Locus of Control in Our Daily Lives
How the Concept of Control Impacts the Social World

By Michael Wise

       Locus of control is defined as an individual’s generalized expectancies regarding the forces that determine rewards and punishments.  Individuals with an internal locus of control view events as resulting from their own actions.  Persons with an external locus of control view events as being under the control of external factors such as luck (Marsh & Weary, 1995).  For example, a person with an internal locus of control will attribute the failure to meet a desired goal to poor personal preparation, whereas, one with an external locus of control will attribute failure to circumstances beyond the individual’s control.  The way individuals interpret such events has a profound affect on their psychological well-being.  If people feel they have no control over future outcomes, they are less likely to seek solutions to their problems.  The far-reaching effects of such maladaptive behaviors can have serious consequences, which has led many social psychologists to examine the origin of locus control and its impact on the social world.

        Control is a concept that plays an important role in several psychological theories.  It is central to Seligman’s (1975) probability analysis of control, theories of learned helplessness, Rotter’s (1954) social learning theory, Weiner’s (1986) attributional analysis of motivation and emotion, and it is the key concept in Bandura’s (1977) self-efficacy theory.

        Seligman (1975) has defined the concept of control most explicitly.  He defines an event as controllable when a person’s voluntary responses have an impact on the consequences of that event.  By contrast, an event is considered to be uncontrollable when no voluntary response has an impact on the event.  For example, when an organism receives electric shocks regardless of its efforts to stop them, the electric shocks are uncontrollable to the organism.  However, when the organism has the ability to prevent the shocks by pressing a button, the shock is considered to be controllable.

        Seligman explains his analysis through a mathematical approach.  He views controllability as a function of two parameters.  The first parameter concerns the probability that an event (e.g., the termination of a shock) will occur when a certain voluntary behavior is performed.  The second parameter concerns the probability that the event (e.g., the termination of the shock) will occur in the absence of the respective action (e.g., pressing a button).  Referring to these two parameters, Seligman defines an event as controllable when the probability of its occurrence in the presence and in the absence of the response under consideration are equal.  For instance, when the shock is terminated in 100 percent of the cases when the organism presses the button, the termination of the shock is 100 percent controllable.  However, loss of control exists when there is a lack of contingency between behaviors and outcomes.  This can lead to motivational, emotional, and cognitive deficits.

        Such deficits can be traced to the discovery that loss of control leads to learned helplessness, a state similar to depression.  Seligman (1975) assumes that experiences of uncontrollability, such as the loss of a loved one, can lead to the expectancy that future events will also be uncontrollable.  This expectancy leads to learned helplessness and depression.  Thus, according to this theory, depressed individuals differ from nondepressed persons in that they tend to expect to be unable to control events.

        However, in certain situations, lack of control can lead to a quite different psychological state known as reactance.  Wortman and Brehm (1975) argue that the initial reponse to uncontrollable outcomes is an increase in motivation and performance in order to attempt to regain control.  Thus, the child that experiences the death of a loved one may be motivated to become a doctor so that he or she can treat patients with similar problems and prevent the same thing from happening to other loved ones.  The effects of reactance are limited though.  Wortman and Brehm theorize that when perceived uncontrollable experiences continue to arise the state of helplessness is likely to emerge.

        Research within the framework of Rotter’s (1954) social learning theory is not primarily concerned with the conditions that lead to uncontrollability.  Instead, the psychological consequences of the belief that one can or cannot control the causes of events is the focus of his work.  Although Rotter takes a different angle to approach this topic, he defines “control” quite similarly to Seligman.  He states that an individual has an internal locus of control if one perceives that the event is contingent upon one’s behavior or relatively permanent characteristics, whereas external locus of control is characterized by the belief that reinforcement is perceived as not being contingent upon action ( to learn more about social learning theory, click here).

        This phenomena is exemplified through the relatively stable personality dispositions of internal versus external locus of control.  Internal locus of control leads to typical shifts in expectations of success following success or failure.  Those who succeed have increased expectancies following success and decreased expectancies following failure.  Individuals with an external locus of control show more atypical expectancy shifts.  They exhibit decreased expectancies of success following success and increased expectations of success following failure.

        In Weiner’s (1986) attributional analysis of motivation and emotion, the concept of controllability plays a central role in evaluative interpersonal actions.  He postulates that observers’ reactions to actors who experience failure, sickness, or need for help, are largely determined by the perceived controllability of the causes of these events.  Attributions of failure to controllable causes, such as lack of effort, lead to anger, punishment, and reduced willingness to help, whereas the belief that the actor has no control over the cause of the negative event, such as failure due to lack of ability, leads to pity, help-giving, and to lesser or no punishment.  For example, a beggar who appears to be capable of finding work is unlikely to get many handouts because passersby will attribute his state to being lazy.  However, a blind beggar is likely to get more donations because people will attribute his plight to forces beyond his control.  This will lead them to pity the beggar and make them more likely to exhibit helping behavior.

        Bandura (1986) examined aspects of the self that influence self-regulation.  His research examined the effects of self-efficacy beliefs, or the expectations that people hold about their abilities to accomplish certain tasks.  Whether or not they will undertake a particular activity, attempt to do a particular task, or strive to meet a particular goal depends on whether or not they believe we will be efficacious in performing those actions (Taylor et. al, 1998).  In other words, if individuals believe they have control over future events, then they will attempt to exert that control in order to achieve a positive outcome.  It does not matter whether an outcome is or is not attainable, the perception of control determines if one will try to attain it.  For example, if one believes that it is in her control to meet an extremely difficult goal such as getting straight As in school, she will try to get them even though the odds may be against her.  On the contrary, one may drop out of school because she does not believe it is under her control to determine if she passes her classes, even though passing grades may clearly be within her realm of abilities.  Therefore, locus of control has a significant impact on Bandura’s self-efficacy theories, and how individuals’ expectations shape the goals they set for themselves (test your self-efficacy here).

        Locus of control is a concept that has a significant effect on our daily lives.  Those with an external locus of control believe that their own actions do not influence future outcomes.  This makes individuals less likely to work to reach their full potential due to the motivational, emotional, and cognitive deficits it creates.  In fact, people with an external locus of control are more likely to suffer from depression and other ailments because they believe their actions cannot improve their current position.  Those with an internal locus of control see the world through a more adaptive perspective.  They believe that hard work and personal abilities will lead to positive outcomes.  This makes them more likely to meet challenges and succeed in their future endeavors.  Even though one’s actions may not have anything to do with an outcome, the belief that they do can greatly aid one’s psychological well-being.  Therefore, those that attribute a sense of personal responsibility for their future thoughts and aspirations are much more adept to living in the social world.

Clipart found at this  public domain site.

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This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 1999 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission, or were created by the authors.  Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).  Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:06:38.   This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman