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What is locus of control? (Hint: it drives every choice you make)

woman looks happy handling various priorities has locus of control

Do you ever feel like life is passing you by? Like you're observing things from the window of a moving train car, waiting to get to your destination?

Or do you feel like you have your hands firmly on the wheel of a car, fully in control of exactly where you're going?

Maybe it differs depending on how you're feeling. But whether you feel in control of your life or not is a concept known as your locus of control.

It's affected by all sorts of things; your childhood experiences, your genetics, your personality traits, your environment, and your socioeconomic circumstances. It can also be linked to age, political preferences, religious background, and cultural surroundings.

Understanding your locus of control will help you understand and optimize the way you make decisions. It affects multiple areas of your life, from your mental and physical health, to your relationships, to your professional success.

Holding the reins of your own fate in your hands is a powerful way to go through life. But it's not the only way, and doesn't work for everyone. So let's have a look at what your locus of control is, and how you can make it work to your advantage.

Table of contents
What is meant by ‘locus of control’?
What are the two types of locus of control?
What is an example of internal locus of control?
How can you figure out which locus of control you have?
Is it better to have an internal or external locus of control?
You can still guide the hand of fate

What is meant by ‘locus of control’?

Your locus of control is the degree to which you believe you're in control over the outcome of events in your life.

Locus isn't too common in everyday conversation these days, but it essentially means the 'central hub' or 'HQ' for something to happen. (So your local community center might be a 'locus of social organization'.)

In the definition of 'locus of control', it refers to the centre of your feelings of control. It's not a physical place in the brain or body, it's more of a metaphorical concept - control either happens within you, or comes from outside of you.

The concept was first brought to prominence by American psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954, where he proposed a scale of measuring locus of control in the journal Psychological Monographs. Since it became popular in psychological assessments of peoples' motivation, it has attracted criticism. Because it's a two-dimensional scale, it doesn't quite account for the vast complexities of human nature. But it's a super useful starting point for understanding how and why we make decisions in our lives, so it's certainly worth looking into.

What are the two types of locus of control?

The two types that are commonly referred to are an internal locus of control and an external locus of control.

Someone with an internal locus of control believes that the events of their lives are due to their own choices. If you've got an internal locus of control, you'll feel that you're in control of your own environment and things happen to you because of what you decide to do.

Those with internal tendencies are more likely to be satisfied with their job and life overall, as they believe they have a good amount of control over the situation. They'll view challenges more as opportunities than setbacks, because they believe in their abilities to overcome them.

With an internal locus of control, you're less likely to be influenced by others in your life choices, and you'll be comfortable making your own choices. This attitude manifests in all walks of life, from deciding what you're having for lunch today, to choosing which work tasks you'll prioritize this week, to picking your career path and doing the right things to make sure you get to where you want to be.

Someone with an external locus of control feels that their life circumstances are decided by outside forces.

They'll believe that they don't have much control over what happens to them, or that they don't have the ability or resources to affect them. They might be less independent and more comfortable existing in a support network of friends and family.

The opinions of others matter greatly to someone with an external locus of control, and they might prioritize others over themselves in the decisions that they make. There is evidence suggesting that 'externals' have a higher chance of developing depression at some point in their lives than 'internals'.

Luck or chance are guiding factors in externally-oriented people. If good things happen, it's lucky, and if bad things happen, it's fate - or at least, that's how they perceive things.

It's important to remember that neither one of these is 'good' or 'bad'. They're just different. They are applicable to different lifestyles and attitudes, sure, but it's not particularly helpful to view one as more advantageous over the other.

What is an example of internal locus of control?

Imagine you're taking an exam at school. It's a challenging test, and one that's important for your career prospects. Not everyone in the class has a good time; some pass and some don't.

Your results come back, and you haven't done well. You score three points under the pass requirement, and have to take it again.

If you're oriented towards an internal locus of control, you'll think the result is your responsibility. You'll take accountability for the low score and think it happened because you didn't study hard enough. Or you might have not got enough sleep the night before, or you prioritized the wrong topics during your studies. This attitude will inform how you respond to the result - while it might sting a little, you'll learn from the experience and resolve to do better next time. You know that your performance is in your hands, and it's up to you to make things happen.

With an external locus of control, you'll see things differently. You're more likely to blame external forces like whoever set the exam (for making it too difficult), or the teacher for not preparing you well enough. You might spend more time thinking about your classmates and assume they had unfair advantages over you.

This will probably make it more difficult to learn from the experience and strategize for your next attempt. However,  you might be better positioned to keep your self-esteem intact; if it wasn't really your fault, you can't feel too bad about it. (Whereas the internally motivated person might take a bigger hit to their ego and feel the full weight of failure).

How can you figure out which locus of control you have?

Some people might just know straight away which locus of control they have. Strong type-A personalities will enjoy making it known that they call the shots in their lives and they alone are responsible for their successes (but only the humble ones will mention their failures as well).

That said, most of us are somewhere on a continuum. And for that reason, we need a bit more self-examination to figure out where it is that we stand.

