If you have a high internal locus of control, you believe that you are in control of outcomes related to your own life. It is a belief that you can take action to achieve self-improvement and change your community.
Similarly, a person with an internal locus of control will believe that if they take bad actions or don’t put in enough effort, they should take responsibility for that as well.
By contrast, if you have a high external locus of control, then you believe that your actions won’t affect your outcomes. You will focus on blaming others or putting results up to fate rather than your own behaviors.
Examples of behaviors of a person with a high internal locus of control include:
- Seeking mentorship to achieve change
- Persisting through challenge
- Trying to defy the odds, and
- Setting personal goals.
Internal Locus of Control Examples
1. Seeking Help from Mentors
If you have a high internal locus of control, you will look for ways to change your situation. One of the ways to do this is to look for a mentor who might be able to guide you through your hurdles. By contrast, if you’ve got a low internal locus of control, you’ll likely simply complain about the situation and do nothing to fix it.
2. Acting on your Feedback
Students who believe they can improve their grades are more likely to act upon the feedback on their past assignments.
Too often, I have students who don’t read their feedback, re-submit something that still doesn’t meet the task requirements, and then complain that I’ve been unfair!
By contrast, a student who believes they can get better through hard work, will look at the feedback and put the effort in to fix things.
3. Using Open Office Hours at University
Students who have a high internal locus of control look for ways to improve. One way to improve is to go to your teacher’s open office hours and get them to check over your drafts. Open office hours are an opportunity for you to find a way to achieve self-improvement because they give you one-on-one time with a mentor who can guide you about the steps you can take to achieve your goals.
4. Taking an Online Course
Another way to seek self-improvement when you find yourself stuck in a tough situation is to take an online course.
Oftentimes, you can find yourself stuck in a situation where your teacher doesn’t make much sense.
In these situations, you can throw your hands up and blame your teacher (exhibiting an external locus of control) or you can be resourceful and find ways to learn what you need to learn. An online course, or even free YouTube videos, could be one way to do this.
5. Having a Growth Mindset
The concept of growth vs fixed mindsets was created by Carol Dweck. According to Dweck, a person with a fixed mindset will think they can’t incrementally improve. A person with a growth mindset will believe their effort will lead to self-improvement.
Clearly, the concepts of growth mindsets and internal loci of control have overlaps.
People with a growth mindset will believe they can improve with effort, and therefore, also intrinsically believe that they are in control of their own fate.
6. Accepting Responsibility for your Actions
Many people with a low internal locus of control will be constantly blaming other people for things that happen. But if you have a high locus of control then you will look at your own actions more and be introspective about them. You would take responsibility for behaviors because you believe that you can change them in the future in order to improve your outcomes.
7. Focusing on Yourself Instead of Others
If you want a high internal locus of control, you will need to spend more time focusing on your own self-improvement rather than complaining about other people. Focus on how you can get better before asking other people to make changes. Work on improving your strengths, but also work on your weaknesses so you are an overall better person going forward.
8. Setting Short-Term Goals
One way to identify ways you can improve your life is to set goals. While long-term lofty goals can be great, the way to get there is to also have short-term and achievable goals that you can work on today. By setting short-term goals, you’ll start to see the actions you need to take to improve your life, and where those small steps can take you in the long-run.
9. Being Okay with Failure
Too often, people develop an external locus of control (believing you can’t get better) because they let failure get them down. While it’s tough, sometimes you need to change your relationship with failure. Become okay with it and accept failure as a lesson you can learn from so that, next time, you can do things within your control to get better outcomes.
10. Choosing to Defy the Odds
A person with an extremely high locus of control will look at an enormous challenge and take it on anyway. They will accept that the world seems against them and use that as motivation to prove everyone wrong.
11. Running for Office
A person who thinks they can make a change in their communities through their actions may choose to run for public office.
By running a position of power in government, that person is expressing self-belief that they can achieve the change they are looking for through their own actions.
By contrast, many of us choose not to run for office because we don’t believe we’re capable of doing it. We may think we don’t have the skills or that the party apparatchiks would not let us get elected. Here, we would be exhibiting an external locus of control (belief that our actions won’t impact outcomes).
12. Entering a Marathon
A person who enters a marathon is expressing confidence that they can achieve this lofty goal within a set timeframe. Once they have expressed their desire to race, they will then have to train daily in order to achieve those incremental fitness gains required to complete the race on race day.
Many of us, however, choose not to enter a marathon because we believe that we wouldn’t be able to achieve that fitness milestone, no matter what we do!
13. Studying for an Exam
Studying for an exam is another hopeful example of someone who believes their actions will affect their outcomes. By studying, you are showing acknowledgment that your efforts today will increase your chances of getting the grade you want on exam day.
Notably, however, it’s important to study wisely in order to make sure your efforts do achieve those goals you want! Start studying early and study regularly in the weeks and months leading up to the exams.
14. Organizing Friend Meet-Ups
Many of us get frustrated at our friends for not putting in enough effort to maintain our friendships.
I know, personally, that I’ve felt this frustration. I blame my friends for their lack of interest in hanging out and question their friendship.
But if I were to reflect on my locus of control, I would recalibrate my thinking. I would tell myself that it’s up to me to change the outcomes.
If I were to set up meet-ups between friends and send them catch-up messages between meet-ups, then it’s possible that I could maintain my friendships and encourage my friends to be in the habit of talking to me regularly.
