areas such as health and well-being, educational performance, and career choice and success. Additional research needs to be conducted to fully elucidate the conditions under which high internal (personal) control leads to more adaptive functioning and whether there are any circumstances under which a belief in external control may be more functional.
- Brehm, S. S. and Brehm, J. W. 1981. Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Lefcourt, H. M. 1992. “Durability and Impact of the Locus of Control Construct.” Psychological Bulletin 112:411-414.
- Luzzo, D. A., Funk, D. P. and Strang, J. 1996. “Attributional Retraining Increases Career Decision-making Efficacy.” Career Development Quarterly 44:378-386.
- Rotter, J. B. 1966. “Generalized Expectancies for Internal vs. External Control of Reinforcement.” Psychological Monographs 80:1-28. Spector, P. E. 1988. “Development of a Work Locus of Control Scale.” Journal of Occupational Psychology 61:335-340.