Locus of Control

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Locus of Control is a psychological phenomenon that was first identified in the mid-1900s by the American psychologist Julian Rotter. Locus of Control describes the degree to which an individual believes his or her actions cause various outcomes. This article will provide a brief historical summary of the definition of Locus of Control, an outline of measures used to quantify the degree to which a particular individual is characterized by an internal or external Locus of Control, its applications in formal and informal learning environments, and possible relationships between Locus of Control and several other motivational constructs.


As quoted in Furnham & Steele (1993), Rotter (1966) originally defined Locus of Control as:
"When a reinforcement is perceived by the subject as ... not being entirely contingent upon his action, then, in our culture, it is typically perceived as the result of luck, chance, fate, as under the control of powerful others, or as unpredictable because of the great complexity of the forces surrounding him. When the event is interpreted in this way by an individual, we have labeled this a belief in external control. If the person perceives that the event is contingent upon his own behavior or his own relatively permanent characteristics, we have termed this a belief in internal control."

Schunk, Pintrich, & Meece (2008) offer a more concise explanation:

"Locus of control ... refers to the tendency of some people (internals) to perceive a contingencey between their behavior and outcomes, and the tendency of others (externals) to perceive that there is not a strong link between their behavior and outcomes. For any given behavior, internals are likely to make internal attributions, whereas externals are apt to make external attributions."

As both descriptions note, locus of control is a manner of distinguishing typical attributions. It is important to highlight the roles of perceived control in a situation and assumed responsibility for outcomes as key components of a particular locus of control style. While it is true that individuals often exhibit characteristic patterns of attributions that lead to labels like "internals" and "externals", a given person may respond differently in various learning situations or may demonstrate unique patterns when confronted with successes and failures.


Several scales have been developed to evaluate an individual's Locus of Control, determining the degree to which he or she internalizes responsibility for outcomes. The original scale, Rotter's I/E Scale was proposed at the time of the first definition of Locus of Control and consists of 29 forced-choice questions. A scale roughly based on Rotter's original questionnaire can be found here.

Since Rotter's seminal work, many researchers have sought to sharpen his measurement techniques. In particular, subsequent scales have employed Likert-scale techniques, encouraging participants to rate their self-perceptions instead of requiring a dichotomous choice as in Rotter's I/E Scale. Most notably, Duttweiler (1984) and Levenson (1974) each developed Locus of Control Scales that are commonly used in Locus of Control research.

Common scales for measuring Locus of Control in educational contexts include:

  • Rotter I/E Scale (1966)
  • Reid & Ware (1974)
  • Levenson (1974)
  • Nowicki-Strickland (1973) locus of control scale for children
  • Duttweiler (1984) Internal Control Index (ICI)
  • Lefcort Multidimensional-Multiattributional Causality Scales (MMCS) (1981)

Separate scales have been developed to measure Locus of Control in other domains such as health psychology through the use of specific domain-related questions and jargon. Similarly, educational researchers often adapt these general questionnaires by including content-specific information in their questionnaires such that the participants' answers directly reflect their self-perceptions in a given content area.

Educational Applications

Control and Incidental Course Knowledge

Dollinger (2000) conducted a quasi-experiment in which he measured students' Locus of Control and their knowledge of incidental course-related material, in hopes of finding a correlation. Participants included 535 students across three semesters who were all enrolled in the researcher's Personality Psychology course.


In the first two studies, "the questionnaire included 6 items patterned closely after several of the commonly used IE scales, using a 1-5 (strongly disagree to strongly agree) Likert scale where high scores indicate internality:

1. To a great extent, the important things that happen in my life are due to accidents (reverse scored).

2. My success so far in my life is due to my ability and hard work.

3. Whether or not I complete my college career and earn my degree will depend on what I do.

4. Whether I succeed or fail is often due to how lucky I am and how powerful other people are (reverse scored).

5. If I meet my personal goals in life, it will really depend on how prepared I make myself.

6. Most of my problems will go away if I just ignore them (reverse scored)." (Dollinger, 2000).

The final study described in this article used Levenson's (1973) 24-item measure of Locus of Control.

Course-related incidental knowledge, which the author subsequently refers to as "trivia", was measured with an instructor/researcher-created test of trivial course-related knowledge, including 105 multiple-choice items such as the time and location of office hours and course meetings and the number of points required to earn an "A". As the author notes, "Included were items relevant to the course itself and to self-disclosive 'asides' in my initial lectures, but not directly relevant to the field or Personality Psychology" (Dollinger, 2000).


