Locus of Control

Variables include attribution, control, reinforcements, expectations, and perception: “Rotter viewed locus of control as an attribution where individual’s behaviors were functions of their expectations and reinforcements” (de Carvalho, Gadzella, Henley, & Ball, 2009, para. 5).

Domains include education, age, cultural background and ethnicity, gender, and health (mental and physical).
ContributorsMargaret Mary Todd
School of Information Studies
Syracuse University 

The main developer is Julian B. Rotter who first developed the theory, Locus of Control (1966).


Locus of Control is an attribution theory primarily developed by Julian B. Rotter (1966). “Locus of Control refers to those causes to which individuals attribute their successes and failures” (Forte, 2005, p. 65). Rotter identified two different types of control:

  • Internal: Those with a high internal locus believe their will and behavior is directed by their own internal decisions and thus feel as if they have more influence on their environment” (Jatkevicius, 2010, p. 78).

  • External: “A personality type guided by high external locus involves the belief that one’s behavior and results are guided by circumstances out of one’s control (fate, luck, and so on)” (Jatkevicius, 2010, p. 78).

Rotter developed an assessment, the Rotter Internal-External Locus of Control assessment, consisting of twenty-nine paired questions to determine if one’s locus of control was more internal or external (Lefcourt, 1982, p. 209-212).

Various studies have looked at the relationship between education and locus of control. Specifically, more education leads to increases in internal locus of control (Slagsvold & Sorenson, 2008, p. 30).

  • Students who receive better grades typically possess an internal locus of control, according to Bernstein, Kovenklioglu and Greenhaus, “high scoring students identify effort and ability as causes of their success, whereas those performing poorly are more likely to cite test difficulty and bad luck as causes” (as cited in Kirkpatrick, Stant, & Downes, 2008, p. 486).

  • Students with internal locus of control are more likely to process information with “deep or strategic learning approaches” according to Cassidy and Eachus (as cited in Grimes, Millea, & Woodruff, 2004, para. 8).

  • According to Miranda, Villaescusa, and Vidal-Abarca, students with learning disabilities are more likely to express an external locus of control, “attributing their success to luck rather than their own effort” (as cited in Firth, Frydenberg, & Greaves, 2008, para. 5).

  • Education acts as a “buffer” to the “erosion of control” that comes with aging (Schieman, 2001, p. 153).

Age also has a strong relationship with locus of control. Schieman determined that an individual’s locus of control morphs as they age: as an individual gets older, they lose their sense of control. Schieman suggests that retirement, widowing, and deteriorating health all contribute to a low sense of control, whereas education, marriage, financial satisfaction, and religious association can all help maintain an internal locus of control (2001).

Cultural background and ethnicity can also contribute to one’s locus of control. Lefcourt pointed out in 1982 that, “minority groups who do not enjoy as much access to opportunity as do the predominant Caucasian groups in North American society, are often found to hold fatalistic, external control beliefs” (p. 31).

Gender factors into one’s sense of control: women are less likely to posses an internal locus of control than men. However, the gender gap in regards to locus of control is changing: “as gender inequality in education and life chances decline, we should expect to see gender difference in sense of control to decline as well, because women’s and men’s life courses are converging” (Slagsvold & Sorenson, 2008, p. 29).

There is also a direct relationship between an individual’s locus of control and their health, both mental and physical. A study determined that college students who experience “severe stress make more behavioral attributions to chance,” meaning they possess an external locus of control (de Carvalho et al., 2009, Discussion section, para. 1). Overall, those with an external locus of control have a more difficult time dealing with stress, including the stress that develops as a result of deteriorating health, which can then lead to worsening health conditions (Lefcourt, 1982, p. 103).


From the managerial context, being aware of your employee’s internal-external locus of control can be very helpful, it can teach you more about your employees and why they act the way they do. Research has shown that “individuals with high external locus are less likely to be committed to their organizations […] they may feel unable to influence organizational decision making regardless of their actual feelings about the issue being discussed […] they are easily silenced by high internals who can easily try to control group dynamics” (Jatkevicius, 2010, p. 78). Jatkevicius recommends organizations, including libraries, use personality testing (Myers-Briggs) as a way to get to know employees better and figure out ways to work together (2010, p. 81).

Determining locus of control types is also recommended as a way to target students who may need an intervention to help develop their internal locus of control: for students, the locus of control is “easily measured using brief inventories, and potentially changeable via brief, inexpensive interventions that can be completed in a quarter or semester” (Kirkpatrick et al., 2008, p. 487).

REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

  • de Carvalho, C.F., Gadzella, B.M., Henley, T.B., & Ball, S.E.  (2009). Locus of control: differences among college students’ stress levels.  Individual Differences Research, vol. 7(3), 182-7. Abstract: In this study, college students “self-reported their stress levels” (de Carvalho et al., 2009, p. 182). They then completed two assessments to determine their locus of control.  It was determined that there is a “significant” relationship between severe stress levels and an external locus of control amongst college students. 

  • Firth, N., Frydenberg, E., & Greaves, D. (2008).  Perceived control and adaptive coping: programs for adolescent students who have learning disabilities. Abstract: Learning Disability Quarterly, vol. 31(3), 151-65.This study examined 98 adolescents with “specific learning disabilities.”  These adolescents were enrolled in a coping program and a teacher feedback intervention program, both designed to build personal control amongst the adolescents with learning disabilities.  It was determined that the adolescents felt a greater “perceived control of external situations and increased use of productive coping strategies” after participating in the programs (Firth, Frydenberg, Greaves, 2008, para. 1).  This gives hope that it is possible to change an individual’s perception of control. 

  • Forte, A. (2005, April/May).  Locus of control and the moral reasoning of managers.  Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 58, 65-77. Abstract: This study used Rotter’s I-E Scale to determine “the likelihood of an individual to engage in unethical behavior in an organization” (Forte, 2005, p.65). Forte’s research looked to test the idea that if an individual has an internal locus of control they are more likely to make their own decisions about what is appropriate behavior, and in contrast, an individual with external locus of control is more likely to look to others for what is appropriate, as determined by previous research.  Forte looked specifically at “managers’ locus of control and their moral reasoning,” and found “no significant differences between a manager’s locus of control and his/her moral reasoning” (2005, p.73).

  • Grimes, P.W., Millea, M.J., & Woodruff, T.W. (2004, Spring).  Grades- who’s to blame? Student evaluation of teaching and locus of control.  The Journal of Economic Education, vol. 35(2), 129-47. Abstract: This study examined the connection between locus of control and student evaluations of teaching.  The study found that students with an internal locus of control were more likely to complete above-average teacher evaluations, while students with an external locus of control would more likely give teachers average or below-average evaluations. 
  • Jatkevicius, J.  (2010).  Libraries and the lessons of abilene. Library Leadership & Management (Online).  24(3), 77-81. Abstract: This article looked closely at the Abilene Paradox, its connection to locus of control, and the effects it may have on organizations. Jatkevicius specifically examined the Abilene Paradox in libraries.  Personality testing was recommended to all organizations in order to get to know staff members and their involvement in decision-making. 

  • Kirkpatrick, M.A., Stant, K., & Downes, S. (2008).  Perceived locus of control and academic performance: broadening the construct’s applicability.  Journal of College Student Development, Vol. 49 (5), 486-496. Abstract: College students enrolled in the study completed multiple Locus of Control assessments.  Data was collected and it was determined that students with an internal locus of control performed significantly better than those with an external locus of control. Performance was judged by looking at student grades.  At-risk students were identified and it was recommended that interventions be put in place to help foster their internal locus of control.

  • Lefcourt, H. M. (1982).  Locus of control: current trends in theory and research, second edition.  Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. Abstract: Lefcourt’s book, Locus of Control: Current Trends in Theory and Research (2nd Edition), outlines the theory of locus of control.  It goes into great detail in a variety of sectors relating to locus of control.  It also provides the reader access to Rotter’s Internal-External Assessment and Scale.  

  • Rotter, J.B. (1966).  Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement.  Psychological Monographs, 80: 1-28. 

  • Slagsvold, B. & Sorensen, A. (2008).  Age, education, and the gender gap in the sense of control.  International Aging and Human Development, Vol. 67(1), 25-42. Abstract: A study conducted in Norway of adults ages 40-79, looking closely at the relationship between age, education, the gender gap, and locus of control.  The study determined that education was primarily responsible for the differences amongst genders and their sense of control.  The study found four factors that could affect the gender differences in sense of control: physical health, education, living with a partner, and leadership experience (Slagsvold & Sorenson, 2008, p. 25).

  • Schieman, S. (2001).  Age, education, and the sense of control: a test of the cumulative advantage hypothesis.  Research on Aging vol. 23 (2), 153-178. Abstract: Looking closely at the relationship between age, education and the sense of control, Schieman determined that low education, widowhood, and retirement all result in a loss of sense of control.  Financial satisfaction and religious involvement work to combat the affects that education, widowhood and retirement can have on lowering sense of control as one ages.