Psychology Locus of Control
Rachel Ammirati, Stephen Nowicki
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0168


Locus of control (LOC), or internal versus external control of reinforcement, is one of the most studied personality constructs in the social sciences. Conceived of by Julian Rotter, PhD—considered by many to be one of the most influential figures in the history of psychology—LOC reflects the degree to which an individual sees outcomes as being related to personal behaviors and characteristics versus external factors. Existing along a continuum, individuals considered to have a more “internal” LOC tend to see outcomes as being contingent on their own actions, whereas those considered to be more “external” tend to believe that outcomes are a result of external forces, such as luck, fate, chance, or powerful others. A product of Rotter’s equally significant social learning theory (SLT), the construct of LOC has influenced diverse fields within and outside of psychology, including personality and social psychology, medicine, business, and sports. Although Rotter originally conceptualized LOC as a generalized expectancy regarding control of reinforcement across a broad number of situations, the construct also has been studied as a domain-specific characteristic (e.g., health LOC) and has sometimes been confused with related, but distinct, constructs such as self-efficacy and attributional style. Studies guided by SLT have most often examined early experiences with caregivers as the antecedents of individual differences in LOC, but conclusions regarding the origins of this personality characteristic are far from firm. Consistent with this latter point, and despite being the subject of thousands of research studies, much remains to be learned about LOC, including whether it is causally linked to its myriad correlates and whether it can be changed.

General Overviews

Since the publication of Rotter 1966 (cited under Measurement), which introduced the concept of LOC, theoreticians and researchers have endeavored to refine, change, and redefine its nature and parameters. Many of these endeavors are summarized elegantly in Lefcourt 1981–1984 and Lefcourt 1992. Initially, Rotter theorized that there would be separate loci of control for different goal domains (e.g., achievement, social recognition, love, affection, etc.); however, he failed in his attempts to create a measure that separated these domains into independent factors. Therefore, being the true scientist that he was, Rotter followed the data—rather than his intuition—and concluded that a global conceptualization of LOC was warranted. Nevertheless, many researchers seemed to misunderstand this early work and to ignore LOC’s place within Rotter’s social learning theory (SLT), which prompted the publishing of Rotter 1975. Later, when Rotter 1990 was published, it served as another reminder of what LOC was—and was not—and re-emphasized the importance of understanding LOC within the framework of SLT. To further quell confusion about the LOC construct, Peterson and Stunkard 1992 was published to highlight differences between LOC and similar constructs such as self-efficacy (which is described in Bandura 1977) and explanatory style. Later, however, Judge, et al. 2002 presented new data that challenged the appropriateness of distinguishing between LOC, self-efficacy, and other similar constructs (e.g., self-esteem and neuroticism). Despite Rotter’s evidence-based skepticism about the utility of domain-specific conceptualizations of LOC, he recognized that there could be room for such conceptualizations within his SLT if they contributed incremental validity to the prediction of relevant behavior. Perhaps one of the most successful domain-specific conceptualizations of LOC was described by Wallston, et al. 1978, which argued that expectancies about people’s health behaviors would be important in determining how they acted in health-related situations. If the goal of this bibliography were to provide a comprehensive list of resources that describe the hundreds of conceptualizations of LOC that have been developed since Rotter first introduced the concept in the 1950s, it would literally take more than the rest of the space allotted to do so. Scholars have made myriad attempts to dismantle the original conceptualization of LOC as a broad-based, global generalized expectancy.

  • Bandura, A. 1977. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review 84:191–215.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.84.2.191

    In this introduction to the concept of self-efficacy—an important cognate of LOC—Bandura attempts to describe how the construct may serve to bring together disparate perspectives on cognition and motivation. Although others have attempted to refine its conceptual underpinnings, the essential definition of self-efficacy remains the same today.

  • Judge, T. A., A. Erez, J. E. Bono, and C. J. Thoresen. 2002. Are measures of self-esteem, neuroticism, locus of control, and generalized self-efficacy indicators of a common core construct? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83:693–710.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.83.3.693

    The authors of this journal article utilize original research and a meta-analytic literature review to address whether the four constructs mentioned in the title are essentially the same construct. They argue that empirical evidence indicates that they are associated strongly and therefore most likely related elements of a higher-order construct.

  • Lefcourt, H. M. 1981–1984. Research with the locus of control construct. 3 vols. New York: Academic Press.

    Aside from Rotter, Lefcourt is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the concept of LOC. In these three volumes, Lefcourt presents relevant LOC research related to assessment and developmental and social problems. He adeptly discusses limitations of the research literature at that time and also provides recommendations for future research.

  • Lefcourt, H. M. 1992. Durability and impact of the locus of control construct. Psychological Bulletin 112:411–414.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.112.3.411

    Published in one of the most influential psychology journals, this article summarizes and explores reasons for the longstanding popularity of the LOC construct.

  • Peterson, C., and A. J. Stunkard. 1992. Cognates of personal control: Locus of control, self-efficacy, and explanatory style. Applied and Preventive Psychology 1:111–117.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0962-1849(05)80151-9

    Although this seminal article acknowledges similarities among LOC, Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy, and Weiner’s concept of explanatory style, it argues primarily that they are not one and the same. For example, the authors note that each construct stems from a different theory and is correlated with different aspects of behavior.

  • Rotter, J. B. 1975. Some problems and misconceptions related to the construct of internal versus external control of reinforcement. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 43:56–67.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0076301

    This article should be required reading for anyone interested in the LOC construct. In it, Rotter attempts to correct widespread misconceptions about LOC, focusing much of his attention on the importance of studying the construct within the framework of SLT. Problems related to LOC measurement are also outlined and discussed.

  • Rotter, J. B. 1990. Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A case history of a variable. American Psychologist 45:489–493.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.45.4.489

    This classic article—written by the father of SLT and LOC—does two primary things: (1) it provides an excellent summary of the history of LOC; and (2) it uses LOC and SLT as examples to make the case that broad theory and theoretically driven research are vital to the advancement of psychology.

  • Wallston, K. A., B. S. Wallston, and R. DeVellis. 1978. Development of the multidimensional health locus of control scales. Health Education Monographs 6:161–170.

    DOI: 10.1177/109019817800600107

    The authors of this article do a credible job of explaining their rationale for, and the process behind, the development of multidimensional health LOC scales, including how they stem from Rotter’s original SLT. The scales described here are based on previous work that also focused on the concept of health LOC.

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