Defining Locus Of Control: What It Is And Why It Matters

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you think about what you need to succeed in life, do you focus on elements like luck and chance? Or do you assume that your choices will be the main driver of your fate? The answer may have less to do with the true causes of your situation and more to do with your locus of control. The locus of control is a psychological concept that typically describes who or what you believe is steering your life. Your locus of control may have important effects on your ability to achieve your goals, relate to other people, and even maintain your health. Therapy, whether in person or online, can be an effective method of adjusting your locus of control to be healthier and helping you achieve your goals.

Therapy can help you develop a healthier locus of control

Understanding the locus of control

The locus of control essentially means “the place where the things that control your life happen”. When psychologists use this term, they’re normally talking about where you think your locus of control is. The most important question is usually whether it’s inside of you or outside of you. Internal and external locuses of control tend to impact people differently.

In other words, do you view your success as something that you’ve earned as a result of your own actions and decisions? Or do you tend to feel like you’re simply reacting to things that happen to you, and that your circumstances are shaped by outside forces? The former perspective suggests that you likely have an internal locus of control, and the latter suggests an external one.

This concept originates from social learning theory, which was pioneered by psychologist Julian Rotter in the 1950s. Rotter and his students noted that people seemed to differ greatly in how much they felt their own actions could change what happened to them. While some seemed confident that they affect the world around them, others viewed their environments as unpredictable, with good or bad outcomes happening more or less at random. 

Very few people have a completely internal or external locus of control. Most psychologists would consider it a sign of a delusionaldisorder if a patient believed they were completely in charge of the world or totally controlled by outside forces. Most of us understand that some things are under our control, while others are not. However, our position on the spectrum between total control and total helplessness can be very significant.

Why your locus of control matters

There’s a substantial amount of research suggesting that your locus of control can affect how well you handle life’s challenges. Dr. Rotter developed a questionnaire to assess the directions and strength of a person’s locus of control. Since then, researchers have found that scores on this test can be correlated with outcomes in a wide variety of areas, including the following:

Academic achievement

A review of the psychological literature found that students with a more internal locus of control tended to perform better in most academic domains. This relationship was generally stronger for adolescents, but there was still an observable effect among many children and adults. It can be easy to see why this might be the case — people with an external locus of control may be less motivated to study if they don’t believe that their efforts will make a difference in their test scores.

Career success

Believing in your ability to affect the world appears to be helpful for advancing in your work life. Research has found that a strong internal locus of control can be linked to objective measures of career achievement, such as income, advancement, and personal feelings of success. People with an internal locus of control may be more focused on personal growth and hard work, as they generally believe they have power over their accomplishments.


Many health outcomes are linked to making healthy choices, and the ability to do this could be correlated with an internal locus of control. Studies have found that a locus of control makes a difference in pursuing behavioral changes such as losing weightgetting vaccinated for the flu, and giving up smoking


We saw above that your locus of control may influence how much money you make, but it may also affect how well you manage what you have. A 2017 study found that those with an internal locus of control were more likely to save up for the future and accumulate wealth when compared to people with an external locus of control. 


Other research has found that a happy marriage seems to be associated with an internal locus of control. Long-term relationships can be challenging at times, and people may be more willing to work on things if they sincerely believe their efforts make a difference. An internal locus of control may also help you own up to your mistakes and try to improve.

How can you tell where your locus of control is?

Do you know if your locus of control is more internal or external? You can often get a rough idea of by paying attention to how you think about the future. When you’re mapping out your approach to a goal, do you expect to get what you want if you stick to the plan? This suggests an internal locus of control. On the other hand, if you feel your success depends on everything lining up just right, you might have more of an external view.

If you want more precision, you could look at one of the psychological questionnaires developed by researchers. The original locus of control scale created by Julian Rotter is easily available online. It presents pairs of statements and asks you to select the one you agree with more. For example: 

  • “I have often found that what is going to happen will happen.” [External]

  • “Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.” [Internal]

Numerous updated metrics have been developed since then, some designed to address potential issues with the Rotter Scale. For example, the Internal Control Index (ICI) replaces the forced-choice format with an option to rank how strongly you agree with each statement. Some research suggests that the ICI is a more reliable tool for estimating a person’s locus of control. 

Is an external locus of control always bad?

Many people assume that having an internal locus of control is always preferable. Our culture often places a high value on individual responsibility and success, making it easy to interpret an external locus of control as “blaming others for your problems”. 

However, there may be some situations where an internal locus of control may be less helpful. For example, 2019 study found that workplace bullying caused less psychological distress for individuals with an external locus of control. Another study indicated that coping with the death of a spouse was easier for people who believed that some things were up to chance or fate (in order words, people with an external locus of control).

This suggests that what really matters might be the ability to accurately assess what is and isn’t under your control. Different types of locus of control may be helpful in various situations. A belief that your efforts don’t make a difference might stop you from building better health habits or putting in your best effort at work. But feeling responsible for everything that happens could make it harder to ask for help when you genuinely need it, or to recognize when someone is treating you unfairly.

Therapy can help you develop a healthier locus of control

Can you change your locus of control?

What if you feel that your locus of control is interfering with your happiness? Maybe your external locus of control is making it hard to take positive steps to improve your life. Or perhaps your internal locus of control is prompting excessive, unproductive self-criticism. Here are a few ways you might be able to shift your thinking:


The technique of self-affirmation can be a powerful tool for building up a sense of self-worth that may be less susceptible to being derailed by an unrealistic locus of control. It involves writing down and reflecting on your core personal values. By reminding yourself of the things that give your life meaning, you may feel more safe about your own intrinsic value, and less vulnerable to self-doubt or self-blame.

Positive visualization

Someexperiments have found that the locus of control can be shifted through a relaxed, focused exercise of the imagination. You can try this for yourself by taking a few half-hour periods each week to release your muscle tension and then picture yourself taking specific constructive actions toward your goals. This process may make it easier to see how you can affect your life outcomes, creating a stronger internal locus of control.


Sometimes it can help to have help from a mental health professional when trying to build a healthier outlook on life. Some studies have shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on learning and practicing healthier habits of thought, can shift and strengthen your locus of control.

Many people find that engaging in therapy online is a good way to get the process started. It can be easier to find licensed professionals and schedule appointments when you have the option of connecting through voice or video chat instead of going to sessions in person. Some participants may also feel more comfortable discussing sensitive personal topics in the comfort of their own living space. 

The effectiveness of online cognitive-behavioral therapy is well-supported by the research. A long-term series of clinical trials found that most patients stuck with their course of therapy and achieved substantial treatment outcomes. The researchers concluded that “the accumulated evidence provides compelling support for the efficacy and effectiveness of online CBT.” If you’d like to look into therapy, BetterHelp’s online platform offers a convenient way to connect with licensed mental health professionals. 

Counselor reviews

“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.”


Your locus of control refers to the amount of control you believe you have over your life. An internal locus of control refers to believing you generally control outcomes, whereas an external locus of control may be associated with a belief in fate or thinking that whatever is going to happen will happen. The strength of your internal or external locus of control may have a notable impact on your success, your relationships, and your health. It may be helpful to assess whether you think that your circumstances are mostly due to your choices or to forces beyond your control. Cognitive reframing through techniques like self-affirmation, visualization, and therapy may help you achieve a locus of control that’s better aligned with the reality of your life.

Locus of control 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." We'll break it down for you here.

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