Internal and External Locus of Control

Locus of Control

Locus of control refers to the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces having that control. Introduced by psychologist Julian Rotter in 1954, this concept has become a fundamental aspect of personality psychology. Rotter’s theory suggests that the way individuals perceive the source of control can significantly influence their behavior and psychological state.

Locus of control has sparked much research in a wide range of fields of psychology. Educational psychology, health psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, and clinical psychology all use this construct.

The question of whether domain-specific or more universal measurements of locus of control will be more effective in practice remains open. Locus of control – a personality characteristic associated with generalized expectations about the future – should also be distinguished from attributional style –  a notion concerned with explanations for previous results –  as well as from ideas such as self-efficacy.

Internal vs. External Locus of Control

Individuals with an internal locus of control believe they are responsible for the outcomes of their actions. They view their success or failure as a result of their own efforts and abilities. These individuals tend to be more self-motivated and feel empowered to affect change in their lives.

People with an external locus of control attribute their successes or failures to external factors beyond their control, such as luck, fate, or the influence of others. They may believe that their efforts have little impact on the results they achieve, which can affect their motivation levels and overall psychological empowerment.

Locus internality and externality are not dichotomies, but rather opposite ends of a continuum, according to Rotter.  He argued that internals had two fundamental characteristics: high accomplishment motivation and low outward-directedness.

This served as the foundation for Rotter’s locus-of-control scale, which he proposed in 1966, however, Rotter believed that locus of control was a single construct. Since the 1970, Rotter’s notion of unidimensionality has been disputed.

Hanna Levenson, for example, stated that distinct aspects of locus of control (such as views that events in one’s life are self-determined, structured by strong others, or chance-based) must be separated. Bernard Weiner’s early work in the 1970s proposed that, in addition to the internality-externality dimension, distinctions should be made between those who attribute to stable and unstable causes.

People with both sorts of locus of control are commonly referred to as bi-locals. People with bi-local traits are known to cope with stress and diseases more effectively because they have both an internal and external locus of control.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical underpinnings of locus of control can be traced back to two key psychological frameworks that focus on how individuals perceive their ability to control their environment and their behavior. These theories, originated by Julian B. Rotter and Albert Bandura, emphasize the role of learning and perceived self-efficacy in shaping an individual’s control beliefs.

Julian Rotter’s Social Learning Theory

Julian B. Rotter introduced the concept of locus of control as part of his social learning theory in the 1950s. Rotter proposed that individuals develop beliefs about whether the outcomes of their actions are contingent on what they do (internal locus) or on events outside their personal control (external locus).

These beliefs are formed through experiences with reinforcement and the perceived consequences of one’s actions. External reinforcements and internal personal factors, such as beliefs and expectations, interact to influence behavior. This premise laid the foundation for understanding how individuals attribute control to themselves or the environment in any given situation.

Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy

Albert Bandura expanded upon the principles of social learning theory by introducing the concept of self-efficacy in the late 1970s. Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their own capability to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.

According to Bandura, self-efficacy affects every area of human endeavor, by determining the beliefs a person holds regarding their power to affect situations, thus it significantly contributes to the level of effort individuals will expend and their perseverance in the face of obstacles. Bandura’s work demonstrates how a strong belief in one’s self-efficacy contributes to higher levels of motivation and achievement in various contexts.

Both frameworks are significant in studying the aspects of personality that influence an individual’s interpretation of their capabilities and control over the environment, impacting various life domains such as career path, academic success, and personal well-being.

Assessment and Measurement

A variety of scales and questionnaires have been developed to measure locus of control. One of the most widely used instruments is Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale, a 23-item (plus six filler items), forced-choice scale.

Since Rotter’s scale, there have been numerous locus of control measures developed. Adrian Furnham and Howard Steele reviewed these in a 1993 paper, which included those connected to health psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, and those specifically designed for children. Furnham and Steele offer data that indicate that the Duttweiler scale is the most accurate and valid questionnaire for adults.

Patrica Duttweiler’s Internal Control Index (ICI) tackles perceived issues with the Rotter scales, such as their forced-choice structure, vulnerability to social desirability, and heterogeneity (as determined by factor analysis). She also observes that, while other scales existed in 1984 to evaluate locus of control, “they appear to be subject to many of the same problems”.

Unlike Rotter’s forced-choice style, Duttweiler’s 28-item ICI employs a Likert-type scale in which respondents must indicate whether they would rarely, occasionally, sometimes, frequently, or generally behave as indicated in each of 28 items.

The ICI evaluates variables related to the internal locus, including cognitive processing, autonomy, resistance to social influence, self-confidence, and delay of gratification. A short (133 student-subject) validation study found that the scale had strong internal consistency reliability (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.85).

Locus of Control in Various Life Domains

Students with high internal locus of control are more likely to believe that their achievements are the result of their own efforts and abilities. Research has shown that such students often display a higher level of motivation and are more proactive in seeking out educational opportunities.

Conversely, those with an external locus of control may attribute their academic successes or failures to outside forces, such as luck or bias from teachers, which can affect their motivation and engagement.

When it comes to employment and the pursuit of career goals, individuals with a stronger internal locus of control typically have a more significant belief in their ability to impact their career trajectory. They take steps to improve their job satisfaction and achieve their professional objectives.

In contrast, those with an external locus of control may feel that their career paths are primarily influenced by external circumstances or powerful others, which can affect their job satisfaction, stress levels, and overall career development.

Locus of control also plays a significant role in health psychology and an individual’s well-being. People with an internal locus of control tend to engage more in health-promoting behaviors, believe they can influence their health, and are proactive in managing their well-being.

On the other hand, individuals with an external locus of control might view their health as being predominantly controlled by external factors, and therefore, may be less likely to take preventative health measures or adhere to treatment regimens.

Some of the scales reviewed by Furnham and Steele are related to health in more specific domains, such as obesity (for example, Eleanor Saltzer’s Weight Locus of Control Scale or Stotland and Zuroff’s Dieting Beliefs Scale), and mental health (Wood and Letak’s Mental Health Locus of Control Scale or the Depression Locus of Control Scale of Whiteman, Desmond, and Price, 1987). Furnham and Steele address the concept’s applications to health psychology, citing Claire Bradley’s work on the relationship between locus of control and diabetes management.

Cross-cultural and Gender-based Differences

There have been no substantial gender disparities found in locus of control among adults in the United States. However, Schultz and Schultz point out that there may be sex-based variations for certain categories of items used to test locus of control; for example, they present evidence that men may have a stronger internal locus for academic performance questions.

Jiro Takaki and colleagues conducted a study in 2006 that looked at sex or gender differences in hemodialysis patients’ internal locus of control and self-efficacy, as well as compliance. This study found that women with a high internal locus of control were less adherent with their health and medical advice than men who participated in the study.

Compliance is defined as the extent to which a person’s behavior, in this case the patient’s, corresponds to medical recommendations. For example, a compliant person will correctly follow his or her doctor’s recommendations.

Japanese individuals are more external in their locus of control orientation than persons in the United States; nevertheless, differences in locus of control between different countries within Europe (and between the United States and Europe) are generally minor. As J.W. Berry et al. pointed out in 1992, ethnic groupings in the United States have been compared in terms of locus of control; African Americans in the United States are more external than whites when socioeconomic position is considered.

Berry et al. also noted that research on other ethnic minorities in the United States, such as Hispanics, has been unclear. According to studies in this field, locus of control has shown to be an important concept for cross-cultural psychologists.

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