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Locus of control theory is a theory in psychology that identifies individual differences between people on a continuum between - internals, who attribute events to their own control, and externals, who attribute events in their life to external circumstances.
Locus of control is a concept initially used to distinguish between two types of situations – those in which outcomes are determined by skill in contrast to settings where chance or powerful others are the main determinant of success and failure. For example, in games such as chess, sporting events such as tennis, and exams in fields such as math, it is reasoned that positive and negative outcomes are determined primarily by ability and level of skill. This does not imply that chance has no influence whatsoever on what has transpired. After all, perhaps the tennis match was affected by a gust of wind blowing the ball, or the math exam score influenced by a guess at a true/false alternative. Nonetheless, outcomes in these events primarily are determined (or, are perceived as determined) by ability. Ability is located within the person; hence, the so-called locus of control is internal. On the other hand, if a “head” or a “tail” will be showing in a coin toss, or whether red or black will be the place the ball stops in roulette, is determined (or, is perceived to be determined) by chance (assuming the game is “fair”). Of course, some may think they can sway where the roulette ball stops or that they can guide the appearance of a head or a tail on a coin toss, so that ability may be conceived as influencing task outcome. Nonetheless, most individuals on most occasions believe that success and failure at these tasks are chance-determined. Chance is regarded as external to the person, resulting in the external locus of control label.
History of concept
Locus of control was formulated within the framework of Rotter's (1954) social learning theory of personality. Lefcourt (1976) defined perceived locus of control as follows: "Perceived control is defined as a generalised expectancy for internal as opposed to external control of reinforcements" (Lefcourt 1976, p27). Early work on the topic of expectancies about control of reinforcement had, as Lefcourt explains, been performed in the 1950s by James and Phares prepared for unpublished doctoral dissertations supervised by Rotter at Ohio State University. Attempts have been made to trace the genesis of the concept to the work of Alfred Adler, but its immediate background lies in the work of Rotter students, such as William H. James (not to be confused with William James), who studied two types of expectancy shifts:
- typical expectancy shifts, believing that a success or failure would be followed by a similar outcome; and
- atypical expectancy shifts, believing that a success or failure would be followed by a dissimilar outcome.
Work in this field led psychologists to suppose that people who were more likely to display typical expectancy shifts were those who more likely to attribute their outcomes to ability, whereas those who displayed atypical expectancy would be more likely to attribute their outcomes to chance. This was interpreted as saying that people could be divided into those who attribute to ability (an internal cause) versus those who attribute to luck (an external cause). However, after 1970, Bernard Weiner pointed out that attributions to ability versus luck also differ in that the former are an attribution to a stable cause, the latter an attribution to an unstable cause.
A revolutionary paper in this field was published in 1966, in the journal Psychological Monographs, by Julian B. Rotter. In it, Rotter summarized over ten years of research by himself and his students, much of it previously unpublished. Early history of the concept can be found in Lefcourt (1976), who, early in his treatise on the topic, relates the concept to learned helplessness. Rotter (1975, 1989) has discussed problems and misconceptions in others' use of the internal versus external control of reinforcement construct.
Locus of control personality orientations
Rotter (1975) cautioned that internality and externality represent two ends of a continuum, not an either/or typology. Internals tend to attribute outcomes of events to their own control. Externals attribute outcomes of events to external circumstances. For example, college students with a strong internal locus of control may believe that their grades were achieved through their own abilities and efforts, whereas those with a strong external locus of control may believe that their grades are the result of good or bad luck, or to a professor who designs bad tests or grades capriciously; hence, they are less likely to expect that their own efforts will result in success and are therefore less likely to work hard for high grades. (It should not be thought however, that internality is linked exclusively with attribution to effort and externality with attribution to luck, as Weiner's work (see below) makes clear). This has obvious implications for differences between internals and externals in terms of their achievement motivation, suggesting that internal locus is linked with higher levels of N-ach. Due to their locating control outside themselves, externals tend to feel they have less control over their fate. People with an external locus of control tend to be more stressed and prone to clinical depression(Benassi, Sweeney & Dafour, 1988; cited in Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007).
Internals were believed by Rotter (1966) to exhibit two essential characteristics - high achievement motivation and low outer-directedness. This was the basis of the locus of control scale proposed by Rotter in 1966, although this was actually based on Rotter's belief that locus of control is a unidimensional construct. Since 1970, Rotter's assumption of unidimensionality has been challenged, with Levenson, for example, arguing that different dimensions of locus of control, such as belief that events in one's life are self-determined, are organized by powerful others and are due chance-based, must be separated. Weiner's early work in the 1970s, suggested that, more-or-less orthogonal to the internality-externality dimension, we should also consider differences between those who attribute to stable causes, and those who attribute to unstable causes. This meant that attributions could be to ability (an internal stable cause), effort (an internal unstable cause), task difficulty (an external stable cause) or luck (an external, unstable cause). Such at least were how the early Weiner saw these four causes, although he has been challenged as to whether people do see luck, for example, as an external cause, whether ability is always perceived as stable and whether effort is always seen as changing. Indeed, in more recent publications (e.g. Weiner, 1980) Weiner uses different terms for these four causes - such as "objective task characteristics" in place of task difficulty and "chance" in place of luck. It has also been notable how psychologists since Weiner have distinguished between stable effort and unstable effort - knowing that, in some circumstances, effort could be seen as a stable cause, especially given the presence of certain words such as "industrious" in the English language.
