Effect of Locus of Control on Information Search Behavior

Narasimhan Srinivasan, University of Connecticut
Surinder Tikoo, University of Connecticut
ABSTRACT - Locus of control (Rotter 1966) is a significant personality variable in psychology. Some people feel personally responsible for the things that happen to them -- the internals. Others feel that outcomes in life are determined by forces beyond their control (e.g. luck, fate, other people, etc.) -- the externals. In this study, we examine whether locus of control influences pre-purchase external search for information. A survey of 1401 new car buyers is used for empirical testing. Internals are found to engage in a greater degree of information search than externals. Process variables, such as perceived benefits and search effort, account for the difference. Controlling for decision importance, financial risk and product interest, locus of control is found to influence search behavior significantly.
[ to cite ]:
Narasimhan Srinivasan and Surinder Tikoo (1992) ,"Effect of Locus of Control on Information Search Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 498-504.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 498-504


Narasimhan Srinivasan, University of Connecticut

Surinder Tikoo, University of Connecticut


Locus of control (Rotter 1966) is a significant personality variable in psychology. Some people feel personally responsible for the things that happen to them -- the internals. Others feel that outcomes in life are determined by forces beyond their control (e.g. luck, fate, other people, etc.) -- the externals. In this study, we examine whether locus of control influences pre-purchase external search for information. A survey of 1401 new car buyers is used for empirical testing. Internals are found to engage in a greater degree of information search than externals. Process variables, such as perceived benefits and search effort, account for the difference. Controlling for decision importance, financial risk and product interest, locus of control is found to influence search behavior significantly.


The influence of personality has been studied on a wide spectrum of consumer behavior: response to advertising and design features (Holbrook 1986, Wright 1975), interaction style (Richins 1983), perceived risk (Schaninger 1976), information acquisition (Schaninger and Sciglimpaglia 1981), and social consciousness (Brooker 1976, Webster 1975).

Since Rotter's (1966) influential work, locus of control has been an important area of study in personality research (Lefcourt 1982; Strickland 1989). In the consumer behavior literature, Howard and Sheth (1969) suggested that personality variables (including locus of control) influence the consumer decision making process, in which pre-purchase external search for information is an important component. Beside influencing many other behaviors, locus of control has been known to influence cognitive activity (Blass 1977; Lefcourt 1982). However, research investigating the relationship between locus of control and information search is presently non-existent in the marketing literature, as far as we are aware.

In this paper, locus of control as a determinant of consumer information search is proposed. Several process variables, such as beliefs about the marketplace, benefit expectations and search effort are examined to further understand the relationship.


In most situations, individuals exert at least some potential control over the amount and nature of information they seek or receive about an object or event before a purchase. One factor that may influence information seeking is the internal vs. external control dimension. This variable was developed within the context of social learning theory (Rotter 1954; 1975) and denotes the degree to which individuals believe that the occurrence of reinforcement is contingent upon their own behavior.

In general terms, locus of control refers to a person's beliefs about control over events. Some people feel personally responsible for the things that happen to them. These people may be labeled as internals. Others feel that outcomes in life are determined by forces beyond their control (e.g., fate, luck, and other people). These people may be labeled as externals (Blass 1977; Rotter 1966). Obviously, most people fall between the two extremes, forming a continuous distribution of locus of control beliefs.

In social learning theory, it has been hypothesized that when an organism perceives two situations as similar, then expectancies for a particular kind of reinforcement, or a class of reinforcements, will generalize from one situation to another. Expectancies in each situation are determined not only by specific experiences in that situation, but also to some varying extent, by experiences in other situations which the individual perceives as similar. Over a series of past behaviors in related situations (like information seeking before purchasing a durable), a person develops generalized expectancies (GE) about the occurrence of the reinforcement that will follow a particular kind of behavior.

Now, in the context of buying consumer durables, it is expected that information search precedes the purchase, since the amount of money expenditure is high and buyers would be rather involved in the purchase process (Srinivasan 1990). Also, search behaviors are known to be influenced by the consumer's learning experience of similar behaviors (Srinivasan and Ratchford 1991). Based on learning from past experience, consumers may develop GE of the reinforcement they would obtain by undertaking information search. In buying situations that are characterized by a certain degree of ambiguity, individuals will develop expectancies about the dependence of the outcome upon one's ability. Having a higher GE that reinforcements are contingent upon their own behavior, internals would make attempts to more effectively control their environment by seeking relevant information. On the other hand, externals would have less need to acquire information since outcomes tend to be perceived as less dependent on their own actions.

An individual's belief about locus of control has been studied as an antecedent to important social behaviors and psychological states, including information seeking in a variety of contexts. Trice and Price-Greathouse (1987) showed that locus of control predicted whether college women would seek information on AIDS. In an organizational setting which encouraged personal initiative in career development, internals were found to initiate more job moves and were more satisfied with career experiences than externals (Hammer and Vardi 1981).

Thorton (1978) also found more career planning activities and career information-seeking behavior by internals, compared to externals. Plumly and Oliver( 1987) discuss the significant influence of locus of control on the job search process. Individuals with an internal locus of control are found to engage in more systematic exploration and have more information than externals (Noe and Steffy 1987). This suggests that an external orientation may reduce motivation to demonstrate certain types of exploratory behavior.

Davis and Phares (1967) observed that internals made more attempts than externals to actively seek information relevant to influencing the attitude of others. Internals were also more effective in using information in a delayed task (a week) than externals (Phares 1968). Seeman (1963) found that internals are superior in information recall only when the information is relevant to personal goals. Avner, Moore and Smith (1980) found that locus of control of information processing differentially affected performance in decision making, but not in routine tasks. It is also known that externals tend to exhibit less persistence at tasks (Ducette and Wolk 1972).

Based on the above literature, we propose the following hypotheses in a new car buying context:

Hypothesis 1: Internals will engage in greater information search than externals.

Hypothesis 2: Internals would perceive greater payoffs to search and less effort than externals (as a result of higher positive GE).

Hypothesis 3: Internals will seek less social approval than externals.

Hypothesis 4: Internals will rate themselves as more knowledgeable than externