Locus of Control - Related Constructs

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Dec 2006


Attribution refers to how people explain events that happen to themselves and others.  Different kinds of attributional styles have been found to characterise and explain why people react quite differently, but predictably to events and how they explain the causes of those events (actor-observer bias).  The fundamental attribution error is that people tend to adopt more internal explanations for others behaviour and more external explanations for their own behaviour.  However, this depends on whether one is explaining successful or failed behaviour.  In other words, people tend exhibit a self-serving bias when it comes to explaining behavior, as follows:

  • Internal attributions about themselves when they succeed (i.e., I did it myself)
  • Internal attributions about others when they fail (i.e., it was their fault)
  • External attributions about themselves when they fail (i.e.,  Something else made me fail)
  • External attributions about others when they succeed (i.e., they got lucky)

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Learned Helplessness

External locus of control is related to Seligman's studies of Learned Helplessness (1970s) which found that animals and people will learn to simply give up trying when they experience having no control over what happens to them.  Thus, developing learned helplessness, when an organised is in a chronically deprived situation, is an adaptive response.  However, if circumstances change for the better (e.g., release from deprivation), learned helplessness (external locus of control) is maladaptive because the person doesn't know how to act with agency.  Read more about Learned Helplessness.

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