Here, I would be expressing my belief that I can change how I think about my relationship with my friends, change my behaviors, and perhaps maintain friendships for the longer term.
15. Working for a Promotion
Many people with an external locus of control will say that they can’t get a promotion because their boss prefers another candidate, or even, that they won’t work for the promotion because “what will happen, will happen”.
But if you have a high internal locus of control, you would brainstorm ways to get that promotion. You might work on building your interpersonal relationship with your boss or demonstrate your willingness to get the job through your hard work to try to get in a position to win the job through your own effort.
16. Refusing to Quit on your Goals
If you have a high internal locus of control then you will refuse to give up. You won’t quit, even if people around you tell you that you can’t achieve your goals. By persevering, you’re showing that you have the self-belief that’s required to learn, improve, persevere, and finally defy the odds.
People with a High Internal Locus of Control
17. Elvis Presley Persisting Defying his Boss
Before becoming famous, Elvis Presley was fired from his job singing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. The manager who fired him, Jimmy Denny, is reported as saying “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”
Presley didn’t throw up his hands and say that his fate was sealed. Instead, Presley continued to play his music until he became a world-famous household name and changed music forever.
18. Oprah Winfrey’s Story
If anyone deserved to turn around and claim that the world was against them, it’s Oprah Winfrey. A black woman, she also became homeless at age 14 due to her terribly abusive upbringing.
But Winfrey picked herself up, got a job as a reporter, and worked her way up the ranks in journalism until she got her own talkshow. She became one of the world’s few female billionaires (only 20% of billionaires are women) and a worldwide cultural icon, all because she didn’t give up.
19. J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter
J.K. Rowling is an example of a person who had a high internal locus of control. She was a struggling, poor, single mother before she wrote Harry Potter. But she put in the effort to write the book then submitted it to 12 publishers before her book was finally accepted.
Rowling didn’t give up and decide that it was destined that her book wouldn’t be published. Instead, she kept trying over and over again until she found success.
20. Elon Musk and Tesla
Before Tesla, many electric car companies failed. It was hard to develop an electric vehicle that people would by. Affordability issues, lack of access to charging points, and unattractive cars were all hurdles Tesla needed to overcome.
Elon Musk rose to the challenge. He took over Tesla and saved it from failure multiple times before it became a stable and successful car company. Musk could have decided that it was fate that his company would fail, but instead, he persisted through the tough times to achieve success.
21. Barack Obama
An example of a person who used their internal locus of control to defy the odds is Barack Obama. He knew that no black man ever became president of the United States, but decided to have a go anyway. Choosing to put aside cultural beliefs that no black man would be elected president, Obama ran for office and, in 2008, he became the first black president of the USA.
External vs Internal Loci of Control
While we have talked a lot about having a high internal locus of control, the other side of the story is your external locus of control. Here’s the difference:
- Internal Locus of Control – If you have an internal locus of control, you believe outcomes are a result of your actions.
- External Locus of Control – If you have an external locus of control, you believe you cannot control the outcomes in your life no matter how hard you try.
These two concepts are subjective appraisals of your own situation, not objective realities. In reality, we are influenced by a range of constraints on our actions. At the same time, we have the capacity to take action to influence things.
So, both internal and external loci of control make sense. The point of this approach to positive psychology is to focus on what you can change rather than focusing on external factors that are out of your control.
Who Invented the Locus of Control Theory?
The locus of control theory was created by Julian B. Rotter in 1954. Original texts by Rotter include:
- Social learning and clinical psychology (Book)
- Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement (Journal Article)
- Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A case history of a variable (Journal Article)
Today, the idea of locus of control is used extensively in clinical psychology, positive psychology, and educational psychology. It can help students and clients learn to look for ways to improve their lives and change their mindsets.
The idea of ‘external vs internal’ factors also influences other fields of psychology such as the nature vs nurture debate about child development.
The concept of locus of control is related to theories including:
- Attributional Theory: Attribution theory looks at how people explain the causes of events. Like locus of control, attribution theory explores whether you attribute events externally or internally, but also adds dimensions of stability or instability of events to see whether you attribute causes evenly in all situations or differently depending on context.
- Personality Traits: The big five personality traits include: emotional stability, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Psychologists have long examined the correlation between each personality trait and perceived locus of control.
- Learned Helplessness: This is a concept by Martin Seligman (1975) which looks at how people develop a sense of helplessness over time through loss of self-confidence. Learned helplessness is an example of external locus of control.
- Self-Efficacy Theory: Created by Albert Bandura (2000), self-efficacy theory looks at people’s belief in their ability to rise to a challenge. Causes of high self-efficacy (correlating with a high internal locus of control) include past experiences of mastery of a skill as well as vicarious observation of mentors achieving goals.
- Self-Determination Theory: This theory, created by Ryan and Deci (2000) explores how people develop a sense of self-determination (correlating with a high internal locus of control). The theorists believe that you can achieve a sense of self-determination (i.e. control over your fate) if you have three things: competence, connection, and autonomy.
See our full glossary list of motivation theories.
Most psychologists agree that having a high internal locus of control can be a positive influence in your life. It can help you to become more self-empowered and take action to achieve your goals. While clearly there are external factors that can limit our options, usually we can find a way to make incremental changes to our lives that could improve our outcomes.