Scales to measure locus of control
- Main article: Locus of control measures
The most famous questionnaire to measure locus of control is the 23-item forced choice scale of Rotter (1966), but this is not the only questionnaire.
Related area: Attributional style
- Main article: Explanatory style
Attributional style, or explanatory style, is a concept that was introduced by Lyn Yvonne Abramson, Martin Seligman and John D. Teasdale (Abramson, Seligman & Teasdale, 1978). Buchanan and Seligman (1995) have edited a book-length review of the topic. This concept goes a stage further than Weiner, saying that in addition to the concepts of internality-externality and stability a dimension of globality-specificity is also needed. Abramson et al. therefore believed that how people explained successes and failures in their lives related to whether they attributed these to internal or external factors, to factors that were short-term or long-term and to factors that affected all situations in their situations. The topic of attribution theory, introduced to psychology by Fritz Heider, has had an influence on locus of control theory, but it is important to appreciate the differences between the history of these two theoretical models in psychology. Attribution theorists have been, largely speaking, social psychologists, concerned with the general processes characterising how and why people in general make the attributions do, whereas locus of control theorists have been more concerned with individual differences. Significant to the history of both approaches were the contributions made by Bernard Weiner, in the 1970s. Prior to this time, attribution theorists and locus of control theorists had been largely concerned with divisions into external and internal loci of causality. Weiner added the dimension of stability-unstability, and somewhat later, controllability, indicating how a cause could be perceived as been internal to a person yet still beyond the person's control. The stability dimension added to our understanding of why people success or failure after such outcomes. Although not part of Weiner's model, a further dimension of attribution was added by Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale, that of globality-specificity (see the article on explanatory style.
Applications of locus of control theory
Locus of control's most famous application has probably been in the area of health psychology, largely thanks to the work of Kenneth Wallston. Scales to measure locus of control in the health domain are reviewed by Furnham and Steele (1993). The most famous of these would be the Health Locus of Control Scale and the Multidimensional Health Locus of Control Scale, or MHLC (Wallston, Wallston, & DeVellis, 1976; Wallston, Wallston, Kaplan & Maides, 1976). The latter scale is based on the idea, echoing Levenson's earlier work, that health may be attributed to three possible outcomes - internal factors, such as self-determination of a healthy lifestyle, powerful others, such as one's doctor, or luck. Some of the scales reviewed by Furnham and Steele (1993) relate to health in more specific domains, such as obesity (for example, Saltzer's ) (1982) Weight Locus of Control Scale or Stotland and Zuroff's (1990) Dieting Beliefs Scale), or mental health (such as Wood and Letak's (1982) Mental Health Locus of Control Scale or the Depression Locus of Control Scale of Whiteman, Desmond and Price, 1987)and cancer (the Cancer Locus of Control Scale of Pruyn et alia, 1988). In discussing applications of the concept to health psychology, Furnham and Steele also refer to Claire Bradley's work, linking locus of control to management of diabetes mellitus. Empirical data on health locus of control in various fields has been reviewed by Norman and Bennett (1995). These authors note that data on whether certain health-related behaviours are related to internal health locus of control have been ambiguous. For example, they note that some studies found that internal health locus of control is linked with increased exercise, but they also cite several studies that have found only a weak or no relationship between exercise behaviours (such as jogging) and internal health locus of control. They note similar ambiguity for data on the relationship between internal health locus of control and other health-related behaviours, such as breast self-examination, weight control and preventative health behaviours. Of particular interest are the data these authors cite on the relationship between internal health locus of control and alcohol consumption. Norman and Bennett note that some studies which have compared alcoholics with non-alcoholics have suggested alcoholism is linked with increased externality for health locus of control, but other studies have found alcoholism to be linked with increased internality, and similar ambiguity has been found in studies which have looked at alcohol consumption in a more general, non-alcoholic population. Norman and Bennett appear a little more optimistic in reviewing the literature on the relationship between internal health locus of control and smoking cessation, although they also point out that there are grounds for supposing that powerful others health locus of control, as well as internal health locus of control, may be linked with smoking cessation.
