Locus of Control

The Basic Idea

Most people would say they enjoy the feeling that comes with a job well done. Of course, however, we define “well” relative to our self-constructs and the feasibility of the task at hand. Part of this positive feeling is due to the fact that we’ll attribute our successes to our hard work and efforts. But what about when we don’t perform as well as we wanted or expected? Are those “failures” a result of our own doings, or other influences?

Our locus of control - the degree to which we see outcomes as related to our personal influence versus external factors - tends to vary based on the outcome of an event.1 When we hold an internal locus of control, we attribute the outcome to our own efforts and abilities. When we hold an external locus of control, we attribute the outcome to luck, fate, or other factors beyond our control. As you might be able to guess, we typically hold an internal locus of control for our successes and an external locus of control for our failures.

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

– Carl Jung, pioneer of analytical psychology, on an internal locus of control

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Key Terms

Locus of control: The degree to which one feels that events are determined by their own, internal influences or by uncontrollable, external influences.

Reinforcement: Consequences presented in response to a desired behavior that will increase the likelihood of it occurring again.

Social learning: Behaviors learned through a social context, based on observation.


In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter published Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, a book in which he expanded on Albert Bandura’s social learning theories.2 Previously, social learning theories focused on the learning of behavior through conditioning: punishment and reinforcement.

Rotter recognized the importance of reinforcement, but he was also interested in the interactions between people and their environments. He theorized that people’s personalities and social environments worked together to create probabilities of behavior, and that learning resulted from reinforcements of such behaviors. To this end, individual differences determined whether a behavior was likely to occur, and the consequences of that behavior would determine the likelihood of it occurring again. Rotter thus added a subjective perspective to social learning.

After his 1954 publication, Rotter published an article entitled Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement in 1966, summarizing a decade of his and his students’ research.1 Related to his social learning theory, Rotter detailed his work surrounding locus of control, which he believed existed on a continuum between internal and external forces.

Rotter realized that locus of control was a more general, global concept.1 He developed the internal-external (I-E) scale, consisting of 29 forced-choice questions. On the scale, each item is a paired option, on which participants select one of two options most relevant for themselves. For example, people can either select “In the long run people get the respect they deserve in this world” or “Unfortunately, an individual’s worth often passes unrecognized no matter how hard he tries.”

The goal of the I-E scale is to measure two concepts related to beliefs about the nature of the world: (1) achievement motivation, linked to an internal locus of control; and (2) outer-directedness, a tendency to conform to others and linked to an external locus of control.

To assist Rotter’s research, his student William James differentiated between typical and atypical expectancy shifts. Typical expectancy shifts occur when individuals believe that successes or failures would be followed by similar outcomes. By contrast, atypical expectancy shifts occur when individuals believe that successes or failures would be followed by dissimilar outcomes.1 Research on these two constructs found that typical expectancy shifts were more common for those with an internal locus of control, while atypical expectancy shifts were more common for those with an external locus of control. This finding led to the differentiation of people who attribute outcomes to ability and talent versus luck.


Julian B. Rotter

The American psychologist who pioneered the concept of locus of control, Rotter is also well known for his contributions to social learning theory.3 The overall theory suggests that new behaviors are learned by observing and imitating others; Rotter’s theory emphasizes the subjective nature of responses and behavior reinforcements. Rotter thought that one’s personality and social environment must create different probabilities of behavior, and that learning likely occurred as a result of reinforcement of said behaviors. Rotter’s research on the influence of situational environments on behaviors was influenced by the Great Depression, during which he became aware of social injustices. Rotter was awarded the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Contribution award in 1989 for his work.


Locus of control is a prominent construct that has influenced personality psychology,4, 5 social psychology,6, 7 education,8, 9 medicine,10, 11 business,12, 13 and even sports.14, 15 Related to such applications, scores from scales measuring locus of control have been correlated with outcome markers for psychological disorders, school achievements, and physical health. Locus of control has also contributed to the development of other theories such as:

  1. Learned helplessness: when people perceive an inability to escape negative events and a lack of control;16
  2. Attributional biases, such that people seek out inaccurate explanations for behaviors;17
  3. Self-efficacy: people’s judgements of their ability to succeed in a situation;18 and
  4. Hope and optimism.19

Rotter’s I-E scale itself has been used to measure internal and external locus of control among Black civil rights activists in the 1960s,20 women going through divorce,21 adolescents who had experienced the Chernobyl accident,22 and Bosnian refugees living in Norway,23 among others. By applying the scale to such diverse populations, locus of control has shown to vary across situational contexts and to be a motivator behind people’s behaviors.

