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Locus of Control


We consider many of lifeâ??s experiences as good, bad, or somewhere in between. We credit our accomplishments in life to luck or personal effort or, again, somewhere in between.

We consider many of life’s experiences as good, bad, or somewhere in between. We credit our accomplishments in life to luck or personal effort or, again, somewhere in between. These perspectives reflect our locus of control, and they have a profound effect on our academic success, career, relationships, and health.

What is your locus of control? What forces are responsible for your successes and failures?

Internals Versus Externals

“Psychologists call people who take the credit for success and the blame for failure ‘internals’,” says research psychologist Andrew Williams. “Internals believe they are responsible for the good and bad things that happen to them.” They tend to be self-reliant and take pride in victory; they feel shame in defeat.

“Externals, on the other hand, blame outside forces or bad luck for their failures and attribute their successes to good fortune,” explains Williams. “Extreme externals do not believe their behaviour has any effect on their lot in life. Externals are fatalistic.”

In short, internals do things and externals have things done to them. Of course, many people fall in the middle of this continuum. “Individuals who maintain a balance between internalism and externalism are often happier,” says Williams. “They know what is within their control and what is not.”

Self-Revealing Tests

An experimental psychologist, Williams has administered personality tests to almost half a million people for government, academic, and corporate organizations. In a quirky new self-help book, How Do You Compare? 12 Simple Tests to Discover Hidden Truths About Your Personality (Perigee, 2004), Williams presents 12 well-known scientifically devised personality tests for readers to discover more about key aspects of themselves. The idea behind Williams’s approach is that you can learn more about yourself by taking these short tests than you can by reading a stack of self-help books.

The theory of locus of control is nothing new. It was derived from the social learning theory developed by psychologist Julian Rotter in 1966. Social learning theory says that an individual learns on the basis of his or her history of reinforcement, that is, the reward or praise given by others in response to behaviour. From social learning theory Rotter developed the locus of control construct.

The Implications

According to Williams, the concept of locus of control has deep cultural and social implications. Why? “Because it influences motivation,” he stresses. “When you plan to do something, you consider the effects of your behaviour.” For example, you may want to get paid more at work. If you are an internal (you believe you control your destiny), you will work harder to get that raise. “However, if you are an external (you believe your efforts will not influence your destiny), your harder work will not be rewarded,” says Williams. “But, if you are lucky, you’ll get a raise.”

Similarly, internals believe relationship success is based on the effort they put into their love while externals tend to believe that they have lucked into a good relationship. “Again,” says Williams, “the effect of these beliefs is profound. Internals will work at their relationships harder because they feel they have ownership of them.”

Who Fares Better?

Internals don’t necessarily fare better than their external counterparts. Many externals are very happy people. “Think of highly religious people who believe their existence is in the hands of their gods,” says Williams. “They have turned over control to a spiritual entity and feel much more ease with ‘God as their co-pilot’.” Personally, Williams believes internals fare better in North American society where we tend to reward intrinsically motivated people. “Our countries were founded by people who take control of their destinies,” he says.

New studies of breast and colon cancer patients, post-traumatic pain sufferers, and clinically obese people, among others, show that people with an internal locus of control fare much better than their external counterparts.

Changing Your Locus of Control

Yes, you can slowly change your mindset. To become more internal, “picture yourself as the CEO of various tasks,” Williams explains. “Pretend you are the boss of your health, for example, and that only you are responsible for managing improvement.” To become more external, realize that you are not responsible for everything (like the weather, the errors of others, your genes). “[Internals] must slowly concede that aspects of life are outside their control,” he says.

Socioeconomic Factors

Family style and resources, cultural stability, and experiences with effort leading to reward can influence the development of locus of control. Many internals, for example, have grown up in families that modelled typical internal beliefs. These families emphasized effort, education, responsibility, and thinking. Parents typically gave their children rewards they had promised them. In contrast, externals are typically associated with lower socioeconomic status, because poor people have less control over their lives. Societies experiencing social unrest increase the expectancy of being out of control, so people in such societies become more external. “In the US, the darker your skin the more likely you are to be an external,” Williams states. “However, this may be because this is reality. African-Americans have fewer opportunities, and for many, harder work does not translate into success.”

Here is something that demonstrates this further. “Very attractive and very unattractive women tend to be externals. Why? Because if you are beautiful, it does not matter how you act or what you say, men will fawn over you and be kind and social toward you,” says Williams. “Similarly, unattractive women have the same fate,” explains Williams, in that they experience rejection based solely on their looks, not their actions. “These people really don’t have the opportunities to affect their lives through their actions,” he concludes.

So, what is your locus of control? Take the accompanying questionnaire below to find out.

Different Preferences

You can probably guess that internals and externals have different preferences. “Externals prefer to relax by playing games of chance like the lottery or slot machines,” Williams says. “They also prefer action-adventure television. Externals are most comfortable when others are in control of their fate.” Internals, on the other hand, like games of skill such as chess or tennis. Other differences:

  • Internals daydream about achieving goals. Externals worry more about failing.
  • Internals tend to have a more active sense of humour and are more politically active.
  • Externals are more persuaded by advertising.
  • Internals are more likely to wear seat belts.
  • Internals try to stay healthy by reading up on health-related topics; they take charge of their well-being and are interested in preventive health measures.
  • Externals are fatalists; they believe that they will contract ailments regardless of their actions; they then rely on the medical community to correct their ills.

Why Are You Successful?

Answer the following questions by circling the number that best represents your point of view. There are no right or wrong answers and there is no time limit. Note: The answer scale is deliberately reversed for Questions 2, 4, 6, and 8.


  Strongly disagree Strongly agree
1. When I succeed at a task, it’s usually because I worked hard. 1 2 3 4 5 6
2. How well I get along with others really depends on their behaviour. 6 5 4 3 2 1
3. Making a marriage last takes a lot of hard work. 1 2 3 4 5 6
4. When I get what I want, it’s usually because I’m lucky. 6 5 4 3 2 1
5. My life is determined by my own actions. 1 2 3 4 5 6
6. In many ways, my health is affected more by environment and genetics than by my own actions. 6 5 4 3 2 1
7. When I devise a plan, I’m certain I can make it work. 1 2 3 4 5 6
8. Many marriages fail due to outside circumstances. 6 5 4 3 2 1


Less than 20 = External
20 to 40 = Balanced
More than 40 = Internal

Source: Why Are You Successful? A Brief Locus of Control Questionnaire by Andrew N. Williams © 2004. Used with permission.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD