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Applied & Preventive Psychology 1:111-117 (1992). Cambridge University Press. Printed in the USA.

Copyright © 1992 AAAPP 0962-1849/92 $5.00 + .00
Cognates of personal control: Locus
self-efficacy, and explanatory style
of control,
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Theories of personal control are extremely popular in contemporary psychology. What are the relationships
among such apparently similar notions as locus of control, self-efficacy, and explanatory style? Although these
cognates have similar correlates, they are not necessarily interchangeable. Our conceptual analysis suggests
that they exist at different levels of abstraction and generality. They interact with one another to influence
behavior. They are not simply alternative ways of talking about the same phenomenon. "Personal control"
should be regarded as multidimensional.
Key words: Explanatory style, Locus of control, Personal control, Self-efficacy
Personal control refers t o a person' s beliefs about how
well he or she can bring about good events and avoi d bad
events. In a previous paper, we generalized across its
cognat es (Peterson & St unkard, 1989). Here we do the
opposite, drawi ng distinctions among three part i cul arl y
well-known renditions: locus of cont rol , self-efficacy, and
expl anat ory style. These not i ons have at t ract ed a great
deal of research at t ent i on, but usually wi t hi n different
traditions. As a step t owar d bridging these lines of work,
we examine the meani ngs of these cognates.
The Emergence of Theories of Personal Cont r ol
Theorists t hr oughout this cent ury have been concerned
wi t h similar not i ons (Peterson, 1991; Weiner, 1990). Ac-
cordi ng t o the early formul at i ons, a basic aspect of
human nat ure is a drive t o mast er the envi ronment . Ex-
pression of this mot i ve is associated wi t h effective adap-
t at i on; its t hwart i ng results in poor functioning. These
early ideas were synthesized by Rober t Whi t e (1959) in
his classic paper on competence. Accordi ng t o White,
people are mot i vat ed t o i nt eract in an effective way wi t h
the world. The mot i vat i on t o be compet ent he called
This paper is based on a report submitted to the Henry J. Kaiser
Foundation. We thank Lisa M. Bossio for her editorial advice.
Send correspondence and reprint requests to Christopher Peterson,
Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 580 Union Drive,
Ann Arbor, MI 48109.
effectance motivation. The experience of effective interac-
t i on wi t h the worl d he called a feeling of efficacy.
In the 1960s, an i mpor t ant change in psychol ogy- - t he
cognitive r evol ut i on- - had sweeping consequences for
theories of personal control. This change arose f r om rec-
ogni t i on of the i nadequacy of formul at i ons i gnori ng the
ment al life of people and f ound expression in a host of
cognitive theories (Gardner, 1985). In these theories, the
t ermi nol ogy of i nf or mat i on processing replaced t hat of
stimuli and responses, of needs and drives. Theories of
personal cont rol were not lost in the cognitive revolution;
t hey were simply recast in the new language. Effectance
became not a motive, wi t h biological connot at i ons, but
an idea (belief, expectation, at t ri but i on, perception). The
early theorists emphasized drives t o mast er the environ-
ment , whereas the new generat i on of theorists spoke of
beliefs about whet her or not this coul d be done.
Some have decried one aspect of the i mpact of the
cognitive revol ut i on on the psychol ogy of human behav-
ior. A view of people as i nf or mat i on processors is neces-
sarily incomplete because it cont ai ns no goal or value to
explain the end t o which i nf or mat i on is processed.
Recogni zi ng this problem, cognitive theorists usually
speak of people' s personal cont rol wi t h respect t o good
or bad events, t hereby i mpl yi ng t hat personal cont rol is
depl oyed in a hedonistic context. However, this assump-
t i on is rarely explicit, and researchers may run afoul of it
when concerned wi t h complex behavior.
112 Peterson and Stunkard
Recasting effectance motivation in terms of beliefs had
two effects. First, the attention of researchers was di-
rected t oward specific aspects of the person. Beliefs are
always about something. Motivation can be general, but
beliefs are always specific. Prediction is greatly improved
by such specificity (e.g., Fishbein & Ajzen, 1974).