Norman and Bennett argue that a stronger relationship is found when health locus of control is assessed for specific domains than when general measures of locus of control are taken. ("Overall, studies using behaviour-specific health locus scales have tended to produce more positive results (Lefcourt, 1991). Moreover, these scales have been found to be more predictive of general behaviour than more general scales, such as the MHLC scale" (Norman & Bennett, 1995, p72). Norman and Bennett cite several studies which have used health-related locus of control scales in specific domains, including smoking cessation (Georgio & Bradley, 1992), diabetes (Ferraro, Price, Desmond & Roberts, 1987), tablet-treated diabetes (Bradley, Lewis, Jennings & Ward, 1990), hypertension (Stantion, 1987), arthritis (Nicasio et al., 1985), cancer (Pruyn et al., 1988) and heart and lung disease (Allison, 1987). They also argue that health locus of control is better at predicting health-related behaviour if studied in conjunction with health value, i.e. the value people attach to their health, suggesting that health value is an important moderator variable in the health-locus of control relationship. For example, Weiss and Larsen (1990) (cited in Norman & Bennett, 1995) found increased relationship between internal health locus of control and health when health value was assessed. Despite the importance that Norman and Bennet (1995) attach to use of specific measures of locus of control, there are still some general textbooks on personality, such as Maltby, Day and Macaskill (2007), which continue to cite studies linking internal locus of control with improved physical health, mental health and quality of life in people undergoing conditions as diverse as HIV, migraines, diabetes, kidney disease and epilepsy (Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007).
Other fields to which the concept has been applied include industrial and organizational psychology, sports psychology, educational psychology and the psychology of religion. Richard Kahoe has published celebrated work in the latter field, suggesting that intrinsic religious orientation correlates positively, extrinsic religious orientation correlates negatively, with internal locus. Of relevance to both health psychology and the psychology of religion is the work prepared by Holt, Clark, Kreuter and Rubio (2003), in preparing a questionnaire to assess spiritual health locus of control. These authors distinguished between an active spiritual health locus of control orientation, in which "God empowers the individual to take healthy actions" and a more passive spiritual health locus of control orientation, where people leave everything to God in the care of their own health. In industrial and organizational psychology, it has been found that internals are more likely to take position action to change their jobs, rather than merely to talk about occupational change, than externals (Allen, Weeks & Moffat, 2005; cited in Maltby et al., 2007).
Characteristics of locus of control orientations
Empirical research findings have implied the following differences between internals and externals:
- Internals are more likely to work for achievements, to tolerate delays in rewards and to plan for long-term goals, whereas externals are more likely to lower their goals. After failing a task, internals re-evaluate future performances and lower their expectations of success, whereas externals may raise their expectations. These differences relate to differences in achievement motivation (as noted above, Rotter (1966) believed that internals tend to be higher in achievement motivation than externals). However, empirical findings have been ambiguous here. There is some evidence that sex-based differences may complicate these findings, with females being more responsive to failures, males to successes.
- Going back to Bialer's (1961), considerable data suggest that internal locus of control is associated with increased ability to delay gratification. However, at least one study has found this effect does not apply to all samples. Walls and Miller (cited in Lefcourt, 1976) found an association between internal locus and delay of gratification in second and third grade children, but not in adults who were vocational rehabilitation clients.
- Internals are better able to resist coercion. This relates to higher outer-directedness of externals, another factor which Rotter (1966) believed distinguished the two orientations.
- Internals are better at tolerating ambiguous situations. There is also a lot of evidence in clinical research that internality correlates negatively with anxiety, and that internals may be less prone to depression than externals, as well as being less prone to learned helplessness. However, this does not mean that the emotional life of the internal is always more positive than that of the external, as internals are known to be more guilt-prone than externals.
- Externals are less willing to take risks, to work on self-improvement and to better themselves through remedial work than internals
- Internals derive greater benefits from social supports.
- Internals make better mental health recovery in the long-term adjustment to physical disability.
- Internals are more likely to prefer games based on skill, while externals prefer games based on chance or luck.
The development of locus of control is associated with family style and resources, cultural stability and experiences with effort leading to reward. [How to reference and link to summary or text] Many internals have grown up with families that modeled typical internal beliefs. These families emphasized effort, education, responsibility and thinking. Parents typically gave their children rewards they had promised them. In contrast, externals are typically associated with lower socioeconomic status, because poor people have less control over their lives. Societies experiencing social unrest increase the expectancy of being out-of-control, so people in such societies become more external. The research of Schneewind (1995; cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2005) suggests that "children in large single parent families headed by women are more likely to develop an external locus of control" (Schultz & Schultz,2005, p439). Schultz and Schultz also point out that children who develop an internal locus tend to come from families where parents have been supportive and consistent in self-discipline. There has been some ambiguity about whether parental locus of control influences a children's locus of control, although at least one study has found that children are more likely to attribute their successes and failures to unknown causes if their parents had an external locus of control (see the first of the external links listed below).
