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Understand your locus of control and how it shapes and moves you

March 2, 2022 - 17 min read

man-standing-in-forest-locus-of-control

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What is the locus of control, and why is it important?

What are the two types of locus of control?

What are examples of locus of control?

Do you have a more internal or external locus of control?

What do you feel when you’re suddenly faced with a tough challenge or obstacle? What thoughts go through your mind?

Do your thoughts go to how might overcome this challenge to achieve what you want? Or, do you wonder why this is happening to you or feel under attack? Do you feel paralyzed? Or, energized? Choiceless or determined?

Not everyone holds the same beliefs about what influences their actions and the outcomes of those actions. In psychology this concept is called locus of control

Let’s explore what locus of control means, what types of locus of control influence how people see the world, and how you can identify what types of locus of control motivate your own actions.

What is the locus of control, and why is it important? 

The concept of Locus of Control of Reinforcement was developed by Julian B. Rotter. He was an American psychologist who specialized in social learning theory. He first published a paper outlining the locus of control in 1966. 

Since then, several other researchers have done work on the locus of control. For example, Kenneth Wallston explored the locus of control from a health perspective.

The idea of locus of control is simple. It states that behavior is guided by different types of reinforcements. Those reinforcements can be rewards or punishments.

Depending on what reinforcements someone lives through, people learn to believe different things about what causes their actions.

Those beliefs have a huge impact on someone’s behavior. Someone can believe that they don’t have control over their actions and what happens to them. Others can believe that they have full agency over their actions and outcomes. 

It’s easy to imagine how those two fundamentally different beliefs will change how someone views the world, their place in society, and how they act. These two beliefs are the two types of locus of control: internal and external.

what is locus of control

What are the two types of locus of control? 

How do the internal and external locus of control work? Let’s break down what defines these two types of locus of control.

Internal locus of control

Internal locus of control means that control comes from within. You have personal control over your own behavior.

When you have an internal locus of control, you believe you have personal agency over your own life and actions. Because of this, these people tend to have more self-efficacy

If you succeed, you believe it’s because you did the right thing and put in the right amount of effort. If you experience failure, you’ll blame no one but yourself. You’ll believe that you could have changed the outcome if you’d worked harder or made different decisions.

Someone who has a lot of resilience and who also has an internal locus of control is likely to be driven toward success. Studies have shown that, in general, people who have this type of locus of control tend to be better off than those who don’t.

This is likely because people with an internal locus of control take responsibility and accountability for their actions. They have greater expectations for themselves because they don’t believe that luck will help them succeed. As a result, they tend to take control of their work, their personal goals, and anything else that’s important to them.

But what do studies say about the internal locus of control when it comes to gender differences? On this topic, not all researchers came to the same conclusion. Some studies show that the internal locus of control is more common in men than women. But other studies say the opposite.

This means that having an internal drive related to your locus of control likely has nothing to do with your gender. It is more likely that it’s influenced by how a person experienced rewards and punishments as they grew up.

young-man-working-on-phone-locus-of-control

External locus of control

External locus of control means that control stems from external forces. When you have an external locus of control, you believe that events outside of your control drive your actions and the outcomes you get.

If you win a game, you’ll believe that you won because you got lucky. Or, you’ll believe that you won because the other players just weren’t good enough. But if you lose, you’ll believe you ran out of luck. Or, you’ll believe that the other players were just too talented for you to have any chance of winning. 

According to several studies, having an external locus of control as a main driving force correlates with several risks for criminal or problematic behavior. Studies also suggest that those with an external locus of control are less open to engaging in treatment than those with an internal locus of control.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that only people with external control of reinforcement can commit offensive behavior.

What it suggests is that people who believe they are at the whim of external forces don't believe they have the power to control themselves. As a result, they don't try or don't take effective action to change their own behaviors. 

A comparison of internal and external locus of control

Let’s compare the internal and external locus of control side by side and how they influence decision-making:

Internal Locus of Control

External Locus of Control

Believe what they’ve achieved is due to their hard work

Credits luck or timing when they manage to achieve something

Take responsibility for their actions

Put the responsibility on forces outside of their control

Don’t believe in “fate”

Feel that they can’t change a situation because that’s how it’s meant to be

Aren’t usually as influenced by other people’s opinions

Feel hopeless when confronted with a difficult situation

Tend to be driven and motivated to achieve something they want

Believe they’ll achieve what they want if the timing is right or if it’s meant to be

The role of locus of control in everyday life

Let’s explore what a locus of control looks like in work and everyday life.

At first glance, it may seem like an internal locus of control is always more desirable to have. However, an internal locus of control isn’t automatically good. Likewise, an external locus of control isn’t automatically bad.

It all depends on the context.

How a type of locus of control manifests itself will vastly depend on someone’s other personality traits.

For example, someone with a strong internal locus of control may be very direct and to the point. While this can make for clear communication in the workplace, it can also lead to a lack of tact. It can be easy to steamroll over others who are less direct.

Someone with a high internal locus of control may also find it difficult to delegate. Once they delegate, things are no longer under their control. Putting this much importance on control can also lead to burnout. Because they believe everything they want to achieve relies on them, the slope toward overworking can be slippery. This can take a toll on mental health and self-esteem.

On the other hand, there can be several positive aspects to having an external locus of control. For instance, these people may be more sensitive to their surroundings and more perceptive of others on the team, potentially making them better team players

They’re also able to let go of things more easily. They can be happier because of that. Especially when it comes to letting go of external factors that really are beyond their control.

However, that "let go" attitude can be both good and bad. While it may lead to peace for some people, it can lead to apathy in others.

Both an internal and external locus of control can lead to social loafing, but for different reasons. Someone with an internal locus of control may begin to loaf if they don’t care enough about the group’s goal. Someone with an external locus of control may loaf because they believe it will work out anyway and that their contribution doesn’t matter to the outcome.

Even though both types have their individual differences, they can lead to similar outcomes in some cases. The important takeaway is that the types of locus of control aren’t all internal or all external, and not all good or bad.

What are examples of locus of control?

Let’s take a look at what different situations can look like depending on your locus of control.

First, imagine you’re changing careers. Do you have the self-determination to start looking for jobs and maximizing your resume? Or, do you wait for fate to line something up for you?

The former is an example of how an internal locus of control could manifest itself. Instead, the latter represents what someone with an external locus of control might do.

What if, one day, your neighbor got a new luxury car? Do you believe they got lucky and probably got handed all the right opportunities to afford this car? Or do you instead believe they’ve worked hard to finally be able to make that purchase? In this case, the former is an example of an external locus of control.

Finally, let’s imagine you got the promotion you were hoping for. Do you believe you got the promotion because of your hard work? Or do you believe it was luck, timing, or fate that got you there? Again, this latter example showcases an external locus of control.

man-and-woman-working-from-home-locus-of-control

Do you have a more internal or external locus of control?

Not sure what type of locus of control you have? There are some predictors to help you figure it out. Find out what locus of control drives your motivation by checking out these characteristics.

Characteristics of an internal locus of control

Here are some examples of what you may believe if you have an internal locus of control:

  • By working hard and practicing self-control, it’s possible to achieve anything I set out to do. I create my own opportunities. Waiting for luck is futile.
  • No one has a predestined fate. Even if this were the case, it’s always possible to change this fate by making the right choices. In truth, we all make our own destinies. In fact, we can start over in life at any point we choose. 
  • People usually get what they deserve at the end of the day. Our choices and actions determine our happiness. If you work hard and treat others with kindness and respect, you will be more likely to succeed. If you don’t put in the effort and don’t respect people, you’re unlikely to succeed and be happy.
  • With dedication and determination, you can succeed and be great at problem-solving. It has nothing to do with luck or chance. Everything happens because someone acted in a specific way. 
  • The world is the way it is because people are the way they are. If we want to change the world, we need to change our behavior. It’s entirely up to us. We’re in control. 
  • It’s important to set goals and create a personal vision statement so that my short-term actions can influence my long-term outcomes.

Characteristics of an external locus of control

Here are some examples of what you may believe if you have an external locus of control:

  • Life events are all about luck and chance. Some people get lucky, and others don’t. It’s completely random and up to fate.
  • People don’t have a lot of control over what happens in the world. We can all strive to achieve something, but in the end, things will work out the way they were intended to.
  • I have little to no control over my own life. Outside forces are exercising control instead. 
  • Long-term goal setting isn’t worth it since events outside of my control can disrupt them. It’s better to go with the flow and see what happens.
  • What happens to people isn’t related to what they really deserve. Good people who work hard don’t always succeed. Greedy people sometimes get lucky and get it all. I have learned helplessness in the face of these situations.

woman-writing-in-journal-locus-of-control

What if you identify with both types of locus of control?

While some people may strictly identify with a single type of locus of control, most people may identify with a little bit of both. It’s possible to mostly have an internal locus of control while still believing that some things are up to chance. 

The opposite is true as well. Someone with an external locus of control may believe that they have some agency in their lives — even if minimal. 

Understand your own locus of control

When you understand what motivates your actions, it’s easier to create a plan of action to get where you want to go. In addition, research shows that a person's locus of control can affect their experience of stress and overall happiness. And, coaching can actually help shift your locus and improve your sense of agency.

No matter which type of locus of control drives your motivation, you can accelerate your personal growth with BetterUp. Learn more to see how you can improve your well-being and performance.

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Published March 2, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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