You can actually take an internal vs external locus of control test - there's a few commonly-used tests out there that are based on psychological surveys. They're self-reported and not especially rigorous, so make sure you take the answers with a grain of salt. But they can be a fun way to get a broad indication of which way your locus of control is oriented.

One of the most exhaustive tests is the Duttweiler Internal Control Index, a 28-point questionnaire that asks you to complete statements like:

  • When faced with a problem, I _____ try to forget it.
  • If I want something I _____ work hard to get it.
  • Whenever something good happens to me I _____ feel it is because I've earned it.
  • I _____ need someone else to praise my work before I am satisfied with what I've done.
  • I _____ stick to my opinions when someone disagrees with me.

The blank spaces are for you to fill in with one of five adverbs - rarely, occasionally, sometimes, frequently or usually. Each option is linked to a number of points. Half the statements indicate an internal locus of control, and half external.

With the results, you're then given a final score which tells you to what extent you lean internal or external on the locus of control scale.

Many online locus of control tests have been inspired by the research of Rotter and subsequently the above Duttweiler scale. Remember, if you do end up taking one, don't take the results as gospel. Your answers might not be entirely accurate and could even depend on what kind of mood you're in when you take it.

But it might be worth a few minutes of your time - a bit of self-reflection might highlight some parts of your psyche that you'd never really think about otherwise.

The F4S assessment

In our motivational assessment based on 20+ years of research, there are two traits that align with internal locus and external locus; we call them internal frame of reference vs. external frame of reference

You can take the assessment for free to quickly see how you stack up, tips to increase or decrease them, and recommendations on ideal careers for each.

Is it better to have an internal or external locus of control?

The different types of locus of control have different advantages, depending on where you want to focus your energy.

While having an internal locus of control generally orients you towards achieving more in life, there are some downsides. While 'internals' are said to generally have better physical health, they might be reluctant to hand over responsibility when it's appropriate to do so. This can be particularly dangerous when it comes to taking care of their mental health - reluctance to seek help when needed can cause negative outcomes later on if issues are ignored.

That said, one study in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing found that those with an internal locus of control were less likely to delay calling for help in the event of a myocardial infarction (heart attack).

The difference probably lies in the fact that it's easier to think we can 'fix' ourselves when it comes to mental health, but doctors and surgeons are the obvious experts when it comes to malfunctioning body parts, so we're more comfortable handing over control to them.

Opinions on this topic will differ depending on culture and background, though. In Argentina for example, there's a higher concentration of psychiatrists than anywhere else in the world, so seeking therapy isn't as limited by locus of control as in other nations. Also, you’ll likely find a higher concentration of individuals with a strong internal locus of control in countries that heavily embrace individualism (like the United States) than in countries with collectivist cultures (such as China or Costa Rica).

An external locus of control may be suited to a more humble life, and that's completely fine. Stoic acceptance of the world's complexities - "what will be, will be" - can be a path to a much more peaceful existence. This attitude avoids the anxiety of always having to be 'on' and in control of life's events. If you're lucky enough to have resources or a family that supports you, then you might not have the pressures that require you to take control of things all the time.

'Externals' can be open-minded, interesting individuals that end up with great stories to tell. Their lack of perfectionism or focus on achievement means their interpersonal relationships can thrive, and they are more able to find joy in the circumstances they find themselves in. They might be able to create wonderful art, be fantastic parents, or find their comfort zone in being supportive to a high-achieving partner.

Which locus of control is better at the workplace?

In the workplace, locus of control psychology will certainly have an impact, but once again, there are advantages for both sides.

Those with an external locus of control may be better suited to companies with a high power distance - that is, those with hierarchies where those at the top wield control and their subordinates follow their lead. Without a need for control and power, they're happy with being given tasks and being told what to do. (Their opposites, 'internals', may find a low power distance company better, which would thrive on shared power between subordinates and superiors, allowing the ‘internal’ to feel more in control of their every day work). 'Externals' may be more comfortable staying in one company or position for a long time without a strong focus on career progression.

But if you want to climb up the corporate ladder and achieve significant professional success, an internal locus of control is going to be more useful. In a competitive business environment, a high degree of self-confidence and a tendency to be a proactive self-starter will serve you best.

You can still guide the hand of fate

Some things you can control, and some things you can't. But there is a way to tilt the odds in your favor, wherever your locus lies on the control spectrum.

Have you ever heard the phrase "you make your own luck"? It means that if you want good things to happen to you, you have to put yourself out there.

Here's an example. Freelance workers have to continually put themselves 'out there' to get contracts. This means going to networking events, posting on social media, reaching out to business contacts, and sometimes working for free or cheap to gain exposure. They can't control the outcome of these efforts, but not doing them means it's much harder for those dream clients and well-paying customers to find them.

It's the same with dating. In the messy world of interpersonal communication, you can never be quite sure how someone's going to respond to your advances. You can never be sure when you'll meet the person of your dreams - this is something outside your locus of control. But the part you can control is actually going out there and meeting people. Joining social clubs, attending cultural events, or even making conversation with strangers - these are all things that'll massively increase your chances of a favorable outcome.

So, if you ever wonder if you're really in control or not, just remember to trust yourself - you might be able to influence things more than you think. 

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