Locus of Control
When something goes wrong, it’s natural to cast blame on the perceived cause of the misfortune. Where an individual casts that blame can be related, in many cases, to a psychological construct known as “locus of control.”
Locus of control refers to the degree to which an individual feels a sense of agency in regard to his or her life. Someone with an internal locus of control will believe that the things that happen to them are greatly influenced by their own abilities, actions, or mistakes. A person with an external locus of control will tend to feel that other forces—such as random chance, environmental factors, or the actions of others—are more responsible for the events that occur in the individual's life.
Like other constructs in personality psychology, locus of control falls on a spectrum. Genetic factors may influence one’s locus of control, as well as an individual’s childhood experiences—particularly the behaviors and attitudes modeled by their early caregivers.
Researchers have identified several areas in which one’s sense of control appears to affect outcomes, including education, health, and civic engagement. Overall, such research has generally suggested that those with a more internal locus of control are more successful, healthier, and happier than those with a more external locus.
Most people have either an internal or external locus of control. Those with an internal locus of control believe that their actions matter, and they are the authors of their own destiny. Those with an external locus of control attribute outcomes to circumstances or chance.
Many people believe that locus of control is something that you’re born with—an innate part of your personality. However, evidence suggests that parents can play a major role in how their child develops a locus of control. Encouraging a child’s independence and teaching them to associate actions with consequences can result in a better-developed internal locus of control.
Julian B. Rotter developed the locus of control concept in 1954, and it continues to play an important role in personality studies. In 1966, Rotter created a 13-item forced-choice scale in order to measure locus of control, though it is neither the only nor the most popular scale in use today.
Notice when you are self-victimizing or blaming other people for your hardships or negative feelings. Even if it’s true, try not to wallow in self-pity. Focus on the parts of the problem that are within your control—and let go of the rest, including the reactions of other people.
Another psychological concept related to locus of control is that of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, as described by psychologist Albert Bandura, refers to one’s belief that they are able (or not able) to accomplish tasks and achieve their goals.
Though people with high self-efficacy also typically have a more internal locus of control, the two measures are not perfectly correlated. Someone, for example, may feel like they have the power to influence their own health while simultaneously feeling like they lack certain skills—such as cooking healthy meals—that would improve their health (high internal locus of control, but low self-efficacy).
Some research has suggested that one’s self-efficacy can be improved with practice, while locus of control is less easily influenced. There is some evidence, however, that one's locus of control may naturally change with age.
People with high self-efficacy also tend to have high self-sufficiency, an essential aspect of well-being. They are high in self-esteem, feel secure and content with themselves, and aren’t overly concerned with other people’s opinions of them. People with strong self-efficacy are more resilient and less likely to be destabilized by negative life events. Their locus of control is more likely to be internal than external.
There’s a powerful link between perceived control and health. The more that someone believes their actions determine their future, the more likely they are to engage in healthy behaviors, like eating well and exercising regularly. If, on the other hand, they feel like they have no control, such as when dealing with a terminal illness, they may experience negative symptoms, like stress and depression.
People with high self-efficacy and an internal locus of control tend to cope better with stress, because they feel like their actions make a difference. Meanwhile, those with an external locus of control or lower levels of self-efficacy are prone to feelings of helplessness, resulting in the excess release of the stress hormone cortisol. This, in turn, can lead to a sense of hopelessness and depression.