The Two Types of Locus of Control (Internal vs External)

locus of control theory definition and examples

There are two types of locus of control. These are the external and internal loci of control.

  • External locus of control – If you have an external locus of control, you believe that your actions do not control the outcomes in your life.
  • Internal locus of control – If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that your actions directly influence outcomes.

Generally, you can think of your locus of control as sitting along a spectrum:

Type of Locus of ControlExplanation
High internal locus of controlYou have very strong belief that you can take actions that will influence your outcomes.
Weak internal locus of controlYou generally think that your individual actions can affect your outcomes.
Weak external locus of controlYou generally think that constraints outside of your control have a high impact on your outcomes.
High external locus of controlYou have a very strong belief that fate, destiny, bias, discrimination, and so on, will determine your outcomes.

Types of Locus of Control

What is an Internal Locus of Control?

A person with a strong internal locus of control tends to think that they are in control of their own fate.

This sort of person will seek out opportunities to create change in their situations. When things go wrong, they will often reflect on their own behaviors and look for ways to do better next time.

Quotes that might describe a person with a high internal locus of control include:

  • “I am the captain of my fate”
  • “You are accountable for your own actions”
  • “I can overcome the odds”
  • “Effort today leads to reward tomorrow”

Typically, these people are introspective, self-motivated, and keep themselves accountable. They might also have high levels of perseverance and determination.

Read about 21 internal locus of control examples in real life.

What is an External Locus of Control?

A person with a strong external locus of control tends to think that their actions will not change outcomes.

This sort of person will often attribute their success or failure to an outside influence. They are highly aware of discrimination, bias, and systemic constraints on society. They will be more socially minded rather than individually minded.

While in personal psychology it may seem as if having a high external locus of control is a negative attribute, awareness of systemic social issues can also make you a better and more empathetic person.

The trick is to be aware of your constraints while also trying to identify avenues for using your agency to your advantage.

Read about 21 external locus of control examples in real life.

Strengths of Locus of Control Theory

Locus of control theory helps you to understand that your mindset matters. It reminds you that, if your mind seeks out solutions to problems, you will be able to claim and exercise your agency.

EmpoweringThe theory helps people to reflect on their own actions and think about avenues for bettering themselves.
PracticalIt is a theory that can be used in clinical and education settings to help clients and students develop a framework for introspection and self-improvement.
SimpleThe theory is very simplistic. It provides an easy-to-understand metaphor for examining your mindset.

Weaknesses of Locus of Control Theory

While the theory is a great metaphor and practical to use for psychologists and teachers, it can also face valid criticism.

Too simplisticCompared to other theories of motivation, it doesn’t look into factors like personality traits, the role of skill mastery, and the importance of reflecting on realistic constraints.
Doesn’t account for contextA person doesn’t just have a fixed locus of control. It would change depending on contexts and situations. You need to go to other theories to look at the interplay between motivation and context.
Underemphasizes benefits of social awarenessSociologists might critique the theory for ascribing fault for failure on the individual rather than the social factors that cause systemic disadvantage.
Ascribes blame to the individualLike much of positive psychology, the theory focuses heavily on the individual while not focussing on societal factors.

History of the Concept

The concept of locus of control was created by Julian B. Rotter in his 1954 research on social learning theory.

Central to the theory was the idea of “expectancy shifts” where someone may or may not learn to ascribe their efforts to success. According to Rotter, people tend to expect certain results, and this may be based upon either personal efforts (internal) or external forces.

Rotter’s research (along with his students) showed that people who attributed their outcomes to their abilities would expect to see success. By contrast, people who didn’t believe in the power of their own agency would see outcomes to be the result of chance, not effort.

Locus of control is also often touched on in motivational theories such as:

  • Attributional Theory: Attribution theory explores how people attribute causes to events. Building upon the locus of control concept, attribution theory also explores stability or instability of events to see how context influences how much you attribute an event to effort or external forces.
  • Personality Traits: Personality traits may correlate with a person’s tendency to have a certain locus of control. The big five personality traits are: emotional stability, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
  • Learned Helplessness: This concept by Martin Seligman (1975) explores the ways people attain a sense of helplessness. If you have many experiences where you were unable to change events, you will develop an inner complex where you think you have no control over situations.
  • Self-Efficacy Theory: Like locus of control, self-efficacy theory originates in social learning theory. It was devised by Albert Bandura (2000) who examined how people develop a sense that they can achieve goals. He found that people with high self-efficacy generally have had past experiences of mastery of a skill and have observed mentors who also had high self-efficacy.
  • Self-Determination Theory: Created by Ryan and Deci (2000), self-determination theory explores how people develop a sense of their own self-determination (i.e. control over their fate). To have high self-determination, you need to have three things: competence, connection, and autonomy.

See our full glossary list of motivation theories.


There are two types of locus of control: internal and external. However, locus of control probably sits along a spectrum where you might have a low, high, or very high internal or external locus of control.

Furthermore, it’s likely that your sense of control over outcomes will change based on contextual factors including the task, the competitors, and your mentors.

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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. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

1 thought on “The Two Types of Locus of Control (Internal vs External)”

  1. Hey, nice article! I thought I’d mention though that the image showing the comparisons between internal and external locus of control has the wrong titles for external and internal (you show the descriptions for each but it’s reversed). Other than that, the graphic is great and serves to illustrate the point.

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