The Psychology of Research

What Market Researchers Can Learn from Locus of Control

Tackling difficult questions is all in a day’s work for B2B qualitative market researchers. After all, the ultimate goal in research is to help clients reveal answers that solving vexing challenges and provide strategic direction. But what about those questions of a more philosophical variety — such as, “are we in control of our own destinies?” Is this type of existential exploration meaningful for B2B qual research and the marketers who use it? In a word, yes.

To understand why, let’s go back to 1954 — the year American psychologist Julian B. Rotter developed a concept known as “locus of control.” A central component to the social learning theory Rotter developed, locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they have control over the events that shape their lives. Control, or the perception of it, is the key word here.

According to Rotter’s theory, people generally fall within one of two categories: those who believe that their life events are determined primarily by their own actions and decisions, and those who credit external factors (luck, fate, chance, other people) with shaping the circumstances of their lives. The former group has an internal locus of control, while the latter has an external locus of control.

These diverging views of will (internal) versus fate (external) manifest in diverging personalities as well. Individuals with an internal locus of control tend to accept responsibility for their failures as well as achievements, and believe that through passion and hard work they can reach their goals. As such, they often display more self-confidence, motivation, and perseverance than their external counterparts. Their mantra: “I make things happen!”

The external locus of control camp, on the other hand, may feel like they have little control over what happens to them, and that whatever efforts they make to change the trajectory of their lives will have minimal effect. These individuals can be vulnerable to feelings of helplessness, dependency, and fatalism, and therefore may lack initiative. Their mantra: “Things happen to me.”

While no doubt eternally fascinating to psychologists, understanding the locus of control concept is useful for qual researchers and marketers as well. There’s value in identifying whether your audience aligns with an internal locus of control (“I make things happen”), or whether they are more inclined toward an external locus of control (“things happen to me”). By revealing this proclivity, researchers and marketers can better target the type of person most likely to buy their products or services, and tailor their messaging accordingly. Let’s break that down a bit more.

Empower or Enable — Get the Message Right

Understanding where your audience falls within the locus of control spectrum can play a critical role in shaping an effective message. For consumers who have an internal locus of control, messaging that emphasizes personal empowerment, individual responsibility, and the ability to influence outcomes will likely resonate more. Nike’s “Just do it” comes to mind. Conversely, those with an external locus of control may respond better to messaging that highlights convenience, ease of use, and enabling solutions provided by an outside authority or expert. Allstate’s “You’re in good hands,” for example.


Finessing the Features

When you know whether your audience is internally or externally inclined, you also know which features and benefits to prioritize and how best to position them. If your target consumers favor an internal locus of control, you may want to demonstrate how your products or services empower them to take control. Think about a fitness app that puts people in charge of their own health. If you’re trying to reach an audience with an external locus of control, you might want to show how your offering alleviates outside pressures or uncertainties. Think about a home security system that provides peace of mind and protection from external threats.


Reinforce with Social Proof

Sharing the experiences of other individuals who have a similar locus of control orientation can be a powerful way to gain trust and reinforce purchasing decisions. If your audience leans more toward an internal locus of control, spotlight an existing customer as the hero who successfully reached their goals through their own tenacity (with the help of your product, of course). If your audience identifies more with an external locus of control, show how your product or service played an instrumental role in helping them achieve their desired outcome.


Internalizing/Externalizing Incentives

Knowing whether your audience falls within the internal or external camp can be extremely valuable in developing promotions and incentives to drive sales. Programs that reward proactive behavior and personal initiative are likely to appeal to those with an internal locus of control. For instance, giving patients who complete their annual mammogram a year’s free gym membership. Programs that emphasize outside rewards provided by the brand may connect more with those who have an external locus of control. An example: free delivery or a bonus product with purchase.


Half and Half

What if your audience is split down the middle, with half falling into the external locus of control group and the other half falling into the internal locus of control group? In that case, alternate between tactics that appeal to the “I make thing happen” consumers and those that reassure the “things happen to me” consumers. The more personalized and tailored your messaging for each audience category, the more likely you are to connect.

Locus of Control Indicators

Clearly, there’s significant value for researchers and marketers in identifying their audience’s locus of control orientation. But how do we make this determination in the context of a focus group or interview? For qual researchers and moderators, there are multiple key indicators to look for.

  • Does the participant seem to be influenced by or impervious to the opinions of others in the group? Are they susceptible to group think?
  • Is the participant answering questions and sharing feedback with confidence and self-assurance, or are they more uncertain and seeking approval or validation?
  • Is the participant leading the conversation and volunteering responses, or sitting back and letting others do most of the talking — responding only when call upon to do so?
  • Is the participant eager and excited to share their opinions and have an impact on the study’s findings, or do they seem indifferent, apathetic, or uninterested in the study’s outcome?
  • Does the respondent defend their responses and opinions, or do they easily change their minds based on others’ feedback or pushback?

Revealing Your Respondents’ Locus of Control

Observing the level of engagement and participation is one way to gauge where your respondents reside on the locus of control spectrum. But asking the right questions can also be an effective strategy. Here are a few prompts that we found works well in our focus groups and interviews.

  • Ask respondents to talk about a specific success or failure — with particular focus on what they attribute to each. Questions like, “What do you think contributed to your success,” and “What were the causes for this negative outcome?” can help you determine whether the respondent is a “I make it happen” or a “things happen to me” personality.
  • Encourage respondents to talk about what led them to a particular point in their lives. For example, you might ask a C-level executive how they became a leader in their organization. If their response is something along the lines of, “I worked my butt off,” you can safely assume they have an internal locus of control. If they answer with, “I was in the right place at the right time,” they likely have an external locus of control.
  • Dig into the learning from their successes and/or failures. For example, ask what lessons the C-level executive gleaned on their way to the corner office. Perhaps it was that hard work pays off, or because they took the initiative to do more than their job title called for (internal). Or, when discussing a failure, their key takeaway might be “don’t take risks” or “never trust others” (external). Again, the response will reveal their locus of control inclination.

Checking Your Bias

When assessing the locus control of your respondents, be on the lookout for bias in your own response. While people with an internal locus of control may seem more confident and motivated, they can also be closed off to the opinions, perspectives, and experiences of others. And while it may be tempting to dismiss people with an external locus of control as passive or compliant, those individuals can also be more aware of and attune with their surroundings and those around them.

One isn’t better than the other, and you’ll likely find individuals from both camps among your audience. Both have valuable qualities and insight that can make research richer. The important thing is to identify and acknowledge those qualities, and connect with your audience wherever they are on the locus of control spectrum. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this as well.