Licenses: Creative Commons
Definitions of Locus of Control
Locus of control is defined, in personality psychology, as the degree to which one believes that he/she has control over the outcome of events in their lives, rather than external forces beyond their control.
Julian B. Rotter developed the understanding of the concept in 1954, and it has since become an aspect of personality studies.
A person’s “loci” (plural of “locus”, Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualised as either:
Internal (a belief that one’s life can be controlled)
External (a belief that life is controlled by outside factors which they cannot influence, or that chance or fate controls their lives)
Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions. For example, when receiving test/exam results, people with a strong internal locus of control tend to praise or blame their own actions and abilities, whereas people with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors such as the teacher or the exam (Carlson et al., 2007).
Locus of control has generated much research in a variety of areas in psychology and is applicable to fields such as: health psychology, educational psychology and clinical psychology.
It is also important to distinguish between locus of control and attributional style (a concept associated with reasoning for past outcomes), or concepts such as self-efficacy.
Whether specific or more general measures of locus of control will prove to be more useful in practical application, continues to be debated.
The concept of core self-evaluations was first examined by Judge, Locke, and Durham (1997), and since has proven to have the ability to predict several work outcomes, specifically job satisfaction and job performance (Judge, Locke and Durham, 1997).
In a follow-up study, Judge, Locke and Durham argued that locus of control, neuroticism, self-efficacy and self-esteem factors may have a common core (Judge et al., 2002).
Core self-evaluations (CSE) represent a stable personality trait encompassing subconscious, fundamental and global evaluations that individuals make about their worth, including their capability to handle tasks, hurdles and challenges faced in life and the extent to which they feel in control of their lives.
People who have high core self-evaluations will think positively of themselves and their abilities, thinking things such as ‘I am able to handle this problem or challenge’, and individual’s tendencies to evaluate themselves in a positive or negative light, in this way, affect their evaluations of others.
Research has indicated that the way in which people appraise themselves through core self-evaluations has the ability to predict positive work outcomes, specifically job satisfaction and job performance (see for example Judge, Locke and Durham, 1997; Erez and Judge, 2001).
The trait was first developed as a dispositional predictor of job satisfaction, and has expanded to predict a variety of other outcomes too.
These links have inspired increasing amounts of research on core self-evaluations and suggest valuable implications about the importance this trait may have for organisations.
Core self-evaluations are particularly important because they represent a personality trait which will remain consistent over time (generally).
Locus of control is one of the four dimensions of core self-evaluations:
- Locus of control
- Generalised self-efficacy
(Judge, Locke and Durham, 1997)
History of Locus of Control
Locus of control is the framework of Rotter’s (1954) social learning theory of personality, and in 1966 he published an article in ‘Psychological Monographs’, summarising over a decade of research by himself and his students.
In 1976, Herbert M. Lefcourt defined the perceived locus of control as “a generalised expectancy for internal as opposed to external control of reinforcements” (Lefcourt, 1976, p.27).
Some have attempted to trace the origins of the concept to the work of Alfred Adler, but its immediate roots lie with the students of Rotter and himself.
Early work on expectations about reinforcement and control had been performed in the 1950s by James and Phares (prepared for unpublished doctoral dissertations supervised by Rotter at The Ohio State University) (Lefcourt, 1982).
Another Rotter student, William H. James, studied two types of “expectancy shifts”:
- Typical expectancy shifts, believing that success/failure would be followed by a similar outcome
- Atypical expectancy shifts, believing that success/failure would be followed by a dissimilar outcome
Additional research led to the hypothesis that typical expectancy shifts can be related to an internal locus of control (attributing to ability) whereas atypical expectancy shifts can be linked to an external locus of control (attributing to luck/chance) (Kumar and Pothukuchi, n.d.).
Bernard Weiner argued that rather than ability verses luck, locus may relate to whether attributions are made to stable or unstable causes (Weiner, 1974).
Rotter has discussed problems and misconceptions in other’s use of the internal versus external construct (Rotter, 1975),
Rotter cautioned that internality and externality refer to two ends of a continuum, rather than an either/or typology (Rotter, 1975).
Internals tend to attribute outcomes of events to their own control.
People who have internal locus of control believe that the outcomes of their actions are results of their own abilities or actions. Internals also believe that their hard work would lead them to obtain positive outcomes (April et al., 2012).
They understand that every action has a consequence, which makes them accept the fact that things happen in life and it depends on them whether they want to have control over it or not.
Externals attribute outcomes of events to external circumstances.
People with an external locus of control tend to believe that the things which happen in their lives are out of their control (Jacobs-Lawson, Waddell and Webb, 2011). They also believe that their own actions are a result of external factors, such as luke, fate, powerful others such as doctors, the police or government officials and/or believe that the world is too complex for one to predict or successfully control its outcomes.
Such people tend to blame other people for what occurs in their lives.
Weiner’s work, however, suggests that internality is not linked exclusively with attribution to effort and externality with attribution to luck. This has obvious implications for differences between internals and externals in terms of their achievement motivation, suggesting that internal locus is linked with higher levels of need for achievement (Weiner, 1974).
Due to their perceiving control as outside of themselves, externals generally feel they have less control over their fate. People with an external locus of control tend to be more stressed and prone to clinical depression (Benassi, Sweeney and Dufour, 1988).
Internals were believed by Rotter (1966) to exhibit two essential characteristics:
- High achievement motivation
- Low outer-directedness
This was the basis of the locus of control scale proposed by Rotter in 1966, however Rotter believed that locus of control is a single construct, thus it was based upon this.
Rotter’s assumption of unidimensionality has been questioned since 1970, with others such as Levenson arguing that there are different dimensions of a locus of control and that these must be separated (such as beliefs that events in one’s life are self-determined or organised by powerful others and are chance-based) (Leveson, 1973).
Weiner suggested that orthogonal to the internality-externality dimension, differences should be considered between people who attribute to stable and unstable causes (Weiner, 1974).
This new, dimensional theory meant that one could now attribute outcomes to:
- Ability (an internal stable cause)
- Effort (an internal unstable cause)
- Task difficulty (an external stable cause)
- Luck (an external, unstable cause).
Although this was how Weiner originally saw these four causes, he has been challenged as to whether people see luck (for example) as an external cause, whether ability is always perceived as stable and whether effort is always seen as changing.
Infact, in more recent publications (e.g. Weiner, 1980), he uses different terms for these four causes such as:
- ‘Objective task characteristics’ instead of ‘task difficulty’
- ‘Chance’ instead of ‘luck’
Psychologists since Weiner have distinguished between stable and unstable effort, knowing that in some circumstances effort could be seen as a stable cause, especially given the presence of words such as “industrious” in the English language.
In reference to locus of control, there is another type of control that consists of a combination among the internal and external types.
People that have the combination of both an internal and external locus of control are often referred to as ‘bi-locals’. People that have bi-local characteristics are understood to handle stress and cope with their diseases more efficiently by having aspects of both types of locus of control (Jacobs-Lawson, Waddell and Webb, 2011).
People that have this mix of loci of control can take personal responsibility for their actions and the consequences thereof while remaining capable of relying upon and having faith in outside resources – these characteristics correspond to the internal and external loci of control, respectively.
An example of this mixed system would be an alcoholic who will accept the fact that he brought the disease upon himself while remaining open to treatment and/or acknowledging that there are people, mainly doctors and therapists, that are trying to cure his/her addiction, and on whom he should rely.