When something goes wrong in your life, do you tend to blame yourself or someone else? Psychologists call this type of ‘blaming’ or ‘attribution of success or failure’ our Internal and External Locus of Control. Sounds complicated, right? Well, it’s not, and it can affect how happy your life is. So what is this locus of control and how does it impact you?

What Is the Locus of Control?

When we go through life, we have different experiences. These can be positive or negative, successes or failures. The locus of control is how a person attributes the causes of these experiences. We tend to attribute the outcomes of our experiences internally or externally. In other words, you make things happen or things happen to you. This is the internal and external locus of control.

“A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation).” Philip Zimbardo

Examples of internal and external locus of control

Internal locus of control

  • You pass your exams with honours. Your success is down to long nights of revision, paying attention in class, taking detailed notes and generally being focused.
  • You fail your exams. You attribute your failure to not enough revision, turning up late for class, being disruptive in class and generally not bothering to study.

Both of these examples are of you and how you fared in an exam. But in both, you attribute your success or your failure to the actions you performed.

External locus of control

  • You pass your exams with honours. You attribute your success to the exam being really easy, it was lucky that you got the right questions, the benchmark for passing must have been lower than usual.
  • You fail your exams. Your parents forgot to wake you up, the alarm didn’t go off and you were rushed, the wrong questions came up.

I’m using the exam example again to show how people can use the internal and external locus of control in the same scenario.

So why does it matter? It’s because studies have shown that people who typically use the internal locus of control are happier, healthier and more successful. Conversely, those with an external locus are dissatisfied with life, are more likely to be overweight, unhealthy and suffer from stress.

But why are internals happier than the externals? Psychologists believe it’s all about taking responsibility for what happens, whether it’s good or bad. Internals believe that they are in control of what happens to them. As a result, they will attribute their successes to hard work and their own efforts.

Conversely, externals think that fate or luck decides how they fare in life. That there’s little they can do to influence an outcome. And if you think that your success or failure depends on outside factors, you’re less motivated to make the effort yourself.

Which kind of locus of control do you have?

The idea of locus of control and internal or external factors was first proposed by Julian Rotter in 1954. Rotter describes the internal locus of control:

“The degree to which persons expect that a reinforcement or an outcome of their behavior is contingent on their own behavior or personal characteristics.” Rotter (1990)

Here are the characteristics of the internal and external locus of control:

Internal Locus of Control

Those with an internal locus of control tend to:

  • Take responsibility for their actions
  • Say ‘I’ when talking about their successes or failures
  • Believe they are in control of their own fate
  • Think that if they work hard, they can succeed in life
  • Believe in their own abilities (have a strong sense of self-efficacy)
  • Have the belief they can change things
  • Are not influenced by other people’s opinions
  • Feel they can face challenges with confidence
  • Are specific with details, tend to generalise less
  • They take each situation as unique
  • Have different expectations depending on the situation
  • Are proactive and challenging

Rotter describes the external locus of control:

“The degree to which persons expect that the reinforcement or outcome is a function of chance, luck, or fate, is under the control of powerful others, or is simply unpredictable.”

External Locus of Control

Those with an external locus of control tend to:

  • Blame others when things go wrong
  • Put successes down to luck or chance
  • Believe others determine their fate, not them
  • Won’t take the credit for their successes
  • Feel helpless or powerless
  • Don’t believe anything they do will affect the outcome
  • Can’t believe they have the power to change a situation
  • Are heavily influenced by other people
  • Can be indecisive when it comes to actions
  • Have a fatalistic attitude
  • Will generalise more, have few details
  • Think all situations are the same
  • Believe similar events will have similar outcomes
  • Are passive and accepting

Where do we learn about our internal and external locus of control?

Rotter suggested that all through life, our behaviour is influenced by a system of rewards or punishments. If we are always rewarded when we do well, we are likely to repeat that behaviour. However, if we are always punished, we won’t repeat them.

So we learn there are consequences to our actions. But it’s more than just modifying our actions. It is the consequences to our actions that determine how we view the underlying causes of these actions. For instance, if we work hard throughout childhood and get good grades and we are rewarded, this cements the belief that we are in control of our destiny.

But say the reverse happens. We are not rewarded, we might be punished for studying instead of doing chores, we will start to think that it doesn’t matter what we do, or how hard we try.

Now, knowing all this, you would think that having an internal locus of control, as opposed to an external one is a benefit. And generally speaking, that is true. Internals do tend to lead happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

But you can have too much of an internal locus of control. Those with a very high internal locus can believe they control everything, from world events to personal matters such as illness. They can become impatient and intolerant of those they believe are not as controlled as they are.

How to change your locus of control

Sometimes we can become so embedded in our way of thinking that it’s really hard to break free. For instance, growing up in a religious household, seeing your parents or siblings overlooked for jobs they were qualified for, simply because of their religion. This has left you with a sense of ‘what’s the point?

And yes, this can be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean you can’t change your attitude. If you believe you have an external locus of control and would like to change this to an internal one, here are some tips:

  • Focus on what you can control, and leave what you can’t.
  • Instead of criticising yourself, try critiquing what went wrong.
  • Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes, see what you can learn from them.
  • Start taking responsibility for your actions.
  • Ask for support from friends or family.
  • Remember, you can’t help how you feel, but you do have influence over how you react and your actions going forward.

Final thoughts

As with most psychology, this really seems like common-sense. Of course, we should take responsibility for what we do. With more autonomy over our actions, we are bound to lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

Do you have an internal or external locus of control? Take this test to find out.


  1. www.sciencedirect.com
  2. www.researchgate.net
  3. www.researchgate.net

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. David Hallowell

    I strive to learn what is in my control and what I not.
    If it is in my control I understand that it still may take time to master that thing.
    Things that are not in my control I learn to view them with a positive attitude.
    If I find d my attitude to me negative than I rethink matters so as to come to new conclusions. That allow me to se the best in every situation.

  2. Anna Clarke

    I couldn’t agree more with this post. Do you see a lot of similarities to fixed and growth mindsets too? Someone in a fixed mindset would definitely maintain an external locus as they believe themselves to be unchangeable and their life predetermined. Perhaps developing a growth mindset and an internal locus would help people be even happier?

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