Primary author: Kaice LaFavers


The phrase “locus of control” was coined in 1954 by Julian Rotter. An individual with an internal locus of control believes that he can, to a large extent, control what happens in his life through his own behaviors and actions. In contrast, an individual with an external locus of control believes that external factors control what happens in his life, and that he has little to no control over his positive or negative experiences. Individuals with an internal locus of control are more likely to seek information and knowledge about their own situations so that they can affect their lives. In the context of public health, it makes sense that a high locus of control would be advantageous for individuals who are interested in preventing or dealing with health problems.
Various research groups have played roles in developing scales to measure what type of locus of control an individual has. In 1973, Nowicki and Strickland developed a scale for children, which helped them to find that an internal locus of control increased as children got older, were part of a higher social class, or were a member of the dominant racial group (“whites”). They cited other studies which had elucidated a link between an internal locus of control and level of achievement. Building off of the scales of Nowicki & Strickland, along with others, the research of Wallston, Wallston, and DeVellis in 1978 created a scale that measured locus of control for health issues (Multi-Dimensional Health Locus of Control, MHLC).
Though many groups have worked on creating scales to describe locus of control, they have often had difficulty connecting locus of control results with health behaviors. Though it makes sense that a high internal locus of control would make individuals more likely to engage in positive health behaviors, this has not always been held up by the research. Lonnquist, Weiss and Larsen were able to establish a stronger association between locus of control and health behaviors by taking into consideration the moderating variable of health value. Individuals who have a high internal locus of control and who also place a high value on health are significantly more likely to engage in behaviors that will help them maintain good health. (1992) This interaction is analogous to what occurs in the Theory of Planned Behavior. In the Theory of Planned Behavior, beliefs about control and perceived control (locus of control) interact with behavior beliefs and attitudes (health value) to determine what kind of behavior is undertaken. (Glanz, 2008)
Another reason why locus of control may not be able to directly predict behavior is its interaction with the related concept of self-efficacy, which is the foundation of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory. Self-efficacy is similar to locus of control, but specifically refers to how an individual believes he is capable of performing in a given situation or circumstance. A person with high internal locus of control might believe that his own actions are important in determining his overall health, but might not believe that he has the capacity (will, strength, motivation, etc.) to make the necessary behavioral changes in order to improve his health. A person who has high internal locus of control and high self-efficacy for health behaviors is likely to engage in health behaviors. For individuals who are designing interventions whose goal is to promote healthy behavior, strategies to empower individuals could increase internal locus of control and self-efficacy. Empowerment could enable at-risk individuals to take charge of their own behaviors and overall health. (Smith, 1954; Glanz, 2008)

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