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Locus of Control

What’s Your Locus of Control—and Why Does It Matter?

A stronger sense of personal control is linked to higher levels of well-being.

Key points

  • People with an internal locus of control feel they are in charge of their destiny.
  • People with an external locus of control perceive themselves as subjects to external forces.
  • An internal locus of control is linked to higher levels of well-being and life success.
  • Simple tools such as mindfulness and yoga could help to boost a sense of control.

When was the last time you took a test that didn’t go quite as well as expected? Do you remember how you felt? While you might have tried to ease the disappointment with copious amounts of chocolate and a good sulk (totally normal!), there are typically two different ways to make sense of the outcome. Let’s consider the following two examples:

  1. Mel receives her grade for a recent college exam and is disappointed to learn she didn’t pass. She puts the outcome down to being underprepared. Instead of spending many a late night partying, she should have studied harder and maybe sought out additional tuition. This exam result is a wake-up call for her and she decides to put in more effort in the upcoming months.
  2. Sue receives her grade for a recent college exam and is disappointed to learn she didn’t pass. She puts the outcome down to unfair test conditions and an unduly harsh professor who doesn’t like her. She believes that no matter how hard she studied, there was little she could do to influence her grade. As a result, she doesn’t think there is much point in changing her behaviour moving forward.

Mel and Sue’s reactions to their test results are examples of different positions or so-called “loci” of control. Locus of control is a psychological concept to explain how different people think about their control over life events.

An internal locus of control (Mel’s example) represents a position where individuals have a strong sense of personal control over their life. They feel that their own behaviour and choices are the strongest predictors of how their life will turn out. Hence, both successes and failures are in their own hands.

An external locus of control (Sue’s example), on the other hand, represents a position where individuals feel like their life is controlled by external forces or fate. They believe that factors beyond their personal control such as their physical or social environment determine how their life unfolds. Hence, they often think there’s little they can do to influence the positive or negative events in their lives.

Locus of control is a continuous concept, meaning that people don’t always identify neatly with a fully internal or external locus of control. Indeed, most people are likely to fall somewhere in between, recognising that both their own choices as well as situational factors influence their life outcomes. However, the importance attributed to internal and external factors is likely to vary from one individual to another.

Internal or External Locus of Control: What’s Better?

Locus of control helps us to understand individual differences in approaching life, responding to obstacles and planning for one’s personal future. Depending on their individual loci, some people perceive themselves as masters of their own destiny, while others believe in the overriding power of fate. But which position is likely to leave you feeling happier or result in greater success?

Let’s think back to Mel’s and Sue’s exam responses. Their opposing reactions are likely to have different consequences.

Mel’s approach of internalising the outcome is likely to serve as motivation to work harder in the future and obtain better results moving forward. However, if her performance fails to improve, the internal locus of control could lead to excessive self-blame and crush her self-esteem.

In contrast, Sue’s approach of externalising the bad exam result means she is less likely to feel bad about herself. However, her future grades are unlikely to improve if she doesn’t see the point in studying. She might also experience feelings of frustration directed at external factors, which she blames for her lack of success. For example, if she thinks the low grades are due to unfair marking, she might grow angry towards her tutors.

It appears that no one locus of control is a guarantee for perfect happiness. Nevertheless, research suggests that levels of well-being are typically highest for individuals with a moderately strong internal locus of control. This is because they tend to engage in healthier behaviours (such as higher levels of exercise and healthy eating) and employ more successful strategies for dealing with stress. Furthermore, their stronger sense of control is likely to make them work harder and therefore result in greater levels of success—for example at work.

Boosting Your Sense of Control

What is your own locus of control? Online tests or simple self-reflection could help you find out.

While one's locus of control is a relatively stable trait, there are a number of simple tricks to help you feel more in charge and motivated. Tools shown to improve a personal sense of control are mindfulness meditation and a regular practice of yoga. Why don’t you give it a go? A personal favourite of mine is this lovely little yoga class aimed to get you going when you just don’t have the motivation.

More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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