A theory by Rotter (1966), stating that as a result of his (or her) past experiences, a person develops a sense that either he controls his own life and environment, and can positively or negatively affect that environment through his actions, or he cannot directly affect his life/environment.

The former is refered to as an Internal Locus of Control, the latter as External Locus of Control. The theory is longstanding and has been used as an explanation of Pavlov's Conditioning Experiments, (see also Seligman, Learned Helplessness), and distance learning drop out rates (Lynch, ASU 1997).

As a general rule, individuals with an Internal Locus of Control tend to be highly motivated, because they believe their actions will directly result in change, and individuals with an External Locus of Control tend to be less motivated and blame their circumstances on forces beyond their control. Most people lie somewhere in the middle of the continuum.

A sample of a questionnaire aimed at determining one's locus of control can be found at:


(I haven't looked in to the legitimacy of that survey, but you'll get the gist of the idea.

Control has been described as knowing how to change or affect any given condition so that the outcome is that which is desired.  For example, a therapist could teach a person that suffers from anxiety attacks how to gain control over them to lessen their effects.

George Bernard Shaw wrote: "Hell is to drift, heaven is to steer."  Those who feel in control of their lives tend to agree with him.  People who are happy and in control, usually have a full schedule, are on time, and efficient.  However, people who don't feel in control are usually unhappy, tend to have less planning and commitment, and procrastinate in their daily lives.

In order for you to control whatever situation it is that you are dealing with, you must be optimistic about how you can control the outcome of the situation.  This has been called the internal locus of control.  People who possess this optimism usually believe that they are in control of their fate.  However, those who lack this optimism tend to believe that their fate is controlled by other entities such as luck, people, or spiritual leaders.  This is what is called the external locus of control.

There is a test that has been named the "Internal/External Scale", where people are given several questions with two answers to each question.  Which answer they choose for each question determines whether they have an internal or external locus of control.  An example of these questions are:

  • A.  Most of the unhappy occurrences in my life are due to bad luck.
  • B.  Most of the misfortunes in my life are a result of mistakes that I have made.

While admitted to the psychiatric ward of one of the various hospitals I've been in, I was given a test exactly like this.  Although my therapist did not discuss the outcome of this test with me personally, I did notice a slight change in his methods of getting me to control the situation that I was facing at that time.  I have since learned to try to control the situation that I am in at the time and can now sometimes gather my mind into a state that I can control the stress that I am feeling, thanks to this therapy.  

There have been over two thousand studies conducted on this theory using a wide group of test subjects such as children, different ethnic groups, different religions, and people of all age groups.  One thing that remains constant throughout all the different studies is that those people who have the internal locus of control have shown this trait at an early age in their life, and that they use this internal control in many different areas such as:

  • mental health
  • physical health
  • emotional control
  • success
  • academic achievement
  • politics

How we can benefit from control

People would tend to agree that Steve has one of the least desirable jobs.  Steve is a trash collector (garbage man) in the city of Chicago.  Most people see his position as one they wouldn't want to have but they are glad that somebody does it.  However, even though he deals with trash all day long, and is confined by the requirements of his job, Steve has control over his environment and how he affects people.  For example, most garbage men, once they empty the cans into the truck, will just throw the cans up onto the curb.  Sometimes they just fall over or the lids get misplaced.  Steve sets the cans back up on the curb just as he found them with the lids properly attached so that they don't get lost, and he has been known to leave notes attached to the top of the cans containing a poem or a joke; something that will make his customers smile.  Steve has also found a side job selling antiques and collectibles to local shops and on the internet at auction sites.  The majority of the items that he sells are items that other people have discarded.  This shows how he controls his environment by making his customers happy and making a profit over and above what he is getting paid.

It has been proven through studies that people can tolerate most kinds of stress if they feel they are able to control the stress.  The biggest threat to our health occurs when we feel like we are trapped in a situation with no way out.  Those people who have the internal locus can control or possibly eliminate the stress being caused by the situation.  For example:

  • a study of elderly people who live in a nursing home shows that, if they are given control over their activities where they can make decisions, they tend to become healthier, happier, and usually live longer.
  • employees who have control over the pace of their work as a whole have fewer illnesses and take fewer sick days than employees who have no control over their work conditions.

If a person feels like they are in control of their recovery after having surgery, their recovery time is usually shorter than in patients who had the same surgery but don't feel like they are in control of the recovery.  For example, a study was conducted on patients who suffered from heart attacks.  The patients who believed their heart attack was due to fate or bad luck had a long, slow recovery time.  However, in those patients who believed their heart attack was from an unhealthy lifestyle that they led by choice, such as smoking or stress, controlled the situation by changing these factors and had a much quicker recovery time.

Around the world, many cultures have differing beliefs about predisposed fate and whether it is possible to control one's fate.  Germany, for example, has a highly structured social welfare system.  This allows people to feel more in control over their health, whereas in America, our social welfare system leads us to feel less in control due to the restrictions placed on our availability to get health insurance.

Most cultural beliefs are related to the mortality rate in the area in which they live.  In China, the traditional astrology tells us that people born on certain years are considered to be unlucky and can expect to have bad health and bad fortune throughout their life.  This has been called a self-fulfilling destiny.  A study conducted on Chinese people who lived in America and some that lived in China, born in the same year, that was considered to be a bad luck year, shows that those living in China followed their "predetermined fate" while those living in America lived normal lives with average success in their careers, health, and relationships

Control has limits

Having a sense of control is always a positive thing.  However, one must ask the question "control over what?".  It cannot be a benefit for people to believe that we can control every aspect of our lives; things such as taxes, death, storms, or being a victim of a random crime.  These things cannot be in anyone's control.  Self-blame will not enhance our well being or the belief that all sicknesses will be prevented if we eat right and always do the right thing.

Eastern and Western society have differing beliefs when it comes to the ability of controlling our own life and fate.  Eastern belief puts an emphasis on secondary control in which people try to accommodate reality by changing their desires.  If you have a problem, you are expected to live with it or act like it doesn't exist.  Western belief is that people try to change reality by exerting control over it.  For example, if you don't like a situation... change it.

People can benefit from both Western and Eastern beliefs on different forms of control by avoiding both.  For example, take responsibility for your future actions and don't blame yourself for your past actions.  If you can do this, you will adjust to the given situation faster than those who believe that they control everything and those who believe they control nothing at all.


A sample test for "The Locus Of Control" can be found at http://www.drwoolard.com/learning/locus_of_control.htm

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