A ‘belief’ is an attitude that something is the case. That an attitude is a belief does not speak to whether it is grounded in reality.  Maybe it is…and maybe it isn’t.

Some beliefs appear to be held with an unthinking certainty, but that doesn’t mean the process of forming these beliefs was unthinking. In other words, the road to automaticity may be paved with cognitive effort.

The “truth-value” of a belief is the extent to which it is empirically justified.

The “use-value” of a belief is in its consequences: its real-world benefits.

Beliefs can be wrong and still useful, although beliefs that closely track reality are more likely to be useful. Yes, “useful” needs to be unpacked, but for now I’ll just say that something is useful to the extent it contributes to well-being via effects on status, relationships, goals, etc.

Beliefs may be categorical or qualified by other considerations. The belief “everything happens for a reason” is categorical, admitting no exceptions or matter of degree. Beliefs like “people are generally selfish” and “success is mostly due to luck” are qualified beliefs.

People often hold contradictory beliefs. People are good! People are bad! Whatever belief is salient at any given time depends on lots of things (reserved for another post). Point is, beliefs aren’t carved in stone.

It may be more accurate to say that people have tendencies to believe a certain way in certain situations than that they have beliefs. I’ll call this a “belief tendency”.

Locus of control is a belief tendency. A couple definitions:

“Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.” Wikipedia.

“Those with an internal locus of control tend to believe in their own ability to control events, whereas people with an external locus of control believe other people or events determine their own circumstances.” Wang et al (1999)

Beliefs influence behavior and behaviors have consequences. One can better understand the persistence of some beliefs (and belief tendencies) by considering what they lead to. Take locus of control:

Students with internal locus of control begin working on assignments sooner than students with external locus of control.

Students with internal locus of control complete and return assignments sooner than students with external locus of control.

Students with an external locus of control receive poorer grades than those with internal locus of control.

Internal locus of control is positively related to academic achievement in college students.

Internal locus of control is associated with greater job satisfaction and greater job success.

Unsurprisingly, individuals with an internal locus of control tend to be happier and in better mental health than those with an external locus of control. So why do some people persist in believing that the events in their lives are out of their control? What’s the payoff that allows this belief tendency to persist? Protection from the acute pain of failure. The payoff is something bad did not happen.

Locus of control has been described as a “relatively stable” personality trait, but that may be because it’s self-reinforcing. Avoiding pain means losing out on gains, which only zaps self-confidence further. How to crawl out of this psychological mess? Partly by setting and achieving doable goals, starting small and then ramping up the challenge level.* As one becomes more effective at influencing life outcomes, one’s locus of control will eventually shift to reflect that reality.

Locus of control is not just a belief in the head - it is a belief tendency that reflects reality and creates reality. Change the reality and the belief will shift - maybe not in lock-step but in time.

* For more detail, see Basic Tips: Mastering Self-Efficacy.


Judge, T. A., & Bono, J. E. (2001). Relationship of core self-evaluations traits—self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy, locus of control, and emotional stability—with job satisfaction and job performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 80–92. https://insights.ovid.com/applied-psychology/japsy/2001/02/000/relationship-core-self-evaluations-traits-esteem/7/00004565

 Primmer, Justin (2018), "Belief", in Primmer, Justin, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab.  

Wang LY, Kick E, Fraser J, Burns TJ. Status attainment in America: The roles of locus of control and self-esteem in educational and occupational outcomes. Sociological Spectrum. 1999;19:281–298. DOI: 10.1080/027321799280163

 Wise, Michael “Locus of Control in Our Daily Lives: How the Concept of Control Impacts the Social World”  https://www.units.miamioh.edu/psybersite/control/overview.shtml