Locus of Control:  How Outcomes in Life are Determined

Posted on May 12, 2022 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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“Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen,” Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame major league baseball executive declared. “Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best…luck is the residue of design.”

Rickey firmly believed that we author our own success. “The mark of distinction that the man reaches is earned,” was his credo.  He felt that man is in charge of his own destiny.

Psychologist Julian Rotter, PhD, would describe Rickey as someone with a “high internal locus of control.”

Rotter (pronounced row-ter) began developing his locus of control theories in the early 1950s while he was teaching at Ohio State University.  The work continued when he joined the faculty of the University of Connecticut in 1963.  These concepts were so original and significant that Rotter would ultimately be named one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

The term locus of control refers to a person’s expectations and assumptions about the underlying causes of events in life.   Rotter believed expectations fall into two clusters:  internal locus of control and external locus of control.  Those with an internal locus believe events in their lives are contingent upon their own actions.  They expect that their efforts can affect outcomes (think Branch Rickey).  The externals have the expectation that their behavior is unlikely to influence the course of events — factors like chance, luck, fate, and the actions of more powerful forces are likely to dictate outcomes.

As Rotter explained, human behavior “is determined not only by nature or importance of goals or reinforcements but also by a person’s anticipation or expectancy that these goals will occur. Such expectations are determined by previous experience and can be quantified.”

Internal and external loci of control are on a continuum — it runs from high internal to high external. In 1966, Rotter developed a Locus of Control Scale that measures where an individual sits on the continuum.

The Scale consists of 29 questions.  Each question contains two statements:  the subject is instructed to pick the statement they agree with the most.  One of the responses reflects the expectations of an internal, the other an external.

Over time, the Scale has been modified and adapted many times — it has been used in a wide variety of settings, including clinical psychology testing, human resources development, and organizational assessment.  It has almost unlimited application possibilities.

In fact, Rotter’s locus of control has become one of the most researched concepts in the field of social psychology.  Because of the volume of that scholarship, we have a detailed understanding of how internals and externals function in the real world.

Generally speaking, internals tend to be more ambitious, proactive, assertive, and optimistic than externals. They also are healthier, less prone to depression, and more financially successful.

In his book Choice or Chance, Dr. Stephen Nowicki noted that internals are not necessarily more intelligent than externals. “The crucial difference seems to be the way internals perceive, and then take on, their everyday tasks,” Nowicki wrote. “It turns out internals are motivated by, perhaps even driven by, the simple but powerful assumption that what they do is important in determining what happens to them.”

A critical point Nowicki emphasized in Choice was that none of us are completely internal or external:  we all fall between the two extremes on the continuum.  He also cautions against approaching everything in life as a controllable situation — many times control isn’t attainable or even desirable.

Another salient issue Nowicki raised is the notion of modifying or significantly altering locus of control expectations.  Since locus is a learned, not inherited behavior, changes are certainly possible.

Rotter was a practicing clinical psychologist when he developed the locus paradigm.  He recognized the way to change behavior is to change thinking; that belief goes to the core of the relationship between expectancy and outcome.  Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which focuses on helping the client achieve more control over his or her life by reframing faulty thinking, is closely tied to Rotter’s design.

The acclaim Rotter received for his work did not seem to have much of an impact on him.  Near the end of his life, he said that he had never been particularly concerned about how the rest of the world viewed him; he was more interested in doing research and helping graduate students with their dissertations.  A self-described internal, he continued to teach and play a brisk game of tennis into his 80s.  Rotter was 97 when he passed away on January 6, 2014.

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