When Rotter developed his social learning theory, the dominant perspective in clinical psychology at the time was Freud’s psychoanalysis, which focused on people’s deep-seated instinctual motives as determining behaviour. Individuals were seen as being naive to their unconscious impulses, and treatment required long-term analysis of childhood experience. Even learning approaches at the time was dominated by drive theory, which held that people are motivated by physiologically based impulses that press the individual to satisfy them. In developing social learning theory, Rotter departed from instinct-based psychoanalysis and drive-based behaviourism. He believed that a psychological theory should have a psychological motivational principle. Rotter chose the empirical law of effect as his motivating factor. The law of effect states that people are motivated to seek out positive stimulation, or reinforcement, and to avoid unpleasant stimulation. Rotter combined behaviourism and the study of personality, without relying on physiological instincts or drives as a motive force.
“Locus of Control.”
For many people, their only exposure to the ideas of Julian B. Rotter is his concept of generalized expectancies for control of reinforcement, more commonly known as locus of control. Locus of control refers to people’s very general, cross-situational beliefs about what determines whether or not they get reinforced in life. People can be classified along a continuum from very internal to very external.
People with a strong internal locus of control believe that the responsibility for whether or not they get reinforced ultimately lies with themselves. Internals believe that success or failure is due to their own efforts. In contrast, externals believe that the reinforcers in life are controlled by luck, chance, or powerful others. Therefore, they see little impact of their own efforts on the amount of reinforcement they receive.
Rotter has written extensively on problems with people’s interpretations of the locus of control concept. First, he has warned people that locus of control is not a typology. It represents a continuum, not an either/or proposition. Second, because the locus of control is a generalized expectancy it will predict people’s behaviour across situations. However, there may be some specific situations in which people who, for example, are generally external behave like internals. That is because their learning history has shown them that they have control over the reinforcement they receive in certain situations, although overall they perceive little control over what happens to them. Again, one can see the importance of conceiving personality as the interaction of the person and the environment.