Are you feeling out of control?
How much control do you think you have? Locus of control is a term coined by Julian Rotter in the 1960s as part of his social learning theory. It refers to the belief in how much control people think they have over our own lives. You can complete a test here to see if you have an internal or external locus of control: Am I in control?
As an individual develops and gains experience, they learn to differentiate between those events that are a consequence of their own behaviour, and those events that are controlled by external forces.People with an internal locus of control believe that events in their life are primarily caused by their own actions, behaviours and abilities (“I control my own destiny”). They tend to be more confident in being successful, take personal responsibility for their actions, can thrive during change and tend to be leaders (often leading those with an external locus of control). You can also see here that an internal locus of control features consistently in studies on the psychological characteristics of entrepreneurs: What makes an entrepreneur?
In contrast, people with an external locus of control tend to believe that life is driven by outside factors which they cannot influence, or that chance, luck or fate control their lives (“Things happen to me”). They may feel like they are a victim, they prefer to be led by others, and are more prone to stress, anxiety and depression.
Rotter claims that locus of control is learnt. As an individual develops and gains experience, they learn to differentiate between those events that are a consequence of their own behaviour, and those events that are controlled by external forces. However, Rotter maintains that locus of control is not a typology. You are not either extremely one or the other; it is a continuum.
Additionally, the extent to which people expect events to be controlled by themselves (internal) or by external factors may vary between situations and events, i.e. some ‘externals’ may behave like ‘internals’ in some situations because of their past learned experiences.
Locus of control and wellbeing
There are suggestions that people with higher levels of external locus of control are likely to report more stressful experiences and higher levels of psychological and physical problems.
We know that locus of control moderates the relationship between control and cortisol (the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone): people with more internal locus of control, who perceive themselves to have control over a stressor, show a reduced cortisol response.
Our locus of control can influence not only how we respond to the events that happen in our lives, but also our motivation to act. If you believe that you control your destiny, you are more likely to change your situation when it is necessary, so you may eat better and exercise more. If, on the other hand, you believe that the outcome is in the hands of fate, you may be less motivated to act towards change. Typically, we know that people with an internal locus of control tend to be happier and have a healthier lifestyle, through exercise and a healthy diet (Popova, 2012).
However, having an internal locus of control isn’t always better. People who explain bad events in terms of internal causes can experience negative impacts on their mental health, i.e. “It’s my fault as I didn’t try hard enough”. This is particularly relevant to situations where people have little actual control over events and are unable to frame being out of control as being due to external circumstances.
Locus of control at work
There is a lot of research on how locus of control affects individuals at work.
- Increased stress: occupational stress in teachers was found to be positively associated with the teachers' generalised belief in external control (Kyriacou and Sutcliffe, 1997).
- Higher level of accidents: hospital employees with more external safety locus of control orientations reported significantly more occupational accidents, as well as more severe and costly injuries, than workers with more internal safety attitudes (Jones and Wuebker, 1993).
- Professional pilots with more flight experience have an internal locus of control. They are less likely to believe that accidents are the result of circumstances outside of their control and believe that accidents are because of something that they have (or have not) done (Dave et al., 2019).
- Job turnover: those with internal locus of control are more likely to take positive action to change their jobs than those with external locus of control (Allen et al., 2005).
- Job search strategies: individuals with an internal locus of control search more for jobs. In addition, individuals who believe that their future outcomes are decided by external factors tend to have lower wages (Caliendo et al., 2010).
Getting back in control
It is possible to take control of your locus of control. Firstly, if you find that you are an ‘externaliser’ (i.e., “things happen to me”), the good news is that you can do something about it, and so this will help your wellbeing. In which case, it’s also possible to relearn that you can take back control of the things in your life that you are not happy with.
ACTION: Think about how you can become more ‘internal’ and take back control.
Pick something that you are not happy with (it can be very small) and come up with a concrete plan of action on how you’re going to take control and tackle it. If there’s really nothing you can do to change the situation, consider how you could instead change your reaction to what’s happening. Don’t let other people dictate how you feel; it's up to you how you control your emotions and decide how you feel.
Secondly, be clear on those issues that it’s fine to be ‘external’ about and those that you can be ‘internal’ about. For example, “I cannot control a pandemic”; “I cannot control lockdown” BUT “I can control how I make use of my time during lockdown”; “I can control how I respond to this situation”.
Thirdly, being an externaliser is not always bad. In some situations, having an external locus of control is a good thing – particularly when a person's level of competence is not strong. For example, a person who is terrible at playing a particular sport, let’s say tennis, may feel depressed or anxious about their performance if they have a strong internal locus of control. If they lose a match, they might feel stressed, and think, “I lost because didn’t try hard enough”. However, an individual with an external locus of control will probably feel less stressed about losing and might think, “I lost because the other player was better than me”.
ACTION: Think about the situations where it’s okay to let go of the control and be more ‘external’.
Thinking back to the question at the start of this article, how much control do you think you have? Wellbeing is not always about how much control you have; it’s about how you use it, as well as knowing where you are happy to not have it.
Allen, D.G., Weeks, K.P., Moffitt, K.R. (2005) ‘Turnover Intentions and Voluntary Turnover: The Moderating Roles of Self-Monitoring, Locus of Control, Proactive Personality, and Risk Aversion’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(5), pp 980–90.
Caliendo, M., Cobb-Clark, D. and Uhlendorff, A. (2010) ‘Locus of Control and Job Search Strategies’, Review of Economics and Statistics, 97(1).
Dave, H.P., Mesarosova, K., Siegling, A.B., Tremblay, P.F. and Saklofske, D.H. (2019) ‘Assessing locus of control in pilots: Psychometric evaluation of a self-report measure’, Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors, 9(1), pp. 24–30.
Jones, J.W. and Wuebker, L.J. (1993) ‘Safety locus of control and employees' accidents’, Journal of Business and Psychology, 7, pp. 449–57.
Kyriacou, C. and Sutcliffe, J. (1997) ‘A note on teacher stress and locus of control’, Journal of Occupational Psychology, 52 (3), pp. 227–8.
Popova, S. (2012) ‘Locus of Control - Predictor of Health and Subjective Wellbeing’, European Medical Health and Pharmaceutical Journal, 4.