Defining Locus Of Control: What It Is And Why It Matters
By Julia Thomas
Updated February 10, 2020
Reviewer 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, "Oh, 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?
Locus of control is a concept in psychology that describes whether you think your life circumstances are within your control. An article in Psychology Today defines it 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. A locus of control is where you think control of the circumstances in your life lies. There are usually two categories for the locus of control: internal and external.
When you have an internal locus of control, you think that the circumstances of your life are within your control. You're more likely to attribute your success to your actions, and more likely to identify things that you did as the reasons you didn't succeed.
On the other hand, when you have an external locus of control, you think that good or bad things, success or failure, happens because of external factors. Luck, fate, the market - these are all reasons people with an external locus of control give as to why something did or did not go wrong. They don't see themselves as having power over their circumstances, so they don't attribute their failure or success to their efforts.
Examples of Locus of Control
Go back to the two quotes at the top of the article. With what you now know, you can identify the speakers as having an external locus of control - they saw their circumstances as due to external factors.
In contrast, someone with an internal locus of control may 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 "the floor was slippery," they might say "I ran over the wrong part of the floor," or "I was wearing the wrong shoes."
We can find another example of internal versus external locus of control in the school system. Let's say two students took the same algebra test, and both failed. The one with an internal locus of control might explain the bad grade by saying, "I didn't study hard enough." The student with the external locus of control, on the other hand, might say, "the teacher made the questions too hard."
In the same line, let's say those two students did very well on the test. Student A (with an internal locus of control) might say, "yeah, I earned that grade. I worked hard." Student B, with the external locus of control, might explain the good grade by saying, "I was lucky. The test wasn't very hard."
Locus of Control: 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 idea of a locus of control has exploded across the psychological landscape, with thousands of studies and articles written about it.
Why is the idea so well-studied and popular? Because really, there's very little in your life that your locus of control doesn't impact. A study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology discussed fifteen other studies that showed locus of control, specifically an internal locus of control, is associated with achievement in school, sports, and business, and in long-term physical and psychological health.
Why does your locus of control have such a profound effect? Let's go back to our first example of the athletes who were discussing why they missed a shot. When their locus of control was external, and outside factors determined what happened, they weren't motivated to fix the problem. Why would they be? They don't have any control over it.
On the other hand, think about the students who aced their test. The student with the internal locus of control said that they earned their good grade because they worked very hard. Because they saw their work as the reason, they got the reward (the good grade) they'll be motivated to work hard in the future.
An internal locus of control is correlated with greater success and achievement because this tendency to attribute both one's successes and failures to one's actions gives students, athletes, businesspeople, and even parents a reason to investigate their actions, identify where they can improve, and take action.
Because locus of control affects so many areas of life, it's become a subject of debate and discussion far outside 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 contributed to 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 some interesting light on the physical effects of the 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 line between their actions and their health, they are also more likely to engage in activity that will keep them healthy, like eating well, exercising, and making regular doctor appointments. However, some researchers caution that it's not just locus of control that determines how well you take care of yourself. How much you care about your health is also a very important contributing factor. If you don't value your health, you can have a very strong internal locus of control, but that doesn't mean you'll take action to take care of yourself.
How to Determine Your Locus of Control
Ever since Dr. Rotter first developed the concept, psychologists, scientists, and researchers have been trying to develop an accurate and effective method to measure someone's locus of control. Today, there are a large number of tests that you can take to determine where you fall.
An important thing to note is that Rotter was emphatic that locus of control is not an either-or. You're not going to have an internal locus of control and therefore definitely not have an external locus or the other way around. Locus of control falls on a continuum, and people can even have a strong internal locus of control in one area (say, their work) and an external locus of control in another (like their health).
Some resources available today to determine your locus of control are:
Psychology Today's online test;
Rotter's original Locus of Control Scale; and
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business's Locus of Control test.
There are a wide range of another locus of control tests available, but if you want to determine your locus of control, make sure to use a reputable test that is designed to match your circumstances. Many self-help websites have their tests, and some scholarly websites have tests that are specifically for diabetes, depression, smoking, etc.
Locus of Control and Your Mental Health
Your locus of control 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 an association 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 completely black and white - 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 implications for your long-term success.
This may sound dismal for people with an external locus of control, but don't worry. Your locus of control 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 of control 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, for example, is a source that helps match you with a professional who can best help you change your locus and achieve your goals. You can start your journey at https://www.betterhelp.com/start/.