Locus of Control and Your Life

Internal vs external locus of control

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

When you are dealing with a challenge in your life, do you feel that you have control over the outcome, or do you believe that you are at the mercy of outside forces? Your answer to this question refers to your locus of control.

Our locus of control influences our response to events in our lives and our motivation to take action. If you believe that you hold the keys to your fate, you are more likely to change your situation when needed. Conversely, if you think that the outcome is out of your hands, you may be less likely to work toward change.

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What Is Locus of Control?

Locus of control is the extent to which you feel you have control over events that impact your life. Put another way, it is "a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)," explains psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter suggested that our behavior was controlled by rewards and punishments. The consequences of our actions helped determine our beliefs about the likely results of future behaviors.

Our anticipation of certain results influences our behaviors and attitudes. In other words, an individual is more likely to pursue a goal if they have been rewarded for similar efforts in the past and believe that they can influence their chances of future success.

In 1966, Rotter published a scale designed to measure and assess external and internal locus of control. The scale utilizes a forced choice between two alternatives, requiring respondents to choose just one of two possibilities for each item.

While the scale has been widely used, it has also been the subject of considerable criticism from those who believe that locus of control cannot be fully understood or measured by such a simplistic scale.

Internal vs. External Locus of Control

If you believe that you have control over what happens, you have what psychologists refer to as an internal locus of control. If you believe that you have no control over what happens and that external variables are to blame, you have what is known as an external locus of control.

It is important to note that locus of control is a continuum. No one has a 100% external or internal locus of control. Instead, most people lie somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes.

These are characteristics of people with a dominant internal or external locus of control.

Internal Locus of Control
  • Are more likely to take responsibility for their actions

  • Tend to be less influenced by the opinions of other people

  • Often do better at tasks when they are allowed to work at their own pace

  • Usually, have a strong sense of self-efficacy

  • Tend to work hard to achieve the things they want

  • Feel confident in the face of challenges

  • Tend to be physically healthier

  • Report being happier and more independent

  • Often achieve greater success in the workplace

External Locus of Control
  • Blame outside forces for their circumstances

  • Often credit luck or chance for any successes

  • Don't believe that they can change their situation through their own efforts

  • Frequently feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficult situations

  • Are more prone to experiencing learned helplessness

What Role Does Your Locus of Control Play in Your Life?

Internal locus of control is often used synonymously with "self-determination" and "personal agency." Some research suggests that men tend to have a higher internal locus of control than women while others suggest the opposite: that women have greater internal locus of control in comparison. Other research reports a shift towards more internal locus of control as people grow older.

Experts have found that, in general, people with an internal locus of control tend to be better off. However, it is also important to remember that internal locus of control does not always equal "good" and external locus of control does not always equal "bad." 

In some contexts, having an external locus of control can be a good thing—particularly when a situation poses a threat to self-esteem or is genuinely outside of a person's control.

For example, a person who loses a sports game may feel depressed or anxious if they have a strong internal locus of control. If this person thinks, "I'm bad at sports and I don't try hard enough," they might allow the loss to affect their self-image and feel stressed in future games.

However, if this person takes an external focus during such situations ("We were unlucky to get matched with such a strong team," or "The sun was in my eyes!"), they will probably feel more relaxed and less stressed.

Do You Have an External or Internal Locus of Control?

Where does your locus of control fall on the continuum? Read through the statements below and select the set that best describes your outlook on life.

Outlook 1

  • I often feel that I have little control over my life and what happens to me.
  • People rarely get what they deserve.
  • It isn't worth setting goals or making plans because too many things can happen that are outside of my control.
  • Life is a game of chance.
  • Individuals have little influence over the events of the world.

If the statements above best reflect your view on life, then you probably tend to have an external locus of control.

Outlook 2

  • If you work hard and commit yourself to a goal, you can achieve anything.
  • There is no such thing as fate or destiny.
  • If you study hard and are well-prepared, you can do well on exams.
  •  Luck has little to do with success; it's mostly a matter of dedication and effort.
  • In the long run, people tend to get what they deserve in life.

If the statements above best reflect your outlook on life, then you most likely have an internal locus of control.

A Word From Verywell

Your locus of control can have a major impact on your life, from how you cope with stress to your motivation to take charge of your life.

In many cases, having an internal locus of control can be a good thing. It means that you believe that your own actions have an impact.

If you tend to have more of an external locus of control, you might find it helpful to start actively trying to change how you view situations and events.

Rather than viewing yourself as simply a passive bystander who is caught up in the flow of life, think about actions you can take that will have an impact on the outcome.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."