Locus of Control (A complete guide)

What Is the Locus of Control? 

A locus of control is largely focused on whether or not our actions are dependent upon what we do (internal locus of control) or on circumstances and experiences outside of our control (external locus of control).

This concept has been debated among psychologists for decades, and in this article we’ll go into further detail about what exactly the locus of control is and how it shapes our world, our actions and our lives.

In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter proposed that our behavior was largely controlled by rewards and punishments.

If we did something well, then we would expect to receive a reward. If we did something poorly, there would likely be a consequence for our behavior.

Our own beliefs about what determines the way that we behave highly influence what we do and how we do it.

This model for human behavior is interesting to explore because it looks at how and what exactly can be controlled in our world. 

In 1966, Rotter developed a scale intended to gauge and evaluate external and internal locus of control.

In order for participants to get a score, they were required to answer a series of questions.

Of note, each question had only two options and participants were only allowed to select one answer.

Even though the scale has been used widely in modern psychological practices, the concept of locus of control is also widely criticized.

Some people believe that the locus of control cannot be completely captured by answers to a series of questions or a simple, two sided scale. 

Internal vs. External Locus of Control

There are two types of locus of control: internal and external.

Both are seemingly valid choices, but differ in how they view what controls our behaviors and thoughts.

The internal locus of control can be defined as when an individual accepts that their actions are inherently responsible for everything that happens to them in the universe.

Every action, movement, and thought spoken is entirely in control of the person who is doing those things.

Additionally, someone with an internal locus of control believes that their own actions will limit any consequences or bad outcomes in their lives because everything is supposedly in their own control.

Conversely, someone with an external locus of control believes that everything that happens to them and their behaviors are governed solely by external factors.

These individuals often believe in the ideas of karma, destiny and fate. They often don’t assume responsibility for what happens to them.

A lot of times they will accuse an outside force or person for their disappointment or misfortune in life.

These people feel helpless and powerless to change their own situations

Locus of Control In Practice

The concept of the internal locus of control is often used synonymously with self control and self discipline.

Research has often found that men have higher internal locus of control than women. Yet other studies find that the internal locus of control in human beings becomes more prominent as they get older.

Even though the external and internal locus of control are very different from one another, one locus of control is not superior to another.

These are simply different ways of how we perceive the world around us.

People who have an internal locus of control tend to place themselves in only beneficial situations and will do everything possible to avoid being placed in a negative situation.

For example, there might be certain situations where you could be grateful to have an external locus of control, such as if you were to win the lottery jackpot.

A person who doesn’t do well in sports may feel discouraged and embarrassed to play soccer in front of a large crowd.

If they don’t feel confident in their athletic abilities, it’s highly likely that they’ll avoid playing soccer in front of other people.

This would be one way to practice an internal locus of control.

On the other hand, if someone If someone with an external locus of control focuses on something outside of the fact that they aren’t very athletic while they play, then they’ll likely feel as if they’re under less pressure. 

Assumptions of Locus of Control 

In childhood, several people are led to believe that if they are honest, hardworking and follow through on their projects, then they will likely encounter success in life.

This emphasizes the importance of the internal locus of control and how several outcomes in life are as a result of our actions.

On the other hand, some people might believe that the success or failure of their relationship is entirely dependent on karma and the other unknown workings of the universe.

Your locus of control can have a significant impact on how much you take charge over in your life.

Will you be motivated to go after that dream job?

Will you accept that your terrible breakup was just a sign from the universe that the relationship wasn’t meant to work out?

These viewpoints might seem opposing but that doesn’t mean they don’t play an equally important role in our lives. 

Nonetheless, a study conducted by Lian and Hedge, (1982) Raine, Roger and Venables (1982) show that an internal locus of control is thought to be a more effective approach to behaviors than an external locus of control.

This was most notably observed in young children, who when they were observed as having an external locus of control were also likely to display elements of hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Another study based on results from the US, India and Hong Kong discovered that people who had an external locus of control engaged in self-destructive behaviors, substance misuse and recklessness. 

Do You Have an External or Internal Locus of Control?

Where does your locus of control fall on the spectrum? Review the below lists to see which one best depicts your own outlook:

Outlook 1 

« I frequently feel that I have little control over my life

« People never get what they deserve

« So many things in life can happen that are outside of my control

« Life is full of possibilities

« People have little impact over the larger events that take place in the world

In the event that the above list mirrors your view on life, you most likely have an external locus of control. 

Outlook 2 

« If you set your mind to something, then you can accomplish anything. 

« There is no such thing as destiny or predetermination. 

« If you concentrate hard and are prepared, then you’ll do well on your exams. 

« Karma has little to do with progress. Progress is based on commitment and effectiveness.

« People tend to get what they deserve in life.

If the list above mirrors your outlook on life, you likely have internal locus of control.

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FAQs on the locus of control:

Can I have both types of locus of control?

It is possible to view different situations through the lens of a different locus of control.

By doing so, you likely take things on a case by case basis.

Just because you’re predisposed toward one locus of control does not mean that you’re incapable of viewing certain events through a different locus of control.

What can I control?

When developing an internal locus of control, it’s important to focus on the things that you can control.

This might include how you perform at work or school, how you show up to your relationships with other people and how you show up to volunteer work.

Focusing on what you can control will help you understand what you have the power to change and what is beyond your control. 

Interested in Learning More? Check out these books on the locus of control:

  • Choice or Chance: Understanding Your Locus of Control and Why It Matters
  • Locus of Control, Self-Efficacy and Motivation in Different Schools: Moderation, the Key to Success?


  • Lopez, SJ. The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 2011.
  • Tew, M, Read, M, and Potter, H. Circles, PSHE and Citizenship. London: Paul Chapman Publishing; 2007.

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