As children grow older, they gain skills that give them more control over their environment. In support of this, psychological research has found that older children have more internal locus of control than younger children. Findings from early studies on the familial origins of locus of control were summarised by Lefcourt: "Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus".
Locus of control and age
It is sometimes assumed that as people age, they will become less internal and more external, but data here have been ambiguous. Longitudinal data collected by Gatz and Karel (cited in Johnson et al., 2004) imply that internality may increase up to middle age, and thereafter decrease. Noting the ambiguity of data in this area, Aldwin and Gilmer (2004) cite Lachman's claim that locus of control is ambiguous. Indeed, there is evidence here that changes in locus of control in later life relate more visibly to increased externality, rather than reduced internality, if the two concepts are taken to be orthogonal. Evidence cited by Schultz and Schultz (2005), for example Heckhausen and Schulz (1995) or Ryckman and Malikosi, 1975 (cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2005), suggests that locus of control increases in internality up until middle age. These authors also note that attempts to control the environment become more pronounced between the age of eight and fourteen. For more on the relationship between locus of control and coping with the demands of later life, see the article on aging.
Sex-based differences in locus of control
As Schultz and Schultz (2005) point out, significant differences in locus of control have not been found for adults in a U.S. population. However, these authors also note that there may be specific sex-based differences for specific categories of item to assess locus of control - for example, they cite evidence that men may have a greater internal locus for questions related to academic achievement (Strickland & Haley, 1980; cited in Schultz & Schultz, 2005).
Cross-cultural issues in locus of control
The question of whether people from different cultures vary in locus of control has long been of interest to social psychologists. Japanese people tend to be more external in locus of control orientation than people in the U.S., whereas differences in locus of control between different countries within Europe, and between the States and Europe, tend to be small (Berry, Poortinga, Segall & Dasen, 1992). As Berry et al. (1992) point out, different ethnic groups within the United States have been compared on locus of control, with blacks in the U.S. being more external than whites, even when socio-economic status is controlled (Dyal, 1984; cited in Berry et al., 1992). Berry et al. (1992) also point out how research on other ethnic minorities in the U.S., such as Hispanics, has been ambiguous. More on cross-cultural variations in locus of control can be found in Shiraev and Levy (2004). The research in this area indicates how locus of control has been a useful concept for researchers in cross-cultural psychology.
Self-efficacy is another related concept, introduced by Albert Bandura. Although someone may believe that how some future event turns out is under their control, they may or may not believe that they are capable of behaving in a way that will produce the desired result. For example, an athlete may believe that training eight hours a day would result in a marked improvement in ability (an internal locus of control orientation) but not believe that he or she is capable of training that hard (a low sense of self-efficacy). Self-efficacy has been measured by means of a psychometric scale and differs from locus of control in that whereas locus of control is generally a measure of cross-situational beliefs about control, self-efficacy is used as a concept to relate to more circumscribed situations and activities. Bandura has emphasised how the concept differs from self-esteem - using the example that a person may have low self-efficacy for ballroom dancing, but that if ballroom dancing is not very important to that person, this is unlikely to result in low self-esteem.
Psychiatrist and expert on trauma and dissociation, Colin A. Ross, M.D., describes the inappropriate self-blame that characterizes many adult survivors of childhood trauma as "the locus of control shift." This theory is pivotal in his therapeutic sessions with near-psychotic people at the Ross Institute for Psychological Trauma.
It is important to appreciate that differences do exist between internal locus of control and self-efficacy. Smith (1989) has argued that the Rotter scale to assess locus of control cannot be taken as a measure of self-efficacy, because "only a subset of items refer directly to the subject's capabilities" (Smith, p229). Smith noted, in his empirical study, that coping skills training led to increases in self-efficacy, but did not affect locus of control as measured by Rotter's (1966) scale.
Genetics of locus of control
Neurobiology of locus of control
Summary, critique and the future
Locus of control has been a concept which has certainly generated much research in psychology, in a variety of areas. Usefulness of the construct can be seen in its applicability to fields such as educational psychology, health psychology or clinical psychology. There will probably continue to be debate about whether specific or more global measures of locus of control will prove to be more useful. Careful distinctions should also be made between locus of control (a concept linked with expectancies about the future) and attributional style (a concept linked with explanations for past outcomes), or between locus of control and concepts such as self-efficacy. The importance of locus of control as a topic in psychology is likely to remain quite central for many years..
- Emotional control
- Explanatory style
- External rewards
- Extrinsic motivation
- Fundamental Attribution Error
- Independence (personality)
- Internal rewards
- Intrinsic motivation
- Learned helplessness
- Locus of control and moral development
- Self control
- Self determination
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- The Social Learning Theory of Julian B. Rotter
- Relationship Between Parental Locus of Control and Children's Perceptions of Control
- Locus of control: A class tutorial
- Locus of control
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