What is a locus of control?
Locus of control is a concept in personality psychology (the branch of psychology that studies the patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make people unique). It refers to the degree to which individuals believe they can control their own lives. The concept was developed by celebrated psychologist Julian B. Rotter (1916–2014). It has since become a foundational aspect of personality studies.
According to Rotter, locus of control refers to how much power people believe they have over their lives and the things that happen to them. Rotter theorized that locus of control exists along a continuum (a progression of degrees) in which individuals believe they can exercise more or less control over their life outcomes.
Individuals with more of an internal locus of control believe that most of their life outcomes are the direct result of their own efforts or behaviors. They believe that their abilities, efforts, and actions directly determine what happens to them and how much success they achieve.
Individuals with more of an external locus of control, on the other hand, believe that most of their life outcomes are outside their direct control. They view life as controlled by forces outside themselves. For example, they may attribute circumstances to outside events, powerful people, sheer luck, or destiny/fate. At its furthest extreme, an external locus of control is known as learned helplessness (a refusal to take action to improve one's circumstances). Such individuals take no action to change their circumstances because they do not believe anything they do can make a difference.
Locus of control is an important aspect of personality psychology because it helps explain why some people are more proactive about their lives than others. It also shows one reason why certain people are able to rise above difficult circumstances or environments while others are unable to do so. For example, researchers have found that people with a high internal locus of control tend to perform well academically, achieve more professionally, act more independently, are healthier, are better able to cope, and experience less depression than their externally oriented counterparts.
Rotter developed the I-E scale, a personality scale, as a way to assess and measure an individual's locus of control. The I-E scale shows, along a continuum, how internally (I) or externally (E) oriented people may be, or whether they have more of an internal or external locus of control.
Rotter originally published this scale in 1966 in a journal called Psychological Monographs. He designed the scale as a series of paired statements. Each pair contains one statement that shows an internal focus and one statement that shows an external focus. Test takers had to select the statement that best applied to them, with the understanding that there were no right or wrong answers. The original scale included sixty statement pairs.
The I-E scale is still widely used by researchers, although the modern version has been trimmed to twenty-three focused statement pairs and six filler questions. These extra questions are meant to disguise the true purpose of the test from test takers and help to prevent tester bias (a distortion of test results that is produced when participants intentionally select statements that reflect how they wish to feel rather than how they truly feel).
The I-E scale is useful to psychologists because it helps them to understand their clients' outlook on life. They can use the client's responses to help the client understand his or her choices and approach to life.
Since Rotter's introduction of the concept of locus of control and the publication and later validation of the I-E scale, other personality researchers have applied this knowledge to a variety of different research areas. For example, some researchers were interested to know how an individual's locus of control impacted his or her ability to perform well academically. Others were curious as to how internal or external focus might impact one's interpretation and use of constructive performance feedback. Still others wanted to know how one's locus of control impacted his or her spiritual beliefs and the afterlife.
Psychologist Bonnie Strickland has been one of the most impactful researchers on locus of control. As early as 1965, Strickland was studying the relationship between social activism and locus of control. Her study showed that college activists were more likely to be internally focused than externally focused; they believed that their behaviors could make a difference and acted accordingly.
Strickland also looked at locus of control in relation to different parameters of health. One important 1977 study analyzed how locus of control impacted health and fitness levels. Strickland's work showed that people with an internal locus of control were generally healthier because they felt more in control of their health. This feeling of control led them to eat healthily, exercise more regularly, and avoid behaviors that could cause health problems, such as smoking or excessive drinking.
Strickland also believed that locus of control assessments could be improved if they were designed for specific age groups. In the 1970s she worked with psychologist Steven Nowicki and others to develop a series of I-E scales directed toward people of specific ages. They designed and published the following:
- Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control Scale for Children (1971)
- Adult Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control Scale (1974)
- Preschool and Primary Internal-External Control Scale (1974)
This work has since been validated, and the adult and children versions of these scales are still in common use.
Buckley, C. "Professor Emeritus of Psychology Julian Rotter Dies." UConn Magazine. University of Connecticut. 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://today.uconn.edu/blog/2014/01/professor-emeritus-of-psychology-julian-rotter-dies/
Mearns, J. "The Social Learning Theory of Julian B. Rotter." California State University at Fullerton. 2015. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://psych.fullerton.edu/jmearns/rotter.htm
Nowicki, Stephen, Jr. "Bonnie Ruth Strickland (1936–)." Women in Psychology. Eds. Agnes O'Connell & Nancy Felipe Russo. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990, 319–321. Print.
Nowicki, Stephen Jr., & Strickland, Bonnie R. "A Locus of Control Scale for Children." 1971: 79th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Web. 30 Jan. 2015. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED058933.pdf