What is the locus of control?

What is the locus of control?

The locus of control is a widely used topic in psychology, and affects an individual’s viewpoint and the way he or she interacts with the environment. Rotter, in 1966, proposed the “locus of control” as a personality trait in his Social Learning Theory .

“If the person perceives the event to be contingent on his behavior or his own relatively permanent characteristics, it has been said that it is a belief in internal control”; in contrast, “when a reinforcement is perceived as following some personal action, but not being entirely contingent on it, it is typically perceived, in our culture, as the result of luck, and in this sense it has been said that it is a belief in external control”.

Rotter, 1966

What is the locus of control?

According to Rotter’s Social Learning Theory, previous to Albert Bandura, human behavior takes place with a continuous interaction between cognitive, behavioral and environmental determinants . Therefore, the perception of control or non-control that a person has over the events that occur around him, are important for the course of his own life.

The control locus is a relatively stable personality variable that represents the attribution that a person makes about whether or not the effort he or she makes is contingent on his or her behaviour . There are two extremes of the continuum: internal control locus and external control locus .


The locus of internal control occurs when an individual perceives that the particular reinforcing event is contingent on his or her own behavior. That is, the person perceives that what has happened externally is thanks to his behavior and has control over the external consequences. For example, a person with a locus of internal control attributes his happiness to himself. If he wants to be happy, he can work on it.

The locus of external control occurs when the individual perceives that an external event has occurred independently of his behavior. Therefore, the individual associates the event that has occurred to chance, luck or destiny. For example, a person with a locus of external control attributes his happiness to another person or to the situation.

Locus of control and personal development

This concept is important, because if a person thinks that what happens around him does not depend on him, he may not act to change it . For example, if a person thinks that he has no control over the choice of the political party that will govern in his country, he may not do anything to change it, not even exercise his right to vote. On the other hand, if a person thinks that his vote will be important for the election of a new government, he may be motivated to change the political landscape and may even go out and demonstrate.

The feeling of not being able to control an event often generates a state of paralysis that disables people from achieving their goals.

The internal control locus is also an important aspect for personal development, since a person with an internal control locus believes in his or her possibilities in the face of what is happening externally and knows that by doing his or her best he or she will go far.

Learned helplessness: locus of external control

In our article “Learned helplessness: delving into the psychology of the victim” we explain the phenomenon of learned helplessness . According to CΓ©sar Ojeda, learned helplessness “refers to the condition in which a person or animal is inhibited in front of aversive or painful situations when the actions to avoid them have not been fruitful, ending up by developing passivity before them”.

Therefore, the learned helplessness could be a consequence of the individual having learned to behave passively , perceiving that he or she cannot do anything to change a negative situation despite the fact that there are real possibilities for change. The direct consequence of this attribution is the loss of coping response.

Learned helplessness is a concept widely used in clinical psychology, as it is closely associated with depressive states. There are several studies that accept this hypothesis, for example, this study from the Catholic University of Chile that shows that patients with depression and anxiety score lower on the Rotter Locus Control Scale. That is, those prone to depression and anxiety tend towards the external control locus.

Resistant personality: locus of internal control

According to psychologist Bertrand Regader, “a resilient person is one who, despite suffering problems and even disorders that could destabilize, is able to maintain strength, resist and come out of it. This kind of person is not immune to the events of life we all live, such as the death of a loved one, a break-up, a bad work situation… but they differ from others in that they are able to stoically accept these setbacks in life and draw strength from their weakness to move forward”.

A psychologist from the University of Chicago, Suzanne C. Kobasa, conducted several studies on the resilient personality . According to her findings, people with this type of personality have several characteristics. They tend to be highly committed people, locus of internal control and oriented to challenge and with a greater openness to change.

Internal control locus and external control locus at work

The locus of control can also affect work performance . It is important to understand that the control locus is a continuum, no one is 100% external or internal control locus. Below are some characteristics of the internal and external control locus.

Individuals with internal control locus :

  • Are likely to take responsibility for their actions
  • Are less influenced by the opinions of others
  • They tend to perform better when they can work at their own pace
  • Have a high sense of self-efficacy or self-confidence
  • They feel confident in the face of challenges
  • They are usually healthier
  • They are usually happier and more independent
  • They tend to be more successful in the workplace

Individuals with external control locus :

  • Attribute to luck, fate, circumstances or others for their successes
  • Do not believe they can change adverse situations
  • Are more likely to suffer from learned helplessness
  • They are more unhappy
  • Often less successful in the workplace

Bibliographic references:

  • Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement.
  • Maddi, S. R., & Kobasa, S. C. (1984). The hardy executive : Health under stress.Homewood, IL :: Dow Jones-Irwin.
  • http://psychology.about.com/od/personalitydevelopment/fl/What-Is-Locus-of-Control.htm

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