Other instruments have since been developed to measure locus of control among specific populations. The Children’s Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External Control Scale, for example, was developed for children between the age of 9 and 18, and later adapted for preschool and primary children, college-age students, and seniors.24 

Additionally, the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control Scale was developed on the basis that a scale specific to health could provide more sensitive predictions of health behaviors and internal locus of control.25 Specifically, the scale is built on the idea that people can attribute their health outcomes to one of three sources: internal influences that are under one’s control (i.e. eating habits, not dressing appropriately for the weather); luck; or people in positions of power (i.e. following or misunderstanding the directions of one’s doctor).


The main criticism of Rotter’s conceptualizations of locus of control have come from American social psychologist Bernard Weiner.26 According to Weiner, the idea of “locus of control” is misleading and should consist of two separate dimensions: “locus” referring to internal or external influences, and “control” referring to whether these influences are controllable or uncontrollable. After all, there are some internal events we cannot control and some external events we can control. This means that someone could have an internal locus and still believe they lack control.

Taking action on his criticisms toward locus of control, Weiner developed attribution theory, which assumes that people try to determine explanations for others’ behaviors.26 When making these attributions for behaviors, people go through three stages:

  1. They observe the behavior;
  2. They believe that the behavior was performed intentionally (“controlled”); and,
  3. They determine whether the other person was forced to perform the behavior, such that they attribute cause to an external situation, or not forced to perform the behavior, such that they attribute cause to internal influences.

Based on the descriptions, it is evident that Weiner incorporated locus of control into the third stage. The internal or external forces would be related to “locus”, but it must first be preceded by the presence of “control” in the second stage.

Case Study

Educational outcomes

Possessing an internal or external locus of control can influence students’ motivation levels and learning performance, and has therefore been a topic of interest in the domain of education.27 Specifically, students with internal loci of control are more likely to stay motivated in terms of academic achievement and learning progress. In 2011, a group of researchers set out to assess the relationship between locus of control and learning outcomes.

450 students studying at the School of Tourism and Hotel Management in Turkey were provided with a questionnaire designed to assess learning attitudes, based on Rotter’s I-E scale.27 Students’ actual performance was assessed, and the researchers found that those with an internal locus of control attained greater academic achievement and were more proactive during the learning process. Additionally, there was a gender distinction: females were more likely to hold external loci of control and males were more likely to hold internal loci of control.

Overall, the findings supported the theory that it is beneficial for students to hold an internal locus of control.27 If students believe they have control over their academic achievements, they will be more likely to engage with their studies, and this cycle will persist.

Virtual work environments

Business and project management researcher Liz Lee-Kelley recognized that the rapid advances in information and communication technologies could influence social connections, including working relationships.28 She wanted to understand the impact of geographic and temporal distance on working toward a common project goal. Specifically, she wanted to know how locus of control would influence individual control expectancies on employees’ attitudes toward distributed work.

When scheduled project outcomes are delayed, which can be the case with time differences and virtual working environments, other activities must be reprioritized.28 This shuffling can lead to confusion, workflow overlap, and resource difficulties. Together, these potential obstacles are known as “role conflict”; higher role conflict is associated with decreased job satisfaction.

Lee-Kelley conducted her research on IT professionals in the UK and discovered an important and surprising relationship between workers’ locus of control and job satisfaction: those with an internal locus of control appeared to be directly affected by role conflict, while those with an external locus of control attributed role conflict to issues caused by others.

Lee-Kelley suggests that this difference may be due to such workers’ willingness to take responsibility for their surroundings and group actions, such as poor project performance.28 Although there may be other explanations for this relationship, the findings emphasize the need for increased understanding of workers’ locus of control orientations and their implications for team motivation and achievement.

Related TDL Content

Can’t say no to promotional offers?

We all love a good sale, whether it’s seeing a price drop on an item you’ve been eyeing, or getting a notification of 75% off a food delivery service. If you’re interested in how locus of control plays into the attractiveness of promotion offers, take a look at this article!

The illusion of control, explained. 

Although there are varying degrees of locus of control, we all sometimes overestimate how much control we have over our life circumstances. If you’re interested in the concept of control biases, check out this overview where you can learn why we think we have more control than we do, why it’s important, and how to avoid this bias.