Second, the attention of researchers was also directed
ont o the actual environment and the way that a person
interacts with it. Whereas motives reside within a person,
beliefs refer to bot h the person and aspects of his or her
world. Again, current opinion holds that behavior is
not well explained by looking just within the person. In-
stead, understanding is greatly bolstered by taking into
account bot h individual and situational characteris-
tics (e.g., Bowers, 1973; Endler & Magnusson, 1976; Mis-
chel, 1979).
The consequences of people' s beliefs about control
were examined in a variety of paradigms in the 1960s in
which control was operationalized as choice, predictabil-
ity, and contingency. Research results converged, show-
ing that control was usually beneficial.
Much of the research on personal control has taken
place within social psychology, reflecting a concern with
the social environment in fostering or inhibiting per-
ceived control and showing the influence of personality
psychology, in conceiving personal control as an individ-
ual difference, and of clinical psychology, in designing
interventions to combat disorders of personal control.
People do not need to exercise control to benefit from
it (Averill, 1973; Miller, 1979; Thompson, 1981). The
mere perception of control is sufficient to reduce stress,
increase motivation, encourage performance, and so
forth. For instance, Glass and Singer (1972) exposed
laboratory subjects to bursts of aversive noise. Hal f the
subjects were told that they could terminate the noise by
pushing a button; the other subjects were not given this
instruction. All were then tested at a proofreading task.
The subjects who believed themselves to have control
over the original noise, even though they never pushed
the button, did better than the other subjects, despite the
fact that bot h groups experienced the identical (and in
actuality uncontrollable) noise.
Numerous theories of personal control compete in the
professional literature. We consider several of these in
turn and conclude that these cognates are not strictly
interchangeable; there are good reasons to keep in mind
the distinctions among them.
Locus of Control
Julian B. Rot t er (1954, 1966, 1975) proposed an influen-
tial cognate of personal control within the context of his
social learning theory. According to Rotter, reinforce-
ment strengthens responses to the degree that the individ-
ual expects the response to lead to further rewards. This
expectation, in turn, is determined first by task-specific
characteristics and second by generalized expectations
about the nature of reward, which Rot t er termed locus of
In its extreme cases, locus of control is represented by
an internal (I) orientation, in which the individual be-
lieves that rewards are brought about by his own actions,
versus an external (E) orientation, in which the individ-
ual believes that rewards are due to the operation of
chance factors, fate, or powerful others. Locus of control
is therefore an individual difference, measured by re-
sponses to the Rot t er (1966) I-E scale or similar self-
report instruments, which ascertain the degree to which
someone endorses internal versus external statements.
Thousands of investigations have looked at locus of
control. Phares (1978) summarized the thrust of these
investigations by noting that "Our survey of the I-E liter-
ature has revealed the typical internal to be one who
actively comes to grips with the world. Compared to the
external, the internal is resistant to social pressure and
dedicated to the pursuit of excellence" (p. 295). Like
others who comment on the locus of control area of
research, Phares added a disclaimer that internality is not
necessarily good. Still, the bulk of the studies show that
in a responsive envi ronment --and this qualification is
critical--individuals with an internal locus of control ac-
crue to themselves all manner of benefits.
Rot t er (1975) stressed that locus of control is but one
of the determinants of how a person responds to events.
Some researchers, however, use locus of control as a
personality disposition out of context, examining its
causes, consequences, and correlates and ignoring the
factors deemed critical by Rot t er in determining the
exact nature of these relationships. Chief among these
factors are the reinforcement value and the person' s fa-
miliarity with the task at hand.
To understand the relationship between locus of con-
trol and some behavior, the value of any reinforcement
of that behavior must be known. Rot t er (1975) criticized
research from the 1960s in which a relationship was
sought between locus of control and political activism.
Does locus of control predict participation in a protest
march? One prediction is that internality leads to social
activism (presumably an attempt to change the world
through one' s actions), but this explanation may be t oo
simplistic. Internal people may not protest, join a protest
group, or sign a petition simply because they do not
believe in the cause. On the other hand, very external
people may join a protest group because they like the
other people who are members of the group, because it is
less boring than studying, because it will upset their par-
ents if they find out, because it is the conforming thing to
do, and so on (Rotter, 1975, p. 270).
Rot t er (1975) also pointed out that locus of control, as
a broad belief, is less likely to be related to behavior to
Cognates of Personal Control 113
the degree that the person is in a situation that is struc-
tured, familiar, and unambiguous. In such circum-
stances, a person' s specific expectation about the nature
of reward takes over. Rot t er (1975) cited the example of
the relationship between locus of control and academic
achievement. At early ages, internality predicts grades.
At older ages, it does not. This makes perfect sense,
because with age the student learns more about the spe-
cific tasks required to achieve specific outcomes in partic-
ular subjects.
Locus of control research may have peaked in popu-
larity, but only because it has stimulated a host of com-
petitors. One trend apparent in more recent I-E research
is the development of domain-specific locus of control
measures (e.g., health locus of control). Relatedly, some
researchers have called for a distinction between locus of
control for good outcomes versus locus of control for
bad outcomes, resulting in a movement t oward greater
specificity of the notion. This specificity aids prediction
but detracts from Rot t er' s original conception of locus of
control as a generalized expectation.
Albert Bandura' s (1977, 1978, 1982b, 1986) widely
known notion of self-efficacy is an outgrowth of his ver-
sion of social learning theory, which emphasizes the im-
portance of vicarious processes in the acquisition and
modification of behaviors. People learn through observa-
tion of others. Wholly novel responses may be performed
after relevant models are seen performing similar actions
with desirable consequences (Bandura & Waiters, 1963).
Much of Bandura' s research efforts have been in the
context of behavior modification. How can phobic be-
havior be changed? I f changed, what is the critical ele-
ment responsible? Phobias can be alleviated through
modeling. An individual afraid of spiders may stop
avoiding them and even be able to handle them without
fear after watching another individual perform such ac-
tions and may also come to perform nonphobic behav-
iors vis-fi-vis spiders that were not explicitly modeled.
What is going on here? According to Bandura, at the
heart of a phobi a is the belief that one cannot cope with
the phobic object. Phobic individuals believe that they
cannot perform the behaviors needed to master the situa-
tion presented by the spider, the wide-open space, or the
speech to be given. Modeling is effective to the degree
that it strengthens the individual' s personal control vis-fi-
vis the situation in question. Bandura termed this self-
efficacy. A heightened sense of self-efficacy leads to
changes in behavior not specifically modeled, to a de-
crease in emotionality, and even to a normalization of
catecholamine metabolism.
In this type of work, self-efficacy is usually measured
with a simple rating scale. Subjects are asked to indicate
how confident they are, from not at all to completely,
that they can perform a particular behavior in a given
setting. An important outcome of Bandura' s research is
the demonstration that an individual' s sense of control
over a given response ("I am confident that I can let the
spider walk up my arm") is a better predictor of this
response than the individual' s past success or failure in
performing it. One of psychology' s few truisms is that
past behavior predicts future behavior; Bandura' s re-
search on self-efficacy improves upon this idea.
Bandura has used phobias as a paradigm with which
to assess the effects of diminished and enhanced self-
efficacy. However, his theory extends far beyond this
domain. Bandura (1977) argued that self-efficacy under-
lies all of behavior change, including actions involved in
health promot i on (O' Leary, 1985).
Several additional notions of Bandura warrant men-
tion. First, he distinguishes between an individual's ef-
ficacy expectancy and outcome expectancy. Outcome ex-
pectancy is a belief about the consequences of a
particular behavior. A basketball coach might believe,
for instance, that the Chicago Bulls can be defeated
if they are held to fewer than 90 points. Whether he be-
lieves that his team can hold the Bulls to fewer than 90
points is of course a different matter. This is an efficacy
This distinction is important, even though Bandura
himself can be faulted for overlooking it at times. In
some of his writing, he appears to ascribe people' s diffi-
culties mainly to efficacy expectations rather than to the
joint effect of efficacy and outcome expectations.