Internals and Externals (greater than one standard deviation from the mean) performed significantly differently on the trivia scale: Internals performed better, but the effect size was not very large, as they received an average of 64% on the trivia measure while Externals received an average score of 52%.

Trivia scores predicted course success in each of these three studies, as measured by the total number of points students received on four course exams (r = .26, .20, .31). This finding was also salient even when controlling for overall GPA.

One hypothesis for this finding may be that students with an internal locus of control attend to all information and may in fact be unable to discern which information is not relevant to their own behaviors or goals.

Control and Self-Regulation Strategies

In a study of 397 undergraduates, Shell & Husman (2008) obtained multiple motivational measures including control (labeled as either “internal” or “external”), goal orientation, and self-regulation.


In this study, “control” was a comprehensive construct that included self-efficacy and expectancy for success measures in addition to typical locus of control questions. "Control" was also conceptualized as concerning Future time perspective (FTP), which the authors define as "a person's conceptualization of the future and connection to that future" (Shell & Husman, 2008).

Goal orientation (see Achievement Goals) included performance and mastery orientations and measured approach and avoidance patterns. Self-regulation strategies were measured with a self-report questionnaire in which participants were asked to rate items like their time spent studying and qualitative features of that studying.


Shell & Husman analyzed the self-regulation and goal orientation participant self-reported data as a function of students’ control data and found three characteristic patterns:

1. High control correlated with high self-regulated learning and low internal control correlated with low self-regulated learning strategies, higher work avoidance, lower mastery and performance approach goal orientations, and lower positive affect (an Apathetic pattern)

2. Lack of self-regulation strategies, high external control, high affect and anxiety, work avoidance goals: Learned Helplessness

3. High control with high mastery-goal orientation but without explicit self-regulation strategies: intrinsically motivated, knowledge-building student as described in Self-Determination Theory.

In fact, Shell & Husman (2008) employs many different motivational measures and may therefore be relevant to many other research topics, particularly those that attempt to construct a holistic approach to studying motivation in students.

Other Applications

In addition to its effects in educational settings, an individual's Locus of Control has also been shown to correlate with achievement in less formal contexts such as attainment of athletic goals, recovery from disease or injury, and prevention of future disease and injury. Thus, this construct is also relevant to these disciplines:

  • Health psychology
  • Sports psychology

Relationships to Other Motivational Constructs

As Shell & Husman (2008) remark in their large-scale study of motivation, "Control and other motivational constructs are psychologically hierarchical." Thus, it follows that various motivational concepts may be related to Locus of Control.

Some connections might be with:

  • Expectancy Value Theory
  • Attribution Theory: Locus of Control is often considered one of the causal dimensions of Attribution Theory, guiding a person's attributions by placing responsibility internally on the individual or externally on others or the environment (Weiner, 1992). An inconsistent Locus of Control may be the foundation for several Attributional Biases, such as the Self-Serving Bias.
  • Learned Helplessness, a characteristic behavior and thought pattern proposed within Attribution Theory that Schunk, Pintrich, & Meece (2008) operationalize as the "Perception of no relationship between behaviors and outcomes." Certainly, Learned Helplessness is one manifestation of an External Locus of Control and other affective and goal-perception patterns.
  • Achievement Goals: As shown in Shell & Husman, certain ends of the Locus of Control spectrum may typify Performance or Mastery goal orientations.
  • Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation


  • Dollinger, S. J. (2000). Locus of control and incidental learning: An application to college student success. College Student Journal. 34(4), 537-540.
  • Furnham, A., & Steele, H. (1993). Measuring locus of control: A critique of general, children's health- and work-related locus of control questionnaires. British Journal of Psychology. 84(4), 443-479.
  • Goodman, F. H. & Walters, L. K. (1987). Convergent Validity of Five Locus of Control Scales. Educational and Psychological Measurement. (47), 743-747.
  • Schunk, D. H., Pintrich, P. R., & Meece, J. L. (2008)Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Applications (Third Edition). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Shell, D. F., & Husman, J. (2008). Control, motivation, affect, and strategic self-regulation in the college classroom: A multidimensional phenomenon. Journal of Educational Psychology. 100(2), 443-459.