Friday, September 16, 2011

Beyond IQ Series #13: Self Beliefs:"Can I do this activity"--Locus of Control

This 13th installment in the Beyond IQ series introduces the broad MACM domain of self beliefs, and the first subdomain in this area--locus of control . [All installments in this series (and other related posts and research) can be found by clicking here].

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Self-Beliefs: Can I do this activity?

When pondering this question, students reflect on a number of motivational self-beliefs (e.g., self- confidence, academic self-concept, academic self- efficacy) that have dominated social cognitive models of motivation research the past three decades. Although germane to all students, this question is particularly salient for students who have experienced repeated academic failure (e.g., students with disabilities, disadvantaged students).

Locus of Control: Definition and Conceptual Background

A person’s belief about the perceived causes (internal vs. external) for their success or failure. An internal attribution orientation is present when a person perceives their success or failure as contingent on their own behavior and due to relatively unchanging personal characteristics. An external orientation is present when success or failure is perceived as being under the control of others, unpredictable, and the result of luck, chance, or fate.

Locus of control is an individual’s beliefs about the perceived causes (internal or external) for personal success or failure on a task. According to attribution theory, when a student fails or succeeds at a task (e.g., failing a reading exam or a particular assignment), the student analyzes the situation to determine the causes for the outcome. An internal attribution orientation is inferred when a student perceives personal success or failure as contingent on their behavior and relatively permanent personal characteristics. An external orientation is present when a student views academic success or failure as being under the control of others, unpredictable, and/or the result of luck, chance, or fate (Elliott, 1997; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002b; Rotter, 1966). Causal attributions are categorized as per the dimensions of stability (the stability of the cause), locus (internal or external), and controllability (can the perceived cause be controlled).

Locus of Control: Implications

The locus of control construct (and attribution theory) has a lengthy history in psychology. Locus of control is a popular and important concept in many theories of individual differences “because it has consistently shown a difference between ‘normal’ and ‘special’ populations” (Elliott, 1997, p. 27). The research literature has consistently associated a high internal locus of control (vs low external) with a wide array of positive outcomes. Briefly, research (Beirne- Smith, Ittenbach, & Patton, 1998; Borkowski, Weyhing, & Carr, 1988; Elliott, 1997; Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002b; Rivera et al., 1998; Snow et al., 1996) has suggested the following:

Level of internality is correlated with academic achievement (teacher grades and tests) and the degree of effort a student invests in free-time intellectual and learning activities. The positive effect of being a “high internal” on academic achievement may not be direct, but rather, may be mediated through other academic facilitators.

High internals are better able to defer gratification, adopt a long-term future-oriented perspective, and are more persistent when faced with difficult and challenging tasks.

The positive effect of causal attributions varies as a function of the primary characteristics of causality. In general, positive adaptation and outcomes occur when success or failure is attributed to stable internal characteristics (e.g., ability). Within-person trait-like characteristics are hypothesized to be viewed by the student as being readily available when faced with future learning tasks. Attributions to more unstable but controllable internal characteristics can also be adaptive. For example, motivation and persistence are characteristics that tend to fluctuate over time (therefore are not reflective of an unchangeable stable trait). These more fluid personal characteristics can be modified by the student. Finally, the negative effects of failure can be buffered when the causal attribution focuses on more unstable, uncontrollable, and external factors (e.g., bad luck).

There is a large body of attribution theory/locus of control literature focused on students with behavior and learning problems. This is not unexpected given that: (a) a student’s beliefs about the causes of success and failures impacts future learning; and (b) attribution beliefs can be environmentally influenced (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002b). For example, students with learning disabilities often develop significant motivation and social problems due to inaccurate perceptions of stable within-person characteristics that are often the focal point of causal success or failure (ability and skills). Attributing unsuccessful learning to personal inabilities has been associated with a more passive learning style and learned helplessness (where many students with disabilities develop a failure expetancy and a dependence on others to solve their problems). Research involving students with mental retardation has reported that these individuals may often display an external locus of control that, in turn, is often associated with learned helplessness and lower levels of personal responsibility, self-reliance, and self-regulatory learning. Locus of control is an important MACM variable and a valued outcome for students with a checkered history of academic success and failure.

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