  1. Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80(1), 1-28.
  2. Grath, M. (2020). Basic Constructs in Rotter’s Social Learning Theory. PSYC 321 Course Text: Theories of Personality. Creative Commons Attribution.
  3. Mearns, J. (2019, October 3). The social learning theory of Julian B. Rotter. California State University, Fullerton.
  4. Spector, P. E. & O’Connell, B. J. (1994). The contribution of personality traits, negative affectivity, locus of control and Type A to the subsequent reports of job stressors and job strains. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 67(1), 1-12.
  5. Strauser, D. R., Ketz, K., & Keim, J. (2002). The relationship between self-efficacy, locus of control and work personality. Journal of Rehabilitation, 68(1), 20-26.
  6. Spector, P. E. (1982). Behavior in organizations as a function of employee’s locus of control. Psychological Bulletin, 91(3), 482-497.
  7. Black, J. S. (1990). Locus of control, social support, stress, and adjustment in international transfers. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 7, 1-29.
  8. Lowes, S., & Lin, P. (2015). Learning to learn online: Using locus of control to help students become successful online learners. Journal of Online Learning Research, 1(1), 17-48.
  9. Miller, C. A., Fitch, T., & Marshall, J. L. (2003). Locus of control and at-risk youth: A comparison of regular education high school students and students in alternative schools. Education, 123(3), 548-551.
  10. Henderson, J. W., & Donatelle, R. J. (2002). The relationship between cancer locus of control and complementary and alternative medicine use by women diagnosed with breast cancer. Psycho-Oncology, 12(1), 59-67.
  11. Sasagawa, M., Martzen, M. R., Kelleher, W. J., & Wenner, C. A. (2008). Positive correlation between the use of complementary and alternative medicine and internal health locus of control. Explore, 4(1), 38-41.
  12. Brockhaus, R. H. (1975). I-E locus of control scores as predictors of entrepreneurial intentions. Academy of Management Proceedings, 1975(1), 433-435.
  13. Hansemark, O. C. (2003). Need for achievement, locus of control and the prediction of business start-ups: A longitudinal study. Journal of Economic Psychology, 24(3), 301-319.
  14. Parsons, E. M., & Betz, N. E. (2001). The relationship of participation in sports and physical activity to body objectification, instrumentality, and locus of control among young women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25(3), 209-222.
  15. Tsai, J., Wang, C., & Lo, H. (2014). Locus of control, disengagement in sport, and rule transgression of athletes. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 42(1), 59-68.
  16. Hiroto, D. S. (1974). Locus of control and learned helplessness. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102(2), 187-193.
  17. Wong, P. T. P., & Sproule, C. F. (1984). An attribution analysis of the locus of control construct and the Trent Attribution Profile. Research with the Locus of Control Construct, 3, 309-360.
  18. Ajzen, I. (2002). Perceived behavioral control, self-efficacy, locus of control and the Theory of Planned Behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(4), 665-683.
  19. Carifio, J., & Rhodes, L. (2002). Construct validities and the empirical relationships between optimism, hope, self-efficacy, and locus of control. Work, 19(2), 125-136.
  20. Strickland, B. R. (1965). The prediction of social action from a dimension of internal-external control. Journal of Social Psychology, 66(2), 353-358.
  21. Morgan, L. A. (1988). Locus of control and marital termination: Comparing divorced and widowed women. Journal of Divorce, 11(3-4), 35-47.
  22. Klingman, A., Goldstein, Z., & Lerner, P. (1991). Adolescents’ response to nuclear threat: Before and after the Chernobyl accident. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 20(5), 519-530.
  23. Van Selm, K., Sam, D. L., & Van Oudenhoven, J. P. (1997). Life satisfaction and competence of Bosnian refugees in Norway. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 38(2), 143-149.
  24. Nowicki, S., & Duke, M. P. (2013). The Nowicki-Strickland life-span locus of control scales: Construct validation. Research with the Locus of Control Construct, 2, 9-50.
  25. Wallston, K. A., Wallston, B. S., & Devellis, R. (1978). Development of the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control (MHLC) Scales. Health Education Monographs, 6(2), 160-170.
  26. Weiner, B. (1974). Achievement Motivation and Attribution Theory. General Learning Press.
  27. Kutanis, R. Ö., Mesci, M., & Övdür, Z. (2011). The effects of locus of control on learning performance: A case of an academic organization. Journal of Economic & Social Studies, 1(2), 113-136.
  28. Lee-Kelley, L. (2006). Locus of control and attitudes to working in virtual teams. International Journal of Project Management, 24(3), 234-243.

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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