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

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).

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 of this connections might be with:

  • Expectancy Value Theory
  • Attribution Theory
  • 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.
  • 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.