Locus of Control: Internal v. External
Locus of Control (LOC) refers to an individual’s tendency to attribute event causality internally or externally. An individual with an internal LOC believes their actions and behaviors have a direct impact on their lives, the events that occur in their lives, and their future. Good things happen because the individual behaves appropriately, strives for achievement, and are goal oriented by nature (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Internally focused individuals tend to be achievement and goal oriented. A solid marriage or promotion is the result of hard work, not simply good luck, or fate. When negative events occur, this person is more likely to examine the situation, learn from it, and strive to overcome it, if possible. For instance, receiving a poor grade on an exam is less likely construed as the instructor being biased or grading unfairly and more likely determined that they needed to study harder, or prepare more fully for the next assessment.
An individual with an external LOC believes their actions are largely irrelevant to future events and outcomes in their lives, and they are, thus, predominantly not in control of their fate. When good or bad things happen, it is due to luck, chance, or others. They meet their mate because it was meant to be, or they receive a promotion because it was their lucky day. If they get a bad grade on an exam it is more likely that the test or the instructor was unfair, certainly not because they did not study hard or long enough.
These tendencies are inherent to our personality, much like extroversion or introversion. Further, similar to extroversion and introversion, LOC can ebb and sway along a continuum, and may be dependent upon context, accessibility, and priming. Further still, internal, or external LOC can be positive and/or negative dependent upon the context. As in the earlier example, a predominating external LOC within the area of academics would not be beneficial in the sense that it provides an easy out for receiving poor grades. On the other hand, it would help to protect the student’s self-esteem if they really were trying their very best and still not performing well on assessments. The student with a predominantly internal LOC that does poorly on an assessment would try harder and harder. If they still were unable to achieve a better score their self-esteem may be damaged because it is against their nature to look to external causes for their poor results. However, it is also likely they would continue to try various alternatives in search of a solution.
LOC and Physical Health
Locus of control has been researched within health psychology in an attempt to persuade individuals to make better long-term health choices and coping will long-term illnesses (Kong & Shen, 2011). For instance, research indicates that individuals with a predominantly internal LOC are more likely to engage in healthful behaviors such as proper nutrition, exercise, and avoiding negative health behaviors such as smoking, drugs, or unsafe sexual behaviors, whereas individuals with a predominantly external LOC are less likely to engage in healthful behaviors and more likely to engage in unhealthful behaviors and activities (Kong & Shen, 2011). In fact, a recent study of health LOC and sexual risk behavior indicated respondents with an external LOC scored significantly higher for high sexual risk behavior as compared to those with an internal LOC (Victor & Haruna, 2012).
LOC and Mental Health
Learned helplessness results when an animal or person is exposed to repeated uncontrollable punishment (negative event) independent of their behavior over a period of time. Eventually the animal or person stops trying to avoid the punishment/negative event. Essentially, they have learned that no matter what they do or how they behavior, the outcome is the same. In response, the animal or person may demonstrate withdrawal, aggression, depression, or fear. Although, the context is somewhat different, there can be situations in which external LOC may result in similar expressions. For instance, metanalyses indicate that depression is more common and likely among those with an external LOC perspective (Benassi, Dufour, & Sweeney, 1988). This actually makes sense because a person who believes their life is out of their personal control, good or bad, has no hope to improve it based on their own personal abilities, behaviors, or actions. They are quite literally, at the whim of others. On the other hand, an individual with an internal LOC may experience negative events, realize that there are some events out of their control, but there are others that they can influence and improve upon. This perspective allows those with an internal LOC to be more resilient in the face of adversity. It would be an interesting research study to compare life stressors, depression, coping mechanisms, and resilience factors between internal and external LOC individuals.
On a personal note, I am an internal LOC individual. I take responsibility for my behaviors and own my mistakes. When negative outcomes occur, my first response is to look at what I might have done or could have done differently. This can be adversely stressful. Further, when severely traumatic, negative events have occurred that were beyond and outside of my control, it was and is extremely difficult to adapt and accept because of my inherent internal LOC. It is my nature to make it better, change the outcome, and fix it. The upside is that I may become extremely frustrated and declare I give up. However, after half an hour I am back in the fray trying to figure out the problem once again. Dogged perseverance, the bane of my existence.
Benassi, V. A., Dufour, C. L., & Sweeney, P. D. (1988). Is there a relation between locus of control orientation and depression? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97(3), 357-367. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3057032
Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012). Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Kong, Y., & Shen, F. (2011). Impact of locus of control on health message effectiveness. Health Marketing Quarterly, 28(4), 354-371. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07359683.2011.623114
Victor, E. A., & Haruna, K. (2012). Relationship between health locus of control and sexual risk behavior. Retrovirology, 9, 62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1742-4690-9-S1-p62