Locus of Control: Rotter reflects on his work on Radio 4’s Mind Changers

Mind Changers

The excellent Radio 4 Mind Changers series explored, earlier this year, the impact of Julian Rotter’s (surprisingly pronounced Roter) concept of Locus of Control.  In the programme (made available online from 30th April 2012) Rotter, now in his 90’s, talks with great modesty about the origins and impact of his work. Presenter Claudia Hammond interviews Rotter and others in this entertaining and accessible broadcast uncovering the origins of the concept, its widespread application, the misuse of the concept in some cases and its continued influence in therapeutic settings. For me, hearing first hand from Rotter about his work and his feelings about the impact of his research, is the particular appeal of using this audio resource in the classroom.

AS AQA A Unit 2:  Social Influence

Locus of control remains part of the AS AQA A specification in Unit 2 (PSYA2 Biological Psychology, Social Psychology and Individual Differences) in the context of independent behaviour. The AS textbooks contain research that suggests that those who are more external are more likely to be influenced by others and less likely to remain independent. This is currently in the spec as part of explanations of independent behaviour. The argument being that some people show independent behaviour, rather than conformist or obedient behaviour, because they have a stable personality characteristic that prevents them from being swayed by the influence of others. This is a small part of the spec but an important one, often glossed over to an extent by textbooks. This Radio programme sets the scene perfectly for an informed discussion about whether the application of Locus of Control to predict conforming or obedient behaviour is appropriate.

Locus of Control

Rotter, a Clinical Psychologist, theorised that there was a stable personality characteristic that determined whether we perceived internal or external factors to be responsible for the outcomes of events in our lives. Rotter describes a patient of his who believed in luck and the influence of factors beyond his control. What surprised Rotter was that this perception didn’t change when the patient got better. This led him to propose that this was a stable characteristic. Rotter went on to devise a test to provide an empirical measure of this characteristic. The programme reveals that Rotter’s scientific approach to his research – his drive to make this characteristic measurable – was seen as unusual but refreshing in the clinical field at this time.

5 reasons to use this in the Psychology classroom

There are many reasons to use this audio resource in or outside the classroom with AS Psychology students but here are 5.

  1. Not only does this audio explain eloquently what is meant by the concept of Locus of Control but the insight into where it came from is engaging and it is refreshing to hear from a Psychologist first hand (especially as we tend to assume influential Psychologists cited in textbooks are dead!).
  2. The programme discusses the pros and cons of the scale and the concept itself as well as the inappropriate application of the concept to predict behaviour. Rotter points out that where you score on the scale, between highly internal and highly external, will only be relevant in novel situations. According to Rotter, experience will always prevail if you have been in that situation before.
  3. Rotter is described as taking a highly scientific approach to his work; an approach that was relatively unusual at the time in the clinical field. This allows discussion for focus on why a scientific approach is important.
  4. Rotter’s humble and modest response to Claudia Hammond’s question about his feelings about the huge impact of his work is refreshing in a society dominated by the pursuit of fame and fortune. He describes being motivated by wanting to know the answer to questions. A nice way to link to learning and thinking skills and back to the scientific approach.
  5. Rotter raises the issue that his own tendency towards being, according to him, more internal than is ideal, biases his perceptions of the concept when asked about how easy it would be to make yourself more internal or more external.

Some practical ideas

This programme is definitely worth listening to prior to teaching this part of the spec but also worth asking students to listen to. At 29 minutes students could listen to this before they look at applying the concept to conformity/obedience as a “homework” task as he programme is available online.  Students could be asked 2 questions:

  1. Given what you have learned about Locus of Control from this programme, is it appropriate to use Locus of Control to predict independence in Milgram’s study or Asch’s study? What about outside of the lab?
  2. Is it better to be more internal or more external?

The first question should allow students to focus on the idea that situations need to be novel, according to Rotter, for Locus of Control to come into play. In experiments into conformity and obedience the situations are often novel so it seems an appropriate application. Whether this generalises beyond the studies is more questionable. How novel would a situation involving pressure from other people be in the “real world”?

A really interesting listen with lots of scope – highly recommended!


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