Part 01: The Locus of Control

Viktor Frankl Slide

The Locus of Control

Dr. Daniel Gilbert suggests in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, that human’s yearn for a sense of control.  Scientific research points toward a connection between losing control and becoming unmotivated, unhappy, feeling helpless, hopeless, and depressed.

Not feeling in control of our lives or particular situations can cause us to lose motivation, or result in us struggling to find the motivation we need to push forward.  The research Dr. Gilbert referred to in his book was in regards to two studies conducted on nursing home patients.

In the first study, two groups of patients were given houseplants, each patient having their own plant in their room.  The first group of patients were asked to care for the plants they were entrusted with, while the second group were told that a staff member would be caring for the plants on behalf of the patients.

At the end of the study, 30% of the patients who were given plants that the staff cared for had died vs only 15% of the patients who were responsible for caring for their own plants.

In the second study, instead of houseplants the patients were offered visits from college students.  Again, two groups of patients were created, the first group were told they were responsible for deciding when the college students would come visit them.  The second group of patients were advised that the college students would be deciding when they would visit the nursing home.

At the end of the study, researchers observed that the patients who had control over when the students visited were happier, healthier, more active, and took fewer medications than the other group.

Psychologist Julian Rotter developed a theory he called the Locus of Control.  This model for behavior outlined that people fall into one of two categories.

Internal locus –

  • Believe they can influence destiny through the choices they make
  • Perceive themselves as actors and not individuals being acted upon
  • Focus on autonomy and self-efficacy
  • See a high correlation between personal actions and achieving goals

External locus –

  • Believe things happen to them
  • Blame others for their circumstances or for undesired situations
  • Practice learned helplessness

According to Dr. Al Siebert, author of The Resiliency Advantage, those individuals who believe their fate is under the control of external forces act in ways that confirm their beliefs, even creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

People who believe they are in control of or at least can influence the things in their life also act in ways to confirm their beliefs.  Psychologist Rotter used something he called the expectancy-value theory which explains that a person’s likelihood of taking an action is dependent on how much the person values a particular outcome and how much the person believes that taking the action will produce that outcome.

The goal here is to no longer react to external forces or things that we perceive to be external, but instead make the choice to channel our motivation towards acting on the internal influences that allow us to regain control of ourselves.

AA Golden - Transparent with Text


This series is available free for download in PDF format and includes activities for more engaged learning: Motivation

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