Second, Bandura restricts the study of personal con-
trol to very specific contexts, using a "microanalytic
strategy." In keeping with his social learning bent, he
distrusts the possibility of broad dispositions like locus of
control. Instead, he always specifies self-efficacy with re-
spect to some particular situation and some particular
Bandura' s theory has been criticized as common-sensi-
cal (Smedslund, 1978) and as t oo specific (Peterson &
Stunkard, 1989). Nonetheless, it has become a leading
perspective in contemporary psychology because of the
range of its applications and its ability to generate effec-
tive strategies of behavior change (Peterson, 1992).
Explanatory Style
The notion of explanatory style emerged from the attri-
butional reformulation of the learned helplessness
model. This model is an account of why people act in an
inappropriately passive way and why they fail to cope
with the demands of a situation that seems fully within
their competence. According to Seligman (1975), people
may act helpless because they have learned to be helpless.
The critical element in this learned helplessness is a di-
114 Peterson and Stunkard
minished sense of personal control. Thus, learned help-
lessness theory is most directly an explanation of why
and how personal control can go awry. Less directly, it is
an account of how persot]al control can be fostered.
According to the learned helplessness model, helpless-
ness results from experience with uncontrollable events
(Maier & Seligman, 1976). Uncontrollability is defined in
terms of the contigency between responses and the out-
comes of concern. When events occur regardless of what
the subject does or does not do, then the events are
uncontrollable. When the subject learns this (non)contin-
gency and represents it as an expectation of future un-
controllability, learned helplessness occurs.
A full explanation of when helplessness does or does
not follow uncontrollable events should consider the per-
son' s causal interpretation of the events (Abramson,
Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). According to a reformula-
tion of helplessness theory that considers these interpre-
tations, when people encounter an uncontrollable event,
they ask "why?" Their answer dictates their response to
uncontrollability (Peterson & Seligman, 1984).
Three dimensions of causal explanation are important.
An internal explanation ("it' s me") makes self-esteem
loss more likely than an external explanation ("it' s the
economy"). A stable explanation ("it' s going to last for-
ever") leads to more prolonged helplessness than an un-
stable explanation ("it' s one of those days"). A global
explanation ("it' s going to undermine everything that I
do") produces more pervasive deficits than a specific ex-
planation ("it' s the heat in that place").
An individual' s causal explanation for uncontrollable
events determines the extent of helplessness following
these events. Because individuals show a characteristic
style of offering causal attributions, what is called their
explanatory style, habitually favoring certain types of
explanations over others, some people are more at risk
for helplessness than others. One' s explanatory style can
be measured with a questionnaire developed for this pur-
pose (Peterson et al., 1982). An explanatory style in
which uncontrollable events are attributed to internal,
stable, and global explanations is a risk factor for help-
lessness and passivity in the face of uncontrollability,
whereas the converse style makes an individual robust
and impervious to disruption by failure (Peterson &
Seligman, 1984). Recent evidence suggests that stable
and global explanations for bad events can be risk factors
for physical illness (Peterson & Bossio, 1991).
Helplessness theory emphasizes how personal control
can be thwarted in one situation and have undesirable
consequences in another. Other theories have attempted
to depict the other side on the coin, the encouragement
of personal control through mastery experiences. The
constructs of these theories have different names: learned
industriousness, learned resourcefulness, self-control,
transfer of persistence, and so on. At the present time, the
most thorough such account is that of Dweck (1975;
Dweck & Licht, 1980), who contrasts helplessness-ori-
ented children with those she calls mastery oriented.
These two groups of children differ in the persistence they
show in the face of failure. Mastery-oriented children are
less likely to acknowledge failure. What appear as set-
backs to the observers are regarded by these children as
steps toward the final goal.
Explanatory style has been frequently investigated, yet
important questions remain unexplored (Peterson, 1991).
The hypothesized roles of the individual dimensions of
explanatory style have not been systematically investi-
gated. Also, the attributional reformulation of helpless-
ness theory proposes that explanatory style interacts with
bad events to produce difficulties, yet the vast majority of
studies have not ascertained the occurrence of bad
events. Finally, the helplessness model is a process ac-
count of how difficulties develop. Because most studies
use a cross-sectional design, the presumed sequence of
events linking explanatory style and failures of adapta-
tion has not been mapped out.
Taking Stock
Locus of control, self-efficacy, and explanatory style
share a family resemblance (Peterson & Stunkard, 1989).
Each construct is explicitly cognitive. Each is related to
good versus bad functioning and in particular the vigor
or passivity with which someone meets the demands of
the world. Indeed, the following summary of research
findings (Janis, 1983) applies equally well to all three
"Perceived control" is one of the core concepts that
has evolved from research bearing on the sense of
mastery. Loss of perceived ability to control aversive
events, which is strongly influenced by environmental
circumstances, is now generally recognized as a major
psychological determinant of reactions to stressful life
events. When a person notices that protective actions
are having little observable effect in bringing an end to
an extremely disagreeable experience, his or her initial
reaction is usually an upsurge of anger or protest. If
the person' s efforts to regain a sense of control con-
tinue to be thwarted, he or she is likely to become
demoralized. After that happens, the person copes less
effectively and ultimately develops profound feelings
of helplessness and depression. These extreme reac-
tions, which are usually accompanied by apat hy and
social withdrawal, are pertinent to bot h mental health
and physical health. There is a growing body of evi-
dence that the malignant emotional sequence as-
sociated with loss of perceived control, which often
occurs among people who are ill or incapacitated, not
only increases subjective suffering but also impedes
Cognates of Personal Control 115
physical recovery and sometimes leads to untimely
death. Fortunately, however, there is also evidence
that the malignant sequence can be prevented or inter-
rupted by psychological interventions that enable dis-
tressed people to see themselves as having sufficient
control over what happens to them to cope success-
fully. (p. 10)
In view of the conceptual and empirical overlap, should
we regard these different cognates of personal control as
interchangeable? Are they simply different ways of talk-
ing about the same psychological phenomena?
We think not. Locus of control, self-efficacy, and ex-
planatory style do have similar correlates, but if we are
content with this summary statement, we give up any
attempt to explain j ust why these beliefs translate them-
selves into effective coping on the one hand versus inef-
fective coping on the other. Each construct is defined
within an explicit theory, and the theories themselves
differ concerning the determinants of action and emo-
tion. Collapsing these constructs reduces the benefits of
having a theory in the first place.
The meanings of these three cognates of personal con-
trol are far from identical. Locus of control refers to
one' s generalized expectancies about the origin of re-
wards and punishments in the world, self-efficacy refers
to one' s belief about whether a given behavior can be
enacted, and explanatory style refers to one' s habitual
way of explaining the causes of events. These three con-
cepts are clearly distinct. An individual with an internal
locus of control may offer external causal explanations:
"I f I am charming, I will be offered the j ob, but whether
or not I am charming depends on the mood of the inter-
viewer." Individuals may entertain efficacious beliefs
about their ability to perform a given behavior indepen-
dently of their locus of control or explanatory style.
Each cognate exists at a different level of abstraction
and generality. Locus of control and explanatory style
are, by definition, predispositions to more specific
thoughts and beliefs that in turn are the proximal deter-
minants of action and emotion. Self-efficacy, in contrast,
is defined as one of these proximal determinants. Al-
though whether people can be characterized as generally
efficacious or not is an empirical question, certainly no
researcher should start with this assumption. Some ques-
tionnaires purport to measure "general" self-efficacy,
quite apart from specific behaviors, but they are not
doing the concept justice.
Each cognate has its richest--perhaps its onl y--mean-
ing within its particular theory. The widespread tendency
to pull a personal control cognate out of its theoretical
context and include its measure in a questionnaire bat-
tery is apt to yield exactly what we find: an array of
modest correlates yet no crisp conclusions about why
variables cohere as they do.
Each cognat e- - by definition--is expected to predict
some aspect of behavior. Prediction woul d be bolstered
and explanation aided, however, if researchers also t ook
into account the other determinants of behavior explic-
itly recognized by Rotter, Bandura, and explanatory
style theorists. Locus of control should be measured
in conjunction with a person' s sense of the reinforce-
ment value of particular activities; self-efficacy should
be looked at along with outcome expectancies; explana-
tory style should be studied along with the actual causal
texture of settings. Common to all these theories is the
need to locate people in the environments in which they
These research traditions can be sensibly bridged only
by bringing constructs together with their full theoretical
meanings. Simply including measures of all three con-
structs in a battery may not be informative. No doubt
correlations in the .30 range would be obtained (Mischel,
1968), but so what?
