Do you believe things happen because of fate or free will? Your locus of control will determine your answer.
How much control you have over the events in your life seems to be an ageless topic of philosophical debate.
Are you in command of the ship as you sail on the seas of existence, or are the waves and the wind directing your course no matter what stops you make along the way?
For some, this question goes even further. You may think about the existence of fate, destiny, or a spiritual presence predetermining the way.
If you believe you’re the captain of your own ship, you have an internal locus of control. If you think the elements (or a higher power) are guiding your adventure, you have an external locus of control.
So, which is it for you — an internal or external locus of control?
The locus of control is a psychological concept developed in the 1950s by Julian Rotter, a clinical psychologist, educator, and author.
Originally called the locus of control of reinforcement, Rotter used this theory to describe how the level of autonomy (control) a person has over their life could influence their behavior.
Rotter advocated for social learning theory. This suggests that people learn behaviors through observation, imitation, and reinforcement (reward and punishment).
The locus of control concept looked at reward and punishment from a control standpoint. Rotter believed people viewed rewards and punishments in life in one of two ways:
- the result of personal efforts
- the result of things beyond their control, such as fate, luck, chance, or powerful beings
The locus of control theory suggests that your stance regarding who or what controls your life can affect how you behave.
For example, if you believe it’s your fate to succeed in a sporting event, you may not be concerned if you miss training sessions or skip out on time with the team. If it’s fate, you might not feel like your efforts — or lack thereof — have any impact.
Rotter’s later work went on to explore the locus of control as it could exist on a spectrum.
He had already defined an internal locus of control as feeling like you have control of the outcomes in your life. He had defined an external locus of control as feeling as though you have no control and accepting that external forces are responsible for your rewards and punishments.
Rotter clarified that like most concepts in psychology, the locus of control is rarely only internal or only external — that is, it rarely falls all the way on either end of the spectrum.
Instead, most people’s locus of control exists on a continuum, with dominant features that lean them toward one way or the other.
|Internal locus of control
|External locus of control
|fewer coping mechanisms
|more negative moods related to stress
|lower sense of workplace effectiveness
|possible feelings of powerlessness
|people pleasing behaviors
|improved coping related to partner death
|lower stress levels
|poorer mental health outlook
There’s no positive or negative when it comes to the locus of control concept — one isn’t superior to the other.
In fact, a 2021 study shows that there are many positive personality traits on both sides of the locus of control spectrum.
Your locus of control is there to help provide insight into how you’ve learned behaviors and why you might tend to do something a certain way.
While a 2019 study notes that an internal locus of control may be associated with more beneficial outcomes, a dominant external locus of control isn’t necessarily associated with negative ones.
Researchers in the study give the example of an employee exposed to bullying. That person may feel more stressed if they have a high internal locus of control because they’re not used to a lack of control. But a person with more of an external locus of control may blame the bullying experience on others, avoiding self-blame.
An example of a positive outcome in both an internal and external locus of control
Internal locus of control. You lose a boxing match and believe you could have approached training differently for a better outcome. You go back, motivated to work harder and try again.
External locus of control. You lose a boxing match and feel that a spiritual presence wanted you to learn from the loss. You go back and try again, confident that presence will guide you and see you to success.
The locus of control concept exists on a spectrum. To know which one is dominant for you, you can score yourself on the original Rotter’s locus of control scale.
This five-question sample of the original 29-point questionnaire can give you an idea of what the scale looks like and how it works.
For each question, pick the answer you align with the most. Then, use the chart below to see how many points you get for that answer:
|Both A and B score 0
|A: 1; B: 0
|A: 0; B: 1
|A: 0; B: 1
|A: 0; B: 1
- A. Children get into trouble because their parents punish them too much.
- B. The trouble with most children nowadays is that their parents are too easy on them.
- A. Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck.
- B. People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.
- A. One of the major reasons why we have wars is because people don’t take enough interest in politics.
- B. There will always be wars, no matter how hard people try to prevent them.
- A. In the long run, people get the respect they deserve in this world.
- B. Unfortunately, an individual’s worth often passes unrecognized no matter how hard they try.
- A. The idea that teachers are unfair to students is nonsense.
- B. Most students don’t realize the extent to which their grades are influenced by accidental happenings.
The higher your score on the scale, the more likely you are to have primarily an external locus of control. The lower your score on the scale, the more likely your locus of control is internal.
If you want to find out your dominant locus of control, you can find the full quiz here.
While your locus of control is neither inherently positive nor negative, an internal locus of control is often associated with a more positive mental and physical health outlook.
According to 2014 research, stress coping mechanisms are a major contributor to an positive outlook with an internal locus of control.
Researchers also noted that an internal locus of control may be a predictor of optimism — and optimism was closely associated with increased problem-solving efforts and positive coping strategies.
What about the benefits of an external locus of control?
Having a dominant external locus of control doesn’t mean that you’re unable to handle stress. In some situations, an external locus of control may have more optimal protective traits.
As mentioned earlier, a 2019 study on workplace bullying found an external locus of control was more beneficial than an internal locus of control when facing these types of behaviors.
An external locus of control may also help you cope more readily with certain major forms of loss in life, such as the death of a spouse, according to research from 2010.
In psychological theory, your locus of control is part of a behavioral learning model.
It suggests you act according to a belief that you’re in control of your outcomes or that something else is dictating what happens.
The more you believe you have autonomy in life, the more your locus of control is considered internal.
If you’re more likely to think luck, fate, or powers beyond your control are in charge, the more your locus of control may be external.
There’s no positive or negative locus of control, but having an internal locus of control tends to be associated with better a physical and mental health outlook in life.