Chapter 13: Rotter and Mischel: Cognitive Aspects of Social Learning Theory

Part 2: Basic Constructs in Rotter’s Social Learning Theory

Rotter’s early research focused on the need to understand human behavior and personality so that clinical psychologists might effectively help their patients.  In the preface to Social Learning & Clinical Psychology, Rotter wrote:

…the practice of clinical psychology in many instances is unsystematic and confused when viewed from logical or rigorous scientific viewpoints.  This confusion, however, is not a necessary condition but the result of the failure of the clinical psychologists’ training program to translate and relate the basic knowledge of experimental and theoretical psychology into the practical situations of the clinic, the hospital, and the school… (pg. viii; Rotter, 1954)

Given his emphasis on clinical psychology, Rotter focused on the clinician’s ability to predict behavior.  According to Rotter, social learning theory assumes that the unit of investigation for the study of personality is the interaction between the individual and their meaningful environment.  Although personality has unity, the individual’s experiences influence each other. As a result, personality is continuously changing since each person is always having new experiences. However, personality is also stable in some respects, since previous experiences influence new learning.  Given the complexity of each individual, Rotter believed that in order to make reasonable predictions about behavior, it was necessary to examine four kinds of variables: behavior potential, expectancy, reinforcement value, and the psychological situation (Rotter, 1954, 1964, 1972; Rotter & Hochreich, 1975).

Behavior potential refers to the likelihood of a certain behavior occurring in the context of specific potential reinforcement.  For example, in order to earn good grades, a student can rely on any number of possible behaviors, such as studying, cheating, skipping class to avoid a bad grade, etc.  Each potential behavior can only be described as more or less likely than other potential behaviors, and included as potential behaviors are psychological reactions such as thoughts, emotions, and even defense mechanisms.  Expectancy is defined as the probability held by the individual that reinforcement will follow one’s chosen behavior. Although Rotter preferred to avoid the concept that expectancy is subjective, he acknowledged that an element of subjectivity is involved.  Regardless, it is the individual’s point of view, their expectations in a given situation, that are more important for predicting behavior than the realistic probability of a chosen behavior resulting in an expected reinforcement. Reinforcement value, quite simply, refers to the preference for a given reinforcer.  To use Rotter’s own example, most people would consistently choose to be paid $10 dollars an hour rather than $1 an hour, if it were simply their choice. Finally, there is the psychological situation. According to Rotter, it is not enough to say that to each individual a given situation might seem different. In order to address the situation in more objective terms, psychologists need to identify a variety of cues within the situation.  In an objective sense, consequently, different people can be described as attending to different specific cues in the environment (Rotter, 1954, 1972; Rotter & Hochreich, 1975).

Although Rotter broke new ground in this approach to the study of social learning theory, he did not entirely abandon the use of mathematical formulae similar to those of Dollard and Miller.  Rotter proposed the following basic formula for predicting goal-directed behavior:

BPx,S1Ra = /(Ex,RaS1 & RVa,S1)

Although this formula appears complicated at first glance, it is relatively straightforward.  The potential for behavior x (BPx) to occur in situation 1 with potential reinforcement a (S1Ra) is a function (/) of the expectancy (E) that reinforcement a will follow behavior x in situation 1 (x,RaS1) and the reinforcement value (RV) of reinforcement a in situation 1 (a,S1) (Rotter, 1954; Rotter & Hochreich, 1975).  In other words, we are most likely to choose the behavioral option that we realistically expect will result in the most favorable outcome in our current situation.

Rotter believed that both the expectancy of reward and the perceived value of that reward were essential in determining whether an individual engaged in a particular behavior.  Have you ever found yourself doing something even though you did not expect to get anything for your efforts? Have you ever had a job where you felt that you weren’t being paid what you deserved?  In such situations, how long did you continue your behavior, and how did you feel about it?

Locus of Control

One of the most important generalized expectancies underlying behavior, and perhaps Rotter’s best known concept, is referred to as internal versus external control of reinforcement (commonly known as locus of control):

People are known to differ in their belief that what happens to them is the result of their own behaviors and attributes (internal control) versus the result of luck, fate, chance, or powerful others (external control).  Clearly, persons who believe or expect that they can control their own destinies will behave differently, in many situations, than those who expect that their outcomes are controlled by other people or determined by luck. (pg. 105; Rotter & Hochreich, 1975)

Rotter pointed out that almost all psychologists recognize the role that reinforcement or reward plays in determining future behavior, but that this is not a “simple stamping-in process.”  For beings as complex as humans, the effects of reinforcement depend upon an individual’s perception of a causal relationship between their behavior and the potential reward (Rotter & Hochreich, 1975).