Longitudinal studies would be more informative. If
these notions do interact, it is over time. As generalized
predispositions, locus of control and explanatory style
might influence one' s efficacy in particular settings. Yet
one could argue as well that they should influence one' s
outcome expectancies more than efficacy expectancies
because they are beliefs about the world, not simply
about one' s own abilities.
Interestingly, the more exact parallels among these
theories are in Bandura' s outcome expectancy. Each the-
ory assigns an important role to one' s expectation about
the relationship between behaviors and outcomes; in-
deed, expectation arguably is the crucial determinant of
behavior in each theory. Yet what has interested re-
searchers, including those who proposed each theory, is
not the part of the theory stressing expectation but rather
the part stressing personal control.
These different notions may each do their best j ob
within some given domain of behavior. To judge simply
from the most popul ar areas of work, locus of control
accounts for perseverance, self-efficacy for behavior
change, and explanatory style for demoralization. I f re-
searchers played these domains off against one another,
evidence for the discriminant validity of these cognates
might result.
The correlates of locus of control, self-efficacy, and
explanatory style might l ook more distinct than they
currently do if criterion measures were selected for ex-
plicitly theoretical reasons. Explanatory style, for exam-
ple, has been frequently looked at in relation to depres-
sion. Theoretically, however, the severity of depressive
symptoms need bear no particular relationship to a "de-
pressive" explanatory style. Rather, the duration and
generality of depressive symptoms should be under the
sway of explanatory style. Investigations of this theoreti-
cally crisp hypothesis are virtually nonexistent.
116 Peterson and Stunkard
Locus of cont rol , self-efficacy, and expl anat ory style
have become popul ar most l y because of the availability
of st rai ght forward quest i onnai re measures. In each case,
however, measurement is far f r om finished business. The
questionnaires used t o ascertain locus of cont rol and
expl anat ory style have been criticized, and at t empt s t o
bolster their reliability and val i di t y are ongoi ng (e.g.,
Pet erson & Villanova, 1988).
Bandur a' s procedure of assessing self-efficacy by ask-
ing subjects t o make simple confidence ratings has not
oft en been criticized, perhaps because it seems so face
valid. Nonetheless, in view of the mi croanal yt i c strategy
favored by Bandura, reactivity on the part of subjects
may t hreat en some of the obt ai ned results. Rat i ng one' s
self-efficacy i mmedi at el y before engaging (or not) in
the behavi or in quest i on mi ght create stronger links be-
tween self-efficacy and behavi or t han actually exist.
Bandur a (1982a) has argued against this possibility,
but we still suspect t hat it may occasionally conf ound
Anot her measurement issue pertains t o the possible
semantic overlap between quest i onnai re items used t o
operationalize these different cognates of personal con-
trol. The theoretical distinctiveness of these const ruct s
may be bl urred by the extent t o which specific question-
naire items reflect more t han one construct. To answer an
expl anat ory style quest i onnai re item by offering the attri-
but i on t hat a bad event happened because "I coul dn' t help
mysel f" is t o offer a self-efficacy appraisal. Researchers
investigating two or more of these personal cont rol cog-
nates are advised t o scrutinize closely the part i cul ar opera-
tionalizations t hey empl oy t o eliminate or cont rol for
items t hat t ap more t han one const ruct (Nicholls, Licht, &
Pearl, 1982).
It is premat ure t o regard personal cont rol as a mono-
lithic not i on. Overlap exists among such well-known
constructs as locus of control, self-efficacy, and explana-
t ory style, but the differences are j ust as i mpor t ant as the
similarities. The differences may be the most interesting
aspects of these constructs, which means t hat we shoul d
bridge these research t radi t i ons wi t h care so as not t o
strip away theoretical subtlety. Psychol ogy has l ong suf-
fered f r om a lack of consensus about its appropri at e
units (Allport, 1937). Al t hough there is agreement about
the i mport ance of personal cont rol , this does not mean
t hat we yet know how best to conceptualize it.
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