What Is… Locus of Control

Internal and external locus of control

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is locus of control.

Locus of control refers to who/what we hold responsible for what happens in our lives. This concept was first identified by psychologist Julian B. Rotter in 1954.  With an internal locus of control, we believe that we are responsible for what happens in our lives. With an external locus of control, we believe that external factors, including other people and environmental factors, are responsible. Locus of control isn’t a static thing; while we may naturally lean towards internal or external, we can shift along a continuum from internal to external based on a number of different factors.

This concept is primarily future-oriented, as we predict what we will and will not be able to control. Attribution theory is related, but it’s focused on trying to explain events that have occurred in the past.


Having an external locus of control is associated with developing depression, and can go along with a sense of powerlessness.

People with a more internal locus of control may find it easier to motivate themselves since they believe they can influence their outcomes. An internal locus of control may be more associated with taking preventative health strategies.

Research findings have been mixed in regards to a relationship with things like exercise, alcoholism, and age and gender correlations.

Stability over time

Since the concept was originally developed, new layers have been added. Ability and effort are both internal factors, but ability is relatively stable, while effort is unstable over time. Task difficulty and luck are external, but task difficulty is stable and luck is unstable.


The most widely used psychological measurement scale is Rotter’s locus of control scale; the link connects to a shortened version of the test that you can do online. The short version gives you a score from 0-13, with 0 being fully internal to 13 being fully external. I scored a 10, although there were a few questions that it was hard to pick an answer because I just wanted to say neither of the above.

Sphere of control

A more general concept is sphere of control/influence. It’s a way of looking at what you have control over, and what you don’t. I suspect a lot of us hold ourselves responsible for many things that are outside of our control. A great deal of mental energy can end up being spent on things we realistically have no power over.

A bit of a twist on that idea is when we think our internal experiences are within another person’s sphere of control. This can happen with emotions, along the lines of “you made me feel _____.”

I think I’ve developed a more external locus of control as I’ve gotten older. It’s less about age and more about circumstances. When I was younger, for the most part, outcomes were fairly consistent with what I was putting in. Then mental illness happened. I’ve tended to assume a primarily biological cause, which would be an internal effect. The effects of stigma, though, had very tangible effects on my life, and that was very much out of my control. It seems like on a fairly regular basis things happen to demonstrate that I don’t have control. I suppose maintaining an external locus of control is useful is in the sense that I’m not engaging in self-blame, but it also contributes to a sense of powerlessness.

Where does your locus of control tend to fall on the spectrum?

Source: Wikipedia: Locus_of_control

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

13 thoughts on “What Is… Locus of Control”

  1. I believe to think I fall under the external control more so now, than when I was younger.
    When I was younger, my whole being was out of control, constant chaos, and it created a lot of self-blame and additional pressures on me.
    As I’ve aged, I have grown to accept things that I have no control over much better.

    Intriguing post today.

  2. It’s been internal for some time now. It’s shifting, however, back to the external option. I don’t like that at all because when it was external, I was in a really bad and dark place and I could not see anyway to free myself from that perspective. I did blame a lot of other people and situations for my own problems. When I was able to shift to the internal mode, things improved dramatically and I saw possibility instead of impossibility. I had control of my own outcomes to decisions and so forth. Control, for me, is vital. It’s part of the parting gift my childhood trauma gave to me, along with hyper vigilance and PTSD. I’m watching the shift occurring and I’m feeling those old feelings of hopelessness, depression and an inability to DO anything about it because I just see more problems and more problems. Do you know, from your experiences as a therapist, if they have medications or pro-active therapies that one can do to stay that shift?

    1. Acceptance and commitment therapy is an interesting approach. It talks a lot about basing your actions on what keeps you moving in the direction of your identified values rather than getting caught up in all the problems that can get in the way.

  3. I have been trying to remember this term for a long time. I believe in internal locus. It bring more lasting peace. To be dependent on external locus peace or happiness is but for a moment and you have to go search for something else to make you happy. Thanks for the post.

  4. I am currently studying to become and NLP practitioner and Locus of Control has been recently covered in my course. I found your article to be very informative. I took the test and scored a 5. Had I taken that test ten years ago I would have scored much higher as I externalized everything and allowed my emotions to run my life. Years of self work and experience has paid off.

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