Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Internal v External Debate: Raising a Glass to Julian Rotter

Possibly because I was unwell at the time but I missed the news that Julian Rotter had died on the 6th of January this year. His work in both defining and developing social learning theory transformed behavioural approaches to personality and clinical psychology. He first published his ideas in his book Social Learning and Clinical Psychology in 1954, a year before I was born. However, he was perhaps best known for his construct of the idea of a Locus of Control of Reinforcement.

The locus of control refers to an individual’s perception about the underlying main causes of events in their life. Rotter’s view was that an individual’s behaviour is largely guided by ‘reinforcements’ (rewards and punishments) and through the experience of feeling rewarded or punished, individuals develop beliefs about what caused these actions. In turn, these beliefs shape what kinds of attitudes and behaviours people adopt over how much power individuals believe they have over events in their lives. The locus of control construct is a belief about whether the outcomes of an individual’s actions is contingent on what we do (internal locus of control) or on events outside an individual’s personal control (external locus of control).

Generally, an internal locus of control is thought to promote better mental health and well-being. Men tend to be more internal than women, the older people become the more internal they become, and individuals holding senior positions in organisations tend to be more internal in orientation. However, those individuals with an internal locus of control need also to be competent and have a well-developed sense of self-efficacy in order to be able to successfully experience a sense of personal control and responsibility. Those individuals, who lack competence efficacy and perhaps opportunity, can become anxious and or depressed. 

Interestingly, the Level of Care Utilization System, another LOCUS, is in the US at least, a widely used tool for determining the appropriate level of service intervention for individuals with a mental health problem. It is an approach that was developed by the American Association of Community Psychiatrists for psychiatric and additions services. Of course thinking about how the 'internal' can help with the external has a long history.

A glass of gin was once ‘prescribed’ to ward off the plague, a glass of wine to’ defend the body from corruption’ and a sip of absinthe to cure the body of round worms (Ok, the last example is the internal curing the internal). When I trained as a nurse, patients were still being prescribed a bottle of stout a day, and there would always be a bottle of brandy in the medicine cabinet. These days our understanding of the harm alcohol has on both the individual and society as whole has meant that it has been removed from prescription pads.


Over the years the Royal Colleges (of Psychiatrists and Physicians) have been free with their advice as to how much we should all drink and in so doing how we might avoid the harm caused by alcohol. I am not sure what Julian Rotter would have said about such advice, although there is a Drinking Locus of Control Scale developed by Keyson and Janda back in 1972. Me, well I have a bottle of sparkling Shiraz cooling in the fridge ready to sip at dinner, and I will raise a glass to Julian!