Internal Vs. External Locus of Control Explained

An understanding of this psychological phenomenon can have some pretty beneficial implications for your life. If you’d prefer to watch the video version of this article, click here.

Your locus of control is defined as a “generalized expectancy of internal versus external control over behavior outcomes” (1). Basically, it describes how much you feel that you are in control of yourself and your behaviour; people who have an internal locus of control tend to feel in control of themselves and what happens to them, and those with an external locus of control are the opposite. Not surprisingly, this phenomenon has been studied in its relationship to mental health. Let’s look a few studies.

The first study grants full access. The other two do not, but useful information can still be gathered from the abstracts. The researchers took 492 participants from Hashemite University (HU) and asked them to fill out three questionnaires: “Multidimensional Health Locus of Control Scale (MHLC), the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SLS), and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D)” (1). The depression scale and satisfaction with life scale were used to be correlated with the results of the locus of control scale. You can read the study yourself, I’ll just get to the results. I quote:

“… the results confirmed the relationships between the two cognitive constructs (locus of control, satisfaction with life), and depressive symptoms, among students at HU. Significant positive correlations were found among internality Locus of Control (IHLC), externality Powerful Others, and Satisfaction with Life (SLS). Additionally, the internality was negatively correlated with two subscales of depressive symptoms [reversed positive affect and interpersonal difficulties] and TOT depressive symptoms.” So firstly, those participants who were more internally oriented were significantly more satisfied with life. Those who were internally oriented were also less depressed.

Another quote: “In contrast, externality Chance (CHLC) was correlated positively with powerful Others, the four subscales of depressive symptoms [Depressive Affect, Somatic, Reversed Positive Affect, Interpersonal Difficulties] and TOT depressive symptoms, and negatively with Satisfaction with Life (SLS). Significant negative correlations were found also among Satisfaction with Life (SLS), the four subscales of depressive symptoms depressive symptoms and TOT depressive symptoms. Additionally, significant positive correlations were found among scores in total depressive symptoms and the scores in four subscales of CES-D, and further proved high internal consistency for the scale among the study sample of college students.” So this means that people who more externally oriented were more depressed, and less satisfied with life. Lastly, this study “…supports past research indicating the importance of student belief system as a predictor of student mental health.” All of this information is important. It means that changing your beliefs about the degree to which you have control in your own life can have a very positive impact. Let me briefly expand on that. Imagine you fail a test. You can accept that you probably should have studied harder, or you can blame it on your circumstance. In the latter scenario, you remain in control. In the former situation, you will likely feel powerless, and this easily leads to depression.

The second study I looked at was a meta-analysis of studies looking at the relationship between locus of control and depression. The abstract stated that “locus of control orientation and degree of depression were significantly related, that the relation was moderately strong, and that it was consistent across studies. Greater externality was associated with greater depression. Studies that included separate subscales for locus of control for positive and negative outcomes produced similar results” (2). Unsurprisingly, this study yielded similar results to the one above: people who are more externally oriented are more depressed.

The last study I looked at 114 undergraduate students. They were asked to complete a locus of control scale, achievement anxiety test, and a procrastination scale. Students also provided their GPA. The results speak for themselves: the internally oriented “students showed significantly lower academic procrastination, debilitating test anxiety, and reported higher academic achievement than the latter.” (3). The latter in this case was the externally oriented group. It pays to feel in control.

Obviously, there are situations where this isn’t applicable; if something blatantly out of your control happens, like a loved one dies, an internal locus of control may not help you much. However, the research seems pretty clear that going through life with a general sense of agency is significantly better for your health than not to.

I hope you got something from this. Best,


Research Referenced:






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