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Rotters ‘Locus of Control’, is it the same as our Meta Programs?

March 12, 2019
Jaap Hollander

Internal Locus of Control’ is, as you are probably well aware, defined as having a focus one how one influences ones circumstances, while versus ‘External Locus of Control’ is having a focus one how ones circumstances influence oneself.

They most probably came from Rotter
The locus of control meta programs are closely related to Rotter’s (1989) distinction bearing the same name. It seems highly likely that this distinction found its way directly from Rotter into the meta program collection.

According to Rotter, ‘Locus of control’ describes “the degree to which a person explains outcomes and events in their personal life as due to
- chance
- fate
- luck,
or as a result of her/his own
- skills
- abilities
- goal-directed behaviour”.

Rotter conceptualised locus of control as variable, based on the circumstances and therefore different in different situations. For instance, situations differ in terms of the clarity of the reinforcement contingencies operating, i.e. how clear it is which behaviour will be rewarded or punished. Clear reinforcement contingencies increase the chance of internal locus of control, while unclear reinforcement contingencies increase the chance of external locus of control.

Social learning theory
Rotter derived the concept from social learning theory (Bandura, 1977). This theory holds that we observe and imitate the behaviour of people around us. Imitation is influenced by the rewards the behaviour is perceived to result in. If the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived costs, then the behaviour will be more likely to be imitated. Therefore, regarding the ‘control’ in Rotters term ‘locus of control’ is control of social reinforcement (being rewarded or punished by ones fellow humans). A logical consequence is, that when reinforcement conditions change, the perceived locus of control may shift as well.

The ‘Internal–External (I-E)  scale’
Rotter’s  (1966) produced a  29-item questionnaire called the ‘Internal–External (I-E)  scale’, measuring to what extent someone believes events are contingent on their own behaviour or their own relatively permanent characteristics or traits (i.e., internal predisposition), or whether they believe that events are contingent on  luck,  chance,  fate,  or  factors beyond their control (i.e., external predisposition). Studies have shown Gurin et al.’s 13-item scale’s validity for measuring the core construct of internal versus external control of reinforcement (Greenberger, Strasser, Cummings,  & Dunham, 1989; Howell & Avolio, 1993). 

In this measurement, respondents are presented with 13 sets of two statements and asked to choose the one describing best how they feel.

1. Many of the unhappy things in people's lives are partly due to bad luck
People's misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.

2. One of the major reasons why we have wars is because people don't take enough interest in politics.
There will always be wars, no matter how hard people try to prevent them.

3. In the long run, people get the respect they deserve in this world.
Unfortunately, an individual's worth often passes unrecognised no matter how hard he tries.

4. The idea that teachers are unfair to students is nonsense.
Most students don't realize the extent to which their grades are influenced by accidental happenings.

5. Without the right breaks, one cannot be an effective leader.
Capable people who fail to became leaders have not taken advantage of their opportunities.

6. No matter how hard you try, some people just don't like you.
People who can't get others to like them don't understand how to get along with others.

7. I have often found that what is going to happen will happen.
Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.

8. In the case of the well prepared student, there is rarely, if ever, such a thing as an unfair test.
Many times exam questions tend to be so unrelated to course work that studying is really useless.

9. Becoming a success is a matter of hard work; luck has little or nothing to do with it.
Getting a good job depends mainly on being in the right place at the right time.

10. The average citizen can have an influence in government decisions.
This world is run by the few people in power, and there is not much the little guy can do about it.

11. When I make plans, I am almost certain that I can make them work.
It is not always wise to plan too far ahead because many things turn out to be a matter of luck anyway.

12. In my case, getting what I want has little or nothing to do with luck.
Many times we might just as well decide what to do by flipping a coin.

13. What happens to me is my own doing.
Sometimes I feel that I don't have enough control over the direction my life is taking.

Looking at these statements, we see that 7 sets refer to having control over specific types of reward or punishment, while 6 items refer to general events:

Specific items
Set 2: Having wars
Set 3: Receiving respect and recognition
Set 4: Receiving good grades as a student
Set 5: Becoming a leader
Set 6: People liking you
Set 8: Being tested fairly as a student
Set 10: Influencing government decisions

General items
Set 1: Having bad luck and misfortune
Set 7: What is going to happen
Set 9: Having success
Set 11: Making plans work
Set 12: Getting what I want
Set 13: What happens to me

Comparison with Rotters ‘Locus of control’
a. Conceptually, the meta program set ‘Internal’ versus ‘External locus of control’ is almost identical to Rotters ‘Locus of control’. Although we have no evidence of this, it seems likely that this meta program set was derived directly from Rotters work. 

b. Both Rotter and meta programs assume that locus of control may vary depending on the context.

c. In the short form of his measurement, the ‘Internal–External (I-E) scale’, Rotter defines 7 specific contexts (in 7 out of the 13 items). This is a difference with meta programs, since MindSonar only uses one single context (chosen by the respondent or the organisation using MindSonar).

d. The definition of the meta program set may benefit from Rotters specification of three sources of internal and external locus of control each. Rotter mentions “chance, fate and luck” as sources of external locus of control and “skills, abilities and goal-directed behaviour” as sources of internal locus of control.

Skill, ability, chance and fate
Although these sources are almost synonymous, they are not exactly the same. ‘Skill’ refers to a specific ability, a specific expertise. ‘Ability’ is a more general concept: proficiency in a particular area (which may be made up of multiple skills and a mental strategy to manage them). ‘Goal-directed behaviour’ is more specific than ‘skill’, it might even refer to a single action. These three sources are on a general-to-specific continuum: ability - skill- goal-directed behaviour.

Looking at the sources of external locus of control, we see that ‘chance’ is the occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious intention or cause. This is a broad concept that does not even attribute the cause of the events to any outside forces either. ‘Fate’ is when events are predetermined by a supernatural power, which is outside a person's control. ‘Fate’ is a little more specific that ‘chance’; fate at least contributes the events to something. ‘Luck’ is when success or failure are apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions. Luck is more specific again than chance, it’s not about events in general, but about success or failure. With his specification of the courts, Rotter covers both general and (a little) more specific reasons for where the perceived control lies.

About the author 

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Directs MindSonar Global, which manages the ICT development, applications and the curriculum of the MS Certification Trainings. Working part time as a trainer, writer and coach as well as being an expressionist painter (artist name JAAPH, see jaaph.com). Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching.

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