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Locus of control was the brainchild of psychologist Julian Rotter, who based his concept on the social learning theory idea that the generalized expectancies of people govern their actions. Rotter assumed that people vary in the degree to which they perceive the things that are happening to them as being under their own internal control or under the control of outside forces. Using this latter locus of control dimension, at one end of the continuum are the internal individuals who see themselves as being “captains of their own ships,” whereas at the other end of the continuum are the external persons who see themselves as being ruled by powerful people or outside forces. In more technical psychological terms, the internal loci of control people believe that through their own behaviors, they have command over the reinforcements in their lives; conversely the external loci of control people see the reinforcements in their lives as being driven by causal sources that are independent of their own actions.
History of Concept
Since the publication of the 1962 article “Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement: A Major Variable in Behavior Therapy” by Julian Rotter, Melvin Seeman, and Shephard Liverant, there have been more published papers on this construct than perhaps any other new idea in all of psychology. At the start of the twenty-first century there were literally thousands of studies that focused on locus of control. This surge of interest regarding locus of control probably stemmed from the fact that it represented a logical step as the field of psychology moved beyond the previous strict tenets of stimulus-response behaviorism. On this point Rotter believed that to understand the actions of higher order organisms such as human beings, people’s expectancies about their behaviors being reinforced needed to be taken into account. Thus he reasoned that people use their personal experiences to develop expectations as to whether they can or will be rewarded for their actions. Beyond the inherent appeal of these underlying social learning and generalized expectancies ideas, another reason for the explosion of interest probably was the fact that Rotter produced a short and valid self-report instrument for measuring locus of control. That is to say part of this tremendous growth reflected the availability of a valid instrument for use by researchers.
In 1966 Rotter published what has come to be called the Rotter IE Control Scale. It contained twenty-three items (plus six fillers), each with a paired option. For each item the respondent is asked to select which of two options is most true of him or her. Thus consider item #2 on the Rotter IE Control Scale, where the respondent is asked to select from the following two choices: option A, “Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck,” or option B, “People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes that they make.” In this item #2 option A represents a response indicating an external locus of control, whereas option B represents an internal locus of control. The more of the external items that the person selects as being most applicable to him or her, the more external is that person’s overall score.
The IE scale has been shown to be reliable and valid. Likewise factor analyses have revealed that the items fall into two clusters, with one factor pertaining to a sense of mastery and a second factor tapping the degree to which citizens perceive that they can play significant roles in political institutions.
Along with Rotter’s IE scale, the following other adult indices related to locus of control have been introduced and validated: (1) the Nowicki-Duke Locus of Control Scale; (2) the Crandall, Katkovsky, and Crandall Intellectual Achievement Responsibility Questionnaire; and (3) the Wallston and Wallston Health Locus of Control Scale. Additionally indices such as the NowickiStrickland Locus of Control Scale for Children have been developed for use with children of various ages.
From the outset Rotter suggested that an external locus of control was implicated in neurotic maladjustment. In support of this general proposition persons with external as compared to internal loci of control have been shown to be more unhappy, depressed, and suicidal. Likewise those clients who do not improve over the temporal course of psychotherapy have loci of control scores that remain external, whereas those psychotherapy clients who improve over treatment have scores that have become more internal. Turning to achievement-related performances in school, external loci of control people repeatedly have done more poorly than internal loci learners. Furthermore studies consistently have shown that external more than internal loci of control people have disadvantages in physical health-related matters. Specifically compared to internals, the external loci of control persons have worse sleeping, exercise, and eating patterns, and they also are more prone to hypertension.
The counterproductive outcomes produced by external as compared to internal loci of control persons may relate to many externals’ lack of belief in hard work, along with their unwillingness to expend high efforts. Also because externals believe that their lives are ruled by chance factors and/or powerful forces residing outside of themselves, they are quite passive and do not take protective measures when it comes to health matters (e.g., wearing seatbelts or sunscreen). They also tend not to be planful and future oriented because they do not see themselves as being capable of effective proactive behaviors. As such instead of taking a task-oriented “I can do something” approach to anticipate any stressors that they may encounter, external loci of control people are rather fatalistic about their coping skills in particular and their lives more generally. Moreover the externals relative to internals are not attentive to their surrounding environments, and they are not very knowledgeable about health-related matters. Accordingly the externals probably could not act in healthy ways even if they wanted to do so. Not surprisingly, therefore, externals greatly prefer avoidance behaviors rather than the problem-solving tactics used by internal loci of control people.
Critique of Locus of Control Theory
In spite of its huge influence in the field of psychology, the locus of control concept has been criticized. In one noteworthy critique, the 1995 publication Judgments of Responsibility: A Foundation for a Theory of Social Conduct by Bernard Weiner, the author reasoned that the concept of “locus of control” was misleading and, in fact, that locus and control should be considered as two distinct dimensions involving causality—locus (internal versus external) and control (controllable versus uncontrollable). On this point Weiner held that a person could have an internal locus, and yet believe that she or he either was or was not in control; similarly people could hold external loci, and yet believe that they either were or were not in control. Thus, for example, efforts and ability are both internal in their loci, but effort is controllable and ability is uncontrollable. Weiner’s important point, therefore, is that there actually are two independent dimensions of causality, and that the Rotter theory may be incorrect in assuming that an internal locus always means that the person also is in control, and that an external locus always means that the person is not in control.
Locus of control may have been the most prominent new construct to appear in the interface of social, clinical, personality, and health psychology in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Loci of control scale scores have produced many robust correlations with outcome markers pertaining to psychological disorders, psychotherapy, school achievements, and physical health. Perhaps most importantly the locus of control concept solidified the importance of human expectancies in governing how people cope. As such locus of control facilitated the transition of psychology from an earlier emphasis on stimulus-response behaviorism to the twenty-first-century emphasis on cognitive and mental factors. Moreover locus of control has contributed to other theories such as learned helplessness, attributional biases, self-efficacy, hope, and optimism.
- Lefcourt, Herbert , and Karina Davidson-Katz. 1991. Locus of Control and Health. In Handbook of Social and Clinical Psychology: The Health Perspective, eds. C. R. Snyder and Donelson R. Forsyth, 246–266. New York: Pergamon Press.
- Rotter, Julian 1954. Social Learning and Clinical Psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
- Rotter, Julian 1966. Generalized Expectancies for Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement. Psychological Monographs 80 (Whole No. 609).
- Rotter, Julian , June E. Chance, and E. Jerry Phares. 1972. Applications of a Social Learning Theory of Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Rotter, J B., Melvin Seeman, and Shephard Liverant. 1962. Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement: A Major Variable in Behavior Therapy. In Decisions, Values and Groups, Vol. 2, ed. Norman F. Washburne, 473–516. New York: Pergamon Press.
- Weiner, Bernar 1995. Judgments of Responsibility: A Foundation for a Theory of Social Conduct. New York: Guilford Press.
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