Locus of control (LOC) refers to a personality trait reflecting the generalized belief that either events in life are controlled by one’s own actions (an internal LOC) or by outside influences (an external LOC). Those with an internal LOC believe that they can exert control over life events and circumstances, including the associated reinforcements, that is, those outcomes which are perceived to reward one’s behaviours and attitudes. In contrast, those with an external LOC believe they have little control over life events and circumstances, and attribute reinforcements to powerful others or to luck.
The construct of locus of control emerged from Rotter’s (1954) social learning theory. To measure LOC, Rotter (1966) developed the Internal-External (I-E) scale, which has been the instrument of choice in most research studies. However, research has questioned the unidimensionality of the I-E scale, with some authors suggesting that LOC has two dimensions (e.g., personal control and social system control), and others suggesting that LOC has three dimensions (personal efficacy, control ideology and political control). More recently developed scales to measure LOC are multidimensional, or assess LOC for specific domains, such as health or work (Hurrell and Murphy 1992).
One of the most consistent and widespread findings in the general research literature is the association between an external LOC and poor physical and mental health (Ganster and Fusilier 1989). A number of studies in occupational settings report similar findings: workers with an external LOC tended to report more burnout, job dissatisfaction, stress and lower self-esteem than those with an internal LOC (Kasl 1989). Recent evidence suggests that LOC moderates the relationship between role stressors (role ambiguity and role conflict) and symptoms of distress (Cvetanovski and Jex 1994; Spector and O’Connell 1994).
However, research linking LOC beliefs and ill health is difficult to interpret for several reasons (Kasl 1989). First, there may be conceptual overlap between the measures of health and locus of control scales. Secondly, a dispositional factor, like negative affectivity, may be present which is responsible for the relationship. For example, in the study by Spector and O’Connell (1994), LOC beliefs correlated more strongly with negative affectivity than with perceived autonomy at work, and did not correlate with physical health symptoms. Thirdly, the direction of causality is ambiguous; it is possible that the work experience may alter LOC beliefs. Finally, other studies have not found moderating effects of LOC on job stressors or health outcomes (Hurrell and Murphy 1992).
The question of how LOC moderates job stressor-health relationships has not been well researched. One proposed mechanism involves the use of more effective, problem-focused coping behaviour by those with an internal LOC. Those with an external LOC might use fewer problem-solving coping strategies because they believe that events in their lives are outside their control. There is evidence that people with an internal LOC utilize more task-centred coping behaviours and fewer emotion-centred coping behaviours than those with an external LOC (Hurrell and Murphy 1992). Other evidence indicates that in situations viewed as changeable, those with an internal LOC reported high levels of problem-solving coping and low levels of emotional suppression, whereas those with an external LOC showed the reverse pattern. It is important to bear in mind that many workplace stressors are not under the direct control of the worker, and that attempts to change uncontrollable stressors might actually increase stress symptoms (Hurrell and Murphy 1992).
A second mechanism whereby LOC could influence stressor-health relationships is via social support, another moderating factor of stress and health relationships. Fusilier, Ganster and Mays (1987) found that locus of control and social support jointly determined how workers responded to job stressors and Cummins (1989) found that social support buffered the effects of job stress, but only for those with an internal LOC and only when the support was work-related.
Although the topic of LOC is intriguing and has stimulated a great deal of research, there are serious methodological problems attaching to investigations in this area which need to be addressed. For example, the trait-like (unchanging) nature of LOC beliefs has been questioned by research which showed that people adopt a more external orientation with advancing age and after certain life experiences such as unemployment. Furthermore, LOC may be measuring worker perceptions of job control, instead of an enduring trait of the worker. Still other studies have suggested that LOC scales may not only measure beliefs about control, but also the tendency to use defensive manoeuvres, and to display anxiety or proneness to Type A behaviour (Hurrell and Murphy 1992).
Finally, there has been little research on the influence of LOC on vocational choice, and the reciprocal effects of LOC and job perceptions. Regarding the former, occupational differences in the proportion of “internals” and “externals” may be evidence that LOC influences vocational choice (Hurrell and Murphy 1992). On the other hand, such differences might reflect exposure to the job environment, just as the work environment is thought to be instrumental in the development of the Type A behaviour pattern. A final alternative is that occupational differences in LOC are be due to “drift”, that is the movement of workers into or out of certain occupations as a result of job dissatisfaction, health concerns or desire for advancement.
In summary, the research literature does not present a clear picture of the influence of LOC beliefs on job stressor or health relationships. Even where research has produced more or less consistent findings, the meaning of the relationship is obscured by confounding influences (Kasl 1989). Additional research is needed to determine the stability of the LOC construct and to identify the mechanisms or pathways through which LOC influences worker perceptions and mental and physical health. Components of the path should reflect the interaction of LOC with other traits of the worker, and the interaction of LOC beliefs with work environment factors, including reciprocal effects of the work environment and LOC beliefs. Future research should produce less ambiguous results if it incorporates measures of related individual traits (e.g., Type A behaviour or anxiety) and utilizes domain-specific measures of locus of control (e.g., work).