A person with an external locus of control believes that they do not have control over their success or failure.
This is the opposite of an internal locus of control, which is a belief that you can change your situation through your own hard work and effort.
People with an external locus of control are more likely to blame situational factors on success or failure, such as weather or other people’s biases, rather than dispositional factors such as personal effort.
What is an External Locus of Control?
A locus of control is a subjective assessment of your situation:
- External locus of control – you have an external attribution, meaning you generally believe things happen to you and you can’t change that.
- Internal locus of control – you generally believe you have the power to change and improve upon your situation.
External Locus of Control Examples
1. Blaming Others for Things you Could Control
If you find yourself looking for reasons to blame other people for your own problems, you’re exercising an external locus of control.
An example is a person blaming their waiter for their steak being undercooked when, in reality, they know they didn’t explain what they wanted clearly when they ordered.
2. Ascribing Actions to Fate
When something happens in your life, you can either look at the event as a consequence of your actions, or look at it as fait accompli. Examples might include:
- Failing an exam
- Getting fired for poor performance
- Crashing your car when you were speeding
In these situations, you could see how your actions might have been able to change the situation. Nevertheless, you might throw your arms up in the air and say “it was just fate, I guess!”
Read Also: The Two Types Of Locus Of Control
3. Accusing Teachers of Bias without Evidence
The most common example of external locus of control for students is their belief that their teacher was biassed and that was why they failed their exams.
Of course, the issue of teacher bias does exist and it’s a problem. But if you make this claim without evidence then you may be clutching for reasons to explain away your poor performance or lack of knowledge about a topic.
4. Blaming your Boss when you get Fired
You’ll often come across a disgruntled former employee who says all the bad things they can about their former boss.
They might say that they were fired because the boss wanted to install their friend in your job, or that they were a micromanager, or any other number of reasons that shift blame from you to them.
And truly, your boss might have been a bad boss.
But maybe it’s also a good idea to think about what you might have done wrong. How might you have improved your skills? It could have been, for example, that you turned up late too often or that you tended to cut corners. What could you have done to have done a better job?
5. Not Setting Goals
People who have an external locus of control tend not to set goals. They don’t set goals because they don’t believe they have the power to achieve those goals themselves! Instead, they will sit back and expect things to happen to them rather than going out and making things happen for them.
6. Not Implementing Feedback
One of the most frustrating things I experience as a teacher is getting a student’s second or third assignment of the semester and seeing they have made the same mistake again and again.
These students haven’t implemented the feedback that I gave them.
Often, a student won’t implement feedback if they feel like it won’t matter, anyway. They believe that they’re destined for a bad grade, that implementing feedback is a waste of time, and therefore that they shouldn’t do anything about it.
7. Blaming Learning Styles
There is a flawed idea in education theory that says we all have a learning style. There are many different types of learning style categories, but here’s a common one:
- Visual learner
- Auditory Learner
- Mathematical Learner
- Kinesthetic Learner
- Musical Learner
If you fail an exam, you might blame your teacher for teaching you in the wrong way. If only you were taught via visual rather than musical lessons you would have gotten higher grades!
This is a complex issue because many of us have learning preferences, but science shows us that everyone can learn through every means.
So, too often, students try to blame the teaching style and as a result put in less effort.
As I said, this is a complex one and I can see both sides of the debate. Teachers should, in many situations, teach students in a way that is most motivating for the student. But at the same time, students need to make an effort to learn through multiple different ‘styles’ to become well-rounded learners and thinkers.
8. Blaming your Ex for the Break-Up
Sure, your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend might not have been perfect for you. They might have had traits you just couldn’t handle. But some people take this a little too far and say everything was their ex’s fault and nothing was their own fault.
This is sometimes the case, but more often than not there is enough fault to be spread around to everyone.
By putting all the blame on the other person, you’re exhibiting a sense of external locus of control and failing to look internally to answers to some of your problems. As a result, you likely won’t grow as a person.
9. Blaming Others for your Car Crash
Earlier this year I slid out on a snowy road and crashed into a snow bank. Fortunately, I was fine and my car wasn’t damaged.
In this situation, there was a lot to blame. The road was incredibly slippery and conditions were horrid. I also did a lot of things right. I was driving in four wheel drive, using snow tires, and driving very slowly indeed.
But if I were smart, I wouldn’t sit around and blame all these conditions. Instead, I would reflect on what I could do better next time. For one thing, my tires might have been a bit old. I should have gotten new ones. I also could have pulled over and waited for the storm to pass rather than driving on. So, by pivoting to an internal locus thought-process, I have given myself the ability to improve and avoid this same mistake next time.
10. Believing in Conspiracy Theories
People who believe in conspiracies often have a higher external locus of control. They’re compelled to believe that there’s “something out there” making things happen in a certain way.
For example, you might think there’s a conspiracy at your workplace for your boss to promote their friends from their poker club above you.
This may be true. But in many situations, conspiracy theories are nothing more than a fabrication of our minds to try to explain away situations that we don’t like and ascribe blame to someone other than ourselves.
11. Deciding you Can’t Succeed in Exams
If you have decided that you can’t succeed in exams, try to reflect on your reasons. It is often because you have come to the conclusion that there is something that is holding you back that you can’t control.
Examples might be a belief that written exams aren’t your preferred way to be tested, your teacher is impossible to understand, or you dislike the subject.
And so, you stopped studying!
A person with an internal locus of control, however, might try to use YouTube, online courses, school study groups, and textbooks to teach themselves through the adversity.
12. Choosing not to Work on Yourself
There was a long period in my life when I chose not to exercise because I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. In reality, it was because the types of workouts I was doing were wrong and I didn’t put in enough time to get results. This is an example of giving up and blaming other things when you come across hurdles.
13. Having a Fixed Mindset
The concept of fixed vs growth mindset was created by psychologist Carol Dweck. The idea is that people with fixed mindsets don’t believe they can develop their talents over time. They think they’re born a certain way and can’t change it.
People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe they can get better over time with consistent effort.
If you’ve got a fixed mindset, you’re more likely to blame outside factors on your situation (i.e. have an external locus of control) and not put in effort to improve yourself.
14. Choosing not to Participate in Public Debate
If you think that you’re unable to make an impact, you’ll often withdraw from public spaces. You will choose not to go to that council meeting to share your opinion about things happening in your local area, you’ll choose not to joining the PTA at your school, and you’ll choose not to try to talk people into supporting your point of view. You’ll just think that what will happen, will happen, so why bother!
15. Choosing not to Vote
If you don’t think that your vote matters, you may choose not to vote in the next government elections. While one vote may not change things, imagine if everyone chose not to vote!
The collective action of people can effect change in a democracy, and people with an internal locus of control will feel as if it’s their responsibility to cast that vote that builds upon that social momentum that can change the future.
16. Avoiding Social Situations
Avoidance behaviors occur when you give up on participating. For example, if you feel as if people never like you, then you’ll stop trying to make friends.
Unfortunately, many adults retreat into anti-social behaviors because they think that the outside world is mean and they will never make friends.
In reality, you might just find that you’ve been trying to hang out with the wrong people and you just need to find your tribe!
If you had an internal locus of control, you’d search for ways to improve your situation: for example, you might choose instead to make friends with people online who share your weird and quirky interests!
17. Not Asking for Help
If you think that everything happens to you and you can’t control it, then you’re probably not going to ask for help. Instead, you’ll sit and sulk about the situation. This usually leads to a cycle where you’re in a negative mindset and not looking for solutions or people who can help you out of your situation.
18. Believing Education is Pointless
If you think you aren’t in control of your fate, then chances are you won’t want to get an education. You’ll think that no matter how much education you obtain, you’ll never get ahead in life. You’ll be constantly blaming someone or something else for holding you down and holding you back.
19. Choosing not to Study
A student who thinks they cannot pass a test will choose not to study for their exam. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you don’t study you probably will fail the exam!
Other students might choose not to study because they think they will “leave it to fate”. Leaving things to fate might make you feel better, but it may also set you up for failure.
20. Seeing Injustice in Situations that could be Explained in Other Ways
People who like to blame other things and situations for their problems might see injustice wherever they look.
You might, for example, blame your misfortune on discrimination against you that wasn’t really there. Similarly, you might be overly sensitive to discrimination that you see around you.
Again, this is a somewhat biassed situation, because sometimes there is injustice. The key takeaway from the locus of control concept, however, is to think about ways you can influence your situation rather than throwing up your arms and giving up.
21. Refusing to Accept Accountability
Sometimes you will also meet people who refuse to accept accountability for their actions.
They will often reach out for people to blame as much as they can before finally looking at their own behavior.
If you’ve got an internal locus of control, you’ll usually try to focus on ways to achieve personal self-improvement as much as possible and not focus on the things that you can’t control.
Downsides of Having an External Locus of Control
In most situations, we generally have some degree of control but also some constraints that limit our actions.
In general, psychologists believe that having an external locus of control is unhelpful because you may:
- Choose not to put in effort to get things you want
- Apportion blame to others for your personal problems
- Experience more stress.
While we often cannot fully control situations, a balanced approach in life is to use our intellect to think of strategic ways to improve our lot in life. In other words, we should focus on what we can improve and influence.
Times when External Forces are Overpowering
The points above, for the sake of argument, are trying to prod you to think about all the ways you have the power to effect change in your life. It can be an empowering thing to know that you always have options.
But it’s also true that external forces in your life can, in fact, be overpowering. There is, truly, discriminiation in the world. There are bad bosses and there are biassed teachers.
Despite this, you’ll generally be better off in your life if you focus on the things you can control even when times are tough. That might include agitating for change, being strategic about your decision making, and thinking outside the box to get things done.
Imagine, for example, a prisoner who was wrongly imprisoned. He can sit in his cell for the next 5 years and blame everyone else. He can be angry at the judge and jury. He can shout until he is blue in the face about his innocence. Rightly, he would be mad at the world, but that won’t help.
Even when it seems the whole world is against him, this prisoner can do things to improve his situation. He might use the five years to write a memoir, study books from the prison library, study ancient philosophy, become a great writer, learn to meditate, or re-connect with his religion.
History of the Locus of Control Concept
The concept of loci of control was created in 1954 by Julian B. Rotter in his book Social learning and clinical psychology. He later wrote the influential journal article Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement that further popularized the concept.
Since, the concept has been used in clinical psychology and educational psychology to help clients and students learn to look for ways to improve their lives and pivot away from feeling defeated by the world.
But the general idea behind locus of control theory stretches back far further than this. Stoics in Ancient Greece would talk about the idea of being able to work on what you can control and accept what you can’t.
The idea of ‘external vs internal’ factors also reaches into other fields of study such as the nature vs nurture debate about human development.
If you have an external locus of control, you’re often blaming others for things that happen in your life. Being aware of external constraints can be incredibly important (you need some realism in your life!) but focusing on ways you can improve your life is also necessary in order for those improvements to be realized.
Meyerhoff, M.K. (2004). Locus of Control. Pediatrics for Parents. 21(10): 8.
Rotter, J.B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. NY: Prentice-Hall.
Rotter, J.B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. 80(1): 1–28. doi:10.1037/h0092976.
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(1): 56–67. doi:10.1037/h0076301.
Rotter, J.B. (1990). Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A case history of a variable. American Psychologist. 45(4): 489–493. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.45.4.489. S2CID 41698755.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.