Locus of Control
By: Julia Thomas
Updated October 07, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Deborah Horton
Have you ever watched the interviews after a football or basketball game? If you watch top players closely, you'll notice something interesting: they never talk about external circumstances.
There's no "I missed that field goal because the sun was in my eyes" or "I didn't get the shot because the floor was slippery. It was the cleaner's fault."
Top performers on major teams don't blame external factors because no matter what sport they play, they all have something in common: an internal locus of control.
What Is a Locus of Control?
It is a concept in psychology that describes whether you think your life circumstances are within your own power. An article in Psychology Today defines locus of control as "an individual's belief system regarding the causes of his or her experiences and the factors to which that person attributes success or failure."
That's a bit of a mouthful, so we'll break it down. Locus of control is where you think control of your life circumstances lies. There are two main categories: internal and external.
When you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the circumstances of your life are within your own control. You're more likely to attribute personal success to your own actions, and more likely as well to identify things you did as the reason when you don’t succeed.
On the other hand, when you have an external locus of control, you think that your successes and failures happen because of external factors. Luck, fate, the market -- these are all reasons people with an external locus give as to why something went right or wrong. They don't see themselves as having power over their circumstances, so they don't attribute their failures or successes to their own actions.
Take another look at the two quotes at the start of this article. With what you now know, you can identify the speakers as having an external locus of control -- they saw their circumstances as caused by external factors.
In contrast, someone with an internal locus of control might take the same circumstances and explain them entirely differently. Instead of saying "the sun was in my eyes," they might say, "I was at the wrong angle." Instead of explaining that "the floor was slippery," they might say, "I ran over the wrong part of the floor," or "I was wearing the wrong shoes."
Other examples of internal versus external locus of control can be found when we consider how students approach their successes and failures at school. Let's say two students took the same algebra test and both failed. Student A, with an internal locus of control, might explain the bad grade by saying, "I didn't study hard enough." Student B, with an external locus of control, would be more likely to say, "The teacher made the questions too hard."
Or, if the same two students did well on the test, Student A might say, " I earned that grade. I worked hard." However Student B might explain the good grade by saying, "I was lucky. The test wasn't very hard."
Why Does It Matter?
The idea of a locus of control was developed in the 1960s by a clinical psychologist named Julian Rotter. Since its introduction, the concept has exploded across the psychological landscape, with thousands of research articles written about it.
Why is the idea so popular? Because, really, there's little in your life that it doesn't impact. One study (published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology) reviewed fifteen other studies showing that internal locus of control is associated with achievement in school, sports, and business, as well as with long-term physical and psychological health.
Why does your locus of control have such a profound effect? Let's go back to the athletes discussing why they missed a shot. When their locus of control was external and they believed that outside factors determined what happened, they weren't motivated to fix the problem. Why would they be? There was nothing they could do about it.
On the other hand, think about the students who aced their test. The student with the internal locus said that they earned their good grade because they worked hard. Because they saw their efforts as the reason they were rewarded, they will be motivated to work hard in the future.
An internal locus of control is correlated with greater success and achievement because the tendency to attribute both one's successes and failures to one's actions gives students, athletes, businesspeople, and even parents a reason to review their actions, identify where they could improve, and take action.
Because locus of control affects so many areas of life, it's become a subject of discussion even beyond the realms of psychology. A Business Insider article titled "How Your 'Locus of Control' Drives Your Success (And Stress)" discussed how an internal locus of control contributes to a more successful work life. And there was even a study in the Journal of Business Venturing about how cultural locus of control contributes to different levels of entrepreneurship in different countries.
The Effects of Locus of Control on Your Health
In the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor sheds an interesting light on the physical effects of locus of control. According to Achor,
"Because feeling in control over our jobs and lives reduces stress, it even affects our physical health. One sweeping study of 7,400 employees found that those who felt they had little control over deadlines imposed by other people had a 50% higher risk of coronary heart disease than their counterparts." (p. 132)
Because people with an internal locus of control see a direct connection between their actions and their health, they are also more likely to engage in activities that will keep them healthy, like eating well, exercising, and making regular doctors’ appointments. However, some researchers caution that it's not just this phenomenon that determines how well you take care of yourself. How much you care about your health is also a contributing factor. If you don't value your health, you can have a very strong internal locus of control but won’t prioritize taking care of yourself.
How to Determine Your Locus of Control
Ever since Dr. Rotter developed the concept, psychologists, scientists, and researchers have been trying to develop an accurate method to measure locus of control. Today there are a number of tests you can take to determine where you fall.
It is important to note, however: Rotter emphasized that locus of control is not an either-or proposition. Locus of control falls on a continuum, and people may have an internal locus of control in one area (e.g., their work) and an external locus of control in another (like their health).
Some resources available to determine your locus of control are:
Psychology Today's online test,
Rotter's original Scale, and
the University of Virginia Darden School of Business's test.
There are a wide range of other locus of control tests available, but make sure to use a reputable locus of control test designed to match your circumstances. Many self-help websites have locus of control tests, and some scholarly websites have locus of control tests that are specifically for diabetes, depression, smoking, and so forth.
Locus of Control and Your Mental Health
This doesn't just affect your physical health. It can have serious implications for your mental health as well. For example, a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that an external locus of control was associated with increased depression, and a study in the Journal of Mental Health and Human Behavior found that young girls with internal loci of control showed better mental health and overall adjustment than those with external loci of control.
While the benefits of an internal locus of control over an external one are not unequivocal (e.g., some studies show that an internal locus of control can contribute to anxiety), much of the evidence argues that an internal locus of control has major benefits for long-term success.
While this may sound dismal for people with an external locus of control, don't worry. Yours is not set in stone. It's like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it will get. However, it can be difficult to develop an internal locus on your own. If you're struggling or don't know where to start, contacting a mental health professional is a good first step. BetterHelp.com is an online platform that helps match you with a licensed mental health professional who can help you change your locus of control and achieve your goals. You can start your journey here: https://www.betterhelp.com/start/.
How Therapy Can Help with Locus of Control
In a study of patients with renal failure receiving hemodialysis, a significant number of patients who were given cognitive-behavioral therapyswitched from an external locus of control to an internal oneover the course of eight weeks,as compared to patients who did not receive CBT. The researchers concluded that the cognitive behavioral intervention had a positive effect on patients’ internalization of this control. Their goal was to increase quality of life, including medical outcomes, for these patients.
The Benefits of Online Therapy
As discussed above, cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help internalize locus of control, which is associated with improved mental and physical health. But when you’re not feeling your best, it can be hard to find the motivation to leave home. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your busy workday to drive to your appointment; you can speak with your licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people shift their focus. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.
“I like Laticia’s pragmatic and supportive style, her input helps me stay focused on what I can control and keeps me from letting the negativity of my situation drive my choices.”
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