In an effort to explain how personal characteristics interact with the environment to predict behavior, the psychologist Julian Rotter (b. 1916) proposed a social learning theory in 1954. Although Rotter emphasized both personal and environmental factors in behavioral prediction, much of the research generated by his theory focused on the role of people’s expectancies or their subjective estimates of how likely it is that a given behavior will lead to a desired outcome.
According to Rotter, there are two types of expectancies. Specific expectancies apply to single situations, such as whether a student expects to do well on an exam. Over time people learn to apply their expectancies to a variety of related experiences, resulting in generalized expectancies. A generalized expectancy might refer to how well a student expects to do on exams in all of his or her courses. Rotter proposed that one of the most important generalized expectancies is a person’s locus of control (LOC).
LOC refers to the perceived location of reinforcement sources for a person—that is, who or what is responsible to the things that happen to a person. As such, it is similar to other control-related constructs, such as attributions, learned helplessness, and self-efficacy. Those with an internal LOC expect the important things in their lives to occur because of their own effort, skills, or abilities. People with an external LOC expect these things to occur because of outside forces (such as luck, fate, chance, or powerful others).
In 1966 Rotter published the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. Respondents were asked to choose between pairs of internal and external items relating to everyday situations. For example, on one item respondents must choose whether people’s misfortunes are due to their own mistakes (internal) or to bad luck (external). Since its formulation, LOC has been one of the most frequently researched personality variables in the social sciences. Scores on the LOC Scale have been correlated with scores on nearly every social and personality characteristic imaginable. Among the areas that most commonly have used the LOC Scale are personality and social, educational, political, clinical, and health psychology. For example, research shows that whereas high externality scores are associated with high depression scores, internality is associated with more positive adjustment to a physical disability. In addition discrimination based on race or sex has been associated with differences in LOC. Researchers have shown that such group-level internality-externality differences have implications for mental and physical health outcomes.
Researchers have focused a great deal of attention on the psychometric properties and factor structure of the LOC Scale. In Rotter’s original conception, LOC was a unitary construct along the internality-externality dimension. However, researchers soon began uncovering several other dimensions related to LOC. Initial analyses revealed a personal control factor and a system (or political) control factor. Other researchers proposed independent dimensions of internality, chance, and powerful others. Based in part on dissatisfaction with the properties of the original scale, researchers have developed new content-specific, multidimensional LOC measures. One of the most popular is a measure of health LOC (Wallston, Wallston, and DeVellis 1978). Although interest in Rotter’s original LOC scale has waned, the development of new measures ensures that LOC will continue to be a topic of interest to social scientists for years to come.