A number of scales have been developed to measure locus of control (for an early review see Lefcourt, 1976), including one developed by Rotter himself (Rotter, 1966).  Rotter’s scale, simply referred to as the I-E scale (for internal-external), consists of 29 forced-choice statements.  For example:

1.a.  Children get into trouble because their parents punish them too much.

1.b.  The trouble with most children nowadays is that their parents are too easy with them.

In each instance, the person taking the test must choose one or the other option.  After answering all 29 questions, the person’s score is the total number of external choices.  Does it seem difficult to determine whether 1.a. or 1.b. is the external choice? Good! Question 1 is actually a filler question, designed to interfere with the test taker’s ability to understand what the test is about!  So, consider question 2:

2.a.  Many of the unhappy things in people’s lives are partly due to bad luck.

2.b.  People’s misfortunes result from the mistakes they make.

For question 2, it is quite obvious that choice A is the external choice, and if it wasn’t clear, the test has choice A marked for you!  There are a total of six filler questions, leaving the test itself with 23 choices (Rotter, 1966).

Locus of control appears to arise from two primary sources: the family and contingency awareness (Lefcourt, 1976).  The role of the family in the development of locus of control is complex, and it appears to be somewhat different based on the behavior of mothers and fathers.  The most reliable finding appears to be that individuals with an internal locus of control had mothers who pushed them to achieve independence at an early age. This motherly push, however, must be a careful one.  Children need support, guidance and nurturance, but they must not be smothered to the point of being pampered. Lefcourt (1976) cites Adler’s concern regarding two extremes in child-rearing, pampering and neglect, neither of which is conducive to the healthy psychological growth of a child.  Contingency awareness refers to an understanding of instrumentality, the conception that one’s actions are indeed related to certain outcomes.  In order for a child to repeat a behavior with purpose, the child must be able to recall that their prior actions resulted in a given outcome, and they must know that their actions were related to the expected outcomes.  It would appear that children as young as two months old are capable of this type of social learning, and it tends to result in positive emotional reactions (Lefcourt, 1976).

Early studies on locus of control also focused on some interesting cultural questions.  It is generally accepted that social class and ethnic group are important determinants of personality.  Battle and Rotter (1963) found that lower class Blacks were significantly more external in their locus of control than were middle class Whites.  Interestingly, middle class Blacks were closer to middle class Whites than lower class Whites were to middle class Whites, suggesting that social class may have been the primary factor in these results, rather than the race or ethnicity of the subjects.  Furthermore, IQ seems to have exacerbated these results in that the most external individuals were high IQ lower class Blacks (i.e., individuals aware of social injustice in American society) and the most internal individuals were low IQ middle class Whites (who may be blaming themselves for failing to live up to their expected potential; Battle & Rotter, 1963).  During the civil rights movement, Gore & Rotter (1963) examined whether locus of control might be a useful measure of social action. They found that students at a southern Black college who expressed interest in attending a civil rights rally or marching on the state capitol scored significantly more internal on the I-E scale. In other words, those who believed they could personally make a difference were more willing to try making that difference.  In a study that followed soon after, Strickland (1965) compared Blacks who were indeed active in the civil rights movement to those who were not (but who were matched for sex, age, education, etc.). As predicted, the individuals who were active in the civil rights movement scored significantly more internal on the I-E scale than those who were not active. Strickland did note, however, that the individuals she studied were pioneers in the civil rights movement, and had become active, in part, because other groups had failed to demonstrate an adequate degree of commitment to the civil rights movement.  Strickland’s concern seems to contradict earlier results of Mischel (1958a), who found that when individuals make public commitments, they are less likely to change their expectancies (i.e., individuals publicly involved in the civil rights movement should have remained committed to the cause even when faced with initial failure). Still, as Mischel himself noted, one cannot rely entirely on inferences from research when considering the complexities of real-life (and, at the time, dangerous) behavior.

This is a color photograph of a group of people at an animal activist rally. The image shows a crowded street with people holding up signs in protest to protect animals.
Image Source: Bones64. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Do you consider yourself to have an internal or an external locus of control?  Do you feel that locus of control is an important influence on personality; might it be good or bad?

