This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.

Locus of Control

One version of attribution theory that received a lot of research attention is Rotter's locus of control theory. Julian Rotter (1966) agreed with Heider that the difference between internal attribution and external attribution was important to humans. He pointed out that we also make attributions about our own behaviors. Some people consistently explain the events of their lives as involving powers beyond their control, like God or fate. Others consistently explain the events of their lives as flowing from their own decisions.

What was Rotter's locus of control concept?

Rotter (pronounced "rotor") proposed the concept of locus of control to capture the distinction between psychologically localizing control of one's actions within oneself or in the environment. People who consistently believe that events are caused by factors beyond their personal control are called externalizers. They are said to have an external locus of control. People who consistently take responsibility for their own actions, or who feel they have the power to do something about a situation, are said to have an internal locus of control.

Rotter developed a paper-and-pencil test for determining locus of control. It involved 29 forced-choice items and was easy to administer. After the test was published, hundreds of locus-of-control experiments were performed in the 1970s and 1980s. The typical experiment correlated scores on the Rotter Scale with some other personality variable such as prejudice, intensity of religious belief, or motivation to advance in a job.

What is a case in which internal locus of control is beneficial?

An early study showed (for example) that the reactions of people to tornado warnings depended upon their locus of control. People with an internal locus of control (internalizers) would take action to minimize their chances of injury, such as taking refuge in a bathroom (which is more likely to survive intact than other areas of a house). By contrast, people with external locus of control (externalizers) were likely to adopt a fatalistic attitude. Such people might say, "If it's time for me to die, it's time for me to die; there's nothing I can do about it." They often took no protective action. In this case, being an externalizer was harmful.

What is a case in which external locus of control, encouraged by "therapy," was helpful?

On other occasions, an external locus of control may be beneficial. An internalizer may blame himself or herself for negative events and grow discouraged. An externalizer may stay hopeful that circumstances will change. For example, Wilson and Linville (1982, 1985) conducted several studies using first year college students who were at risk academically, suffering from poor academic performance and worrying a great deal about their ability to cope with college. Half the group was given "attribution therapy," informed that such problems were common during the first year, and that grades typically went up in the second year. The other group was provided with emotional support, but their attributions were left unchanged. The results were clear. The first group—encouraged to make an external attribution instead of blaming themselves for failure—performed better on tests after the therapy, and they earned better grades the following year.

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