Individual Differences


Locus of Control
(Rotter, 1954)

Last updated:
29 May 2004

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Locus of Control: Rotter 1954

Julian Rotter observed people in therapy and noticed that:

  • Different people, given identical conditions for learning, learn different things

  • Some people respond predictably to reinforcement, others less so, and some respond unpredictably

  • Some people see a direct and strong connection between their behaviour and the rewards and punishments received

The core of his approach is called Expectancy Value Theory: the basic assumption is that your behaviour is determined not just by the presence or size of reinforcements, but by the beliefs about what the results of your behaviour are likely to be i.e., how likely you are to get the reinforcement.  For example:

Youíre looking for a job when you finish your Psych degree. You see an ad for one that pays $40,000 and one that pays $60,000. Classic behaviourism would say youíd go for the big money but according to Rotterís social learning theory thereís something that behaviourism leaves out: What if you think you havenít got a hope of getting the job thatís offering $60,000 but a good chance of getting the $40,000 one? So if you think your chance of getting the big job is 50/50 Rotter would say that mathematically itís worth $30,000 to you, whereas if you think youíre a shoo in for the other job (i.e. a 100% likely to get it) then that job is worth $40,000 to you.  So the lower paying job has a HIGHER EXPECTED VALUE.

From this viewpoint, people hold expectancies and these expectancies influence behaviour. These expectancies are mental representations: based on past outcomes and the situation they now confront; these things then influence their judgment of the likelihood of getting their desired outcome. Thus their expectancy judgments have a causal influence on their behavioural choices.

Rotter believed, as do most social learning theorists, that if you see a link between behaviours and reinforcers then your behaviour is affected by the reinforcers. If you donít see the link, then you react less predictably to reinforcers (and learning is not as likely to occur). The term Rotter coined for these beliefs about whether a behavior will meet with a rewarding outcome was LOCUS OF CONTROL. Locus means "place".  "Internal" (high General Expectancy) locus of control people believe that through their behavior they can control the likelihood of receiving reinforcers.  "External" (low General Expectancy") locus of control people don't see as much link between their behavior and the likelihood of being rewarded.

Hundreds of studies have shown individual differences in Locus of control.  Rotter saw locus of control as being very general whereas subsequent research suggests that it may be specific to different domains (e.g., academic, health). Rotter also saw this Internal-External continuum as a personality trait whereas others disagree.  Therapy based on Rotterís work often includes social skills training, as he believes that Low Expectancies discourage the individual from engaging in the world sufficiently to learn them.

Also see: The Social Learning Theory of Julian B. Rotter