Rotter’s Emphasis on Clinical Psychology

As noted above, Rotter was actively involved in developing the model that provided the basis for how clinical psychologists are typically trained today.  Accordingly, much of Rotter’s career was devoted to clinical applications of his work. In addition to writing two books that emphasized clinical psychology (Rotter, 1954, 1964) and developing the I-E scale (Rotter, 1966), Rotter and one of his research assistants published The Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank: College Form (Rotter and Rafferty, 1950).  The book was intended to formalize the sentence completion method, particularly for use with college students.  The test consists of forty simple statements that require the subject to finish the sentence.  For example, one beginning is simply “My father…” The subjects’ responses are then scored in terms of whether they demonstrate conflict (on a scale of 1-3), are neutral, or whether they are positive (also on a scale of 1-3).  The manual offers examples of possible answers for both males and females. For example, conflicted responses for males include breaking promises or being a fool (level 3), or never had much of a chance or is proud (level 1). A neutral response might simply be that the father is a salesman or is a hard worker.

Positive responses for females include that the father is quite a character or is a good man (level 1), or that he has a great sense of humor or is a lot of fun (level 3).  Interpreting this test requires a great deal of experience and an understanding of personality and human nature. Fortunately, Rotter and Rafferty include a number of individual cases as examples of how the Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank can be used to evaluate individuals.  Both the Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank and the I-E scale have proven useful in evaluating patients, as well as normal individuals, in a variety of settings and cultures, including Africa, Sri Lanka, American Indians, Brazil, Black and White college students in America, Ukrainian doctors training in Canada, and amongst military personnel (Janzen, Paterson, Reid, & Everall, 1996; Lefcourt, 1976; Logan & Waehler, 2001; Nagelschmidt & Jakob, 1977; Niles, 1981; Picano, Roland, Rollins, & Williams, 2002; Rossier, Dahourou, & McCrae, 2005; Rotter, 1960, 1966; Trimble & Richardson, 1982).  In a particularly interesting study, a unique version of the Sentence Completion Test was developed by Herbert Phillips and provided the basis for a major study on the personality of Thai peasants living in the village of Bang Chan, Thailand (Phillips, 1965). The Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank, and other variations of the sentence completion method, remain very popular today (Holaday, Smith, & Sherry, 2000), ranking with the Rorschach Inkblot Test and the Thematic Apperception Test as the most popular projective tests for personality assessment.

Overall, Rotter emphasized the value of training clinical psychologists for just that responsibility, with a particular emphasis on the realities that will face the psychologist in an actual clinical setting (Rotter, 1954, 1964).  In 1972, Rotter edited a volume including both original and previously published papers in which social learning theory was applied to psychopathology in general (Phares, 1972) and to such diverse topics as drinking amongst college students, excessively needy individuals, working with mentally retarded children, and electroconvulsive shock therapy (Cromwell, 1972; Dies, 1968; Jessor, Carman, & Grossman, 1968; Jessor, Liverant, & Opochinsky, 1963).  A particularly important aspect of therapy also addressed in this volume is the issue of terminating therapy. Strickland & Crowne (1963) found that defensiveness and avoiding self-criticism are common signs in individuals who are likely to end therapy abruptly, whereas Piper, Wogan, & Getter (1972) found that the patient’s expectancy regarding improvement, and the value they place on improving, are useful predictors of terminating therapy. Although helping patients to achieve a level of psychological health that allows terminating therapy should be the goal of every therapist, premature termination might prove even more detrimental to the patient.  For Rotter, the proper training of clinical psychologists is not an easy task.

Supplemental Material

Locus of Control Definition and Examples of Internal and External

This video [5:45] explains locus of control by providing examples demonstrating both internal and external locus of control. The video applies the concept of locus of control to organizational behavior.



Julian Rotter

This video [6:24] provides a brief summary of Julian Rotter’s life and his contributions to the field of social learning and clinical psychology.



If You Know Nothing About Personality: 11 Rotter

This video [3:48] provides a brief summary of Julian Rotter’s theory on personality development.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Rosario Uranda.  (2014, May 29). Locus of control definition and examples of internal and external.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

David Washburn.  (2018, April 7). Julian Rotter (Grom).  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Ken Tangen.  (2010, May 22).  If you know nothing about personality: 11 Rotter.  [Video File]. Retrieved from  Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.