Rotter theorized that negative and positive outcomes were largely responsible for determining if an individual was likely to repeat a behavior. As the framework for his Social Learning Theory, he further developed the understanding of Locus of Control which attempted to differentiate between two concepts which he referred to as “achievement motivation” (Internal Locus of Control) and “outer-directedness” (External Locus of Control). He attributed these two different concepts as aspects of the individual’s personality in determining the extent to which people believe they can control events affecting them. This was measured on a scale which he referred to as a continuum in which individuals either believed outcomes in their lives were attributed to their own abilities (Internal Locus of Control) or to chance, luck, or destiny (External Locus of Control). Rotter’s theories were grounded in the fields of Social and Personality Psychology.
My interpretation and application of Locus of Control is slightly different than I believe Rotter had intended. How I interpret it applies primarily to the field of Developmental Psychology.
Throughout the stages of childhood development; our behaviors are largely being shaped and determined by outside influences which include our primary caregivers, siblings, teachers, coaches, grandparents, and babysitters. Negative consequences and positive reinforcements are designed to reinforce the behaviors which are considered most acceptable and discourage those that are not. Over time we learn that the most effective way to get our physical and emotional needs met is to behave in ways that elicit the greatest amount of acknowledgement, acceptance, positive regard, and love from others. The developmental stages of childhood and early adolescence are largely influenced by what Rotter would refer to as “outer-directedness” or External Locus of Control. Decision-making and behavioral expressions are primarily shaped and determined by the anticipated response the child has learned to expect from those individuals in their environment who have the greatest control and influence on them.
As the child grows into adolescence; a hallmark of this developmental stage is increased differentiation from the very people in their environment who have had the greatest influence in shaping their schemas and subsequent beliefs and behaviors. It is my contention that the adolescent’s ability to successfully navigate from this developmental stage into adulthood is largely determined by their ability to shift from “outer-directedness” or External Locus of Control to “achievement motivation” or Internal Locus of Control. However, despite this shift being optimal in determining a healthy transition into adulthood; it often puts the adolescent on a collision course with the individuals in their environment which have had the greatest influence on them since they were born.
Increased differentiation from our parents is a requirement for transitioning successfully into adulthood. However, in order for this to happen the parents or primary caregivers need to be fairly healthy, balanced, conscious and aware. If they are not then they will take the child’s attempts to differentiate from them very personally. They experience it as extremely threatening since their influence and control over their child appears to be diminishing. This is evidenced by the fact that the negative consequences and positive reinforcements that they have come to rely on to ensure acceptable behaviors in their child are no longer effective. In response to this unwelcome development, the parent usually ratchets up the control mechanisms and engages in increased power struggles with their child which always fail to satisfy either party’s needs.
Whenever I get the opportunity to work with parents before their child reaches adolescence I make sure I spend a significant amount of time on the subject of “External Locus of Control vs. Internal Locus of Control”. Locus of Control is as an unconscious mechanism that continues to influence how we attempt to get our physical and emotional needs met throughout our entire lifespan. It is my assertion that being able to shift that mechanism from an external orientation to an internal one during adolescence is critical in ensuring that we mature into healthy, self-reliant, and successful adults.
I do not believe, as Rotter theorized, that the tendency to operate from either Internal or External Locus of Control is a personality trait that is crystallized throughout the individual’s lifespan. Instead, I believe that the pattern of relying on the self or the environment to determine our behaviors is a byproduct of our imprinting and conditioning within our childhood environments as we continued to develop around the need to have our emotional and physical needs met. Once we accept that premise then we can accept that the tendency to be over-reliant on others to reassure us that we are performing and behaving appropriately can shift even in adulthood once we bring conscious awareness to the pattern.
Being in alignment and integrity with the self requires that we mature beyond the External Locus of Control orientation in which the need to conform to others as well as the social conditioning within our environments is the primary motivation for getting our physical and emotional needs met. An overreliance on others to influence our perceptions, beliefs and behaviors well into adulthood suggests chronic imprinting from a controlling and dysfunctional childhood environment largely influenced by fear. In the absence of those controls; we, as adults, are unable to mature into the Internal Locus of Control orientation because we were never able to develop that mechanism before launching ourselves into the world.
So rather than think of Internal and External Locus of Control as the difference between believing whether or not you have control over events in your life; I encourage you to think of it more as the difference between whether or not you rely primarily on yourself or others to determine the choices you make in life including how you attempt to get your physical and emotional needs met.
More on this subject will be explored in the upcoming articles “Parenting the Child” and “Parenting the Adolescence.”