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What is an External Locus of Control?

By Josie Myers
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The term locus of control was first introduced in the 1950s by psychologist Julian Rotter. It refers to a person's basic belief system about the influences that affect outcomes in their lives. There are two classifications of people in this theory: external and internal locus of control. The most successful people tend to be internal, while those with an external locus of control tend to be more negative about the world and their place in it.

People with an internal locus of control believe that they are primarily responsible for the outcomes in their lives. These people tend to be self-reliant and believe that nothing can hold them back except themselves. Studies have shown that those with an internal locus of control tend to be more successful people because they believe they can be and work toward that goal. Men tend to be more internally focused, while studies have also shown that the older a person gets the more internally focused they become.

Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves affect their ability to succeed. They tend to stake their future on things such as fate, luck, god or society. Because they believe they have very little personal stake in their future, those with an external locus of control tend to put less effort forward on most projects. Studies show that they are generally less successful in college and career than those with an internal locus of control.

There are many simple locus of control tests available. Most will ask questions pertaining to a person's belief in themselves. The original test was created by Rotter in 1966. It contained questions that required an "a" or "b" response. An example of a question on this test is the following: a) Many of the unhappy things in people's lives are partly due to bad luck. b)People's misfortunes result from the mistakes they make. Those with an internal locus of control would answer "a," while those with an external locus of control would answer "b."

Very few people are singularly internal or external. The Rotter Internal-External Locus of Control Scale places people on a scale, with one end the extreme external and at the other the extreme internal. Tests with individuals show which way they lean and if they have a sense of balance between the two extremes.

It is often believed that those with an external locus of control are destined to be unhappy. There is no guarantee that people of this kind are unable to be successful nor that they are unhappy. Many with this focus are able to see life as a series of fated events that they can just as easily fall on the good side of. Some are able to find freedom in this concept and live happy lives in the process.

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Discussion Comments
By anon328047 — On Apr 01, 2013

Thanks anon113731. I read paragraphs one and two again and yes, it is the other way around!

By surfNturf — On Oct 24, 2010

Cupcake15-Imagine if Lance Armstrong would have had an external locus of control, he may not have been alive today.

He was diagnosed with stage four testicular cancer and ended up winning the Tour de France about six times. This is a grueling sport and him being a late stage cancer patient at time could have resigned himself of his impending death, but instead not only did he triumph in the race, but his cancer is now in remission.

His positive thinking and his focus on something other than his cancer caused him to win a race that few in good health ever win, much less bad health. People with a strong internal locus of control are really inspirational figures that should be admired for their determination.

By cupcake15 — On Oct 24, 2010

Latte31-I agree with you on that point. An external locus of control examples also involve when children are labeled early in life.

Sometimes having been diagnosed with a learning disability early on can give the child the message that they will always be struggling in life. It is really important that these children understand that many people with learning disabilities grow up and become accomplished professionals.

I once saw a movie about a true story about a medical student that was dyslexic and she went on to become a medical doctor.

It is also important to focus on a child’s efforts rather than their intelligence because effort they have control over, but intelligence is something that you are born with.

A problem can also arise if you tell a child that they have gifted intellect because they will not try hard and might develop a negative attitude toward school. Rewarding effort is always best in these situations.

By latte31 — On Oct 24, 2010

SauteePan-A perfect example of an internal locus of control vs external locus of control involves people that live in subsidized housing and grow up in poverty.

Sometimes an external locus of control overcomes people that live in government housing and they feel this is their destiny. They feel because they are poor, they will be unable to obtain better opportunities.

They will say for example, there is no money to go to college, but when in reality the government does offer grants that do not have to paid back along with student loans that do not have to be repaid until after graduation.

So the opportunity to go to college is there, just some people feel that because they are poor those opportunities to not exist for them so they adopt a victim mentality that perpetuates the feeling of helplessness.

They will tend to focus on stories of people that have failed who were in similar circumstances to them. These people are the very external locus of control examples in which you see generations of families remain in poverty even though opportunities do exist for them to succeed.

Where one starts out in life does not determine their future, only they can by their efforts and hard work.

By SauteePan — On Oct 24, 2010

Good point, I agree with you.

An internal vs external locus of control measures the ability that one could be successful. People with an internal locus of control succeed despite their obstacles.

They believe in themselves and their ability to move forward. Oprah Winfrey can be said has a internal locus of control because despite her troubled childhood which involved sexual abuse and growing up poor she was able to overcome these issues and be one of the highest paid celebrities of all time.

It is said that her net worth is about $2 billion. Her childhood was terrible but she was able to focus on her internal strength and drive in order to become successful.

Many people that have a locus of control external would have not have believed that Oprah Winfrey would have achieved so much because her childhood was so troubling, but Oprah was a very hard working women and the old adage still stands today, “The harder you work, the luckier you get” which means that the more effort you put into something the more doors will open up for you.

By anon113731 — On Sep 25, 2010

An example of a question on this test is the following: a) Many of the unhappy things in people's lives are partly due to bad luck. b)People's misfortunes result from the mistakes they make. Those with an internal locus of control would answer "a," while those with an external locus of control would answer "b."

Exactly the other way round, isn't it? People with external locus put it down to bad luck, people with internal locus blame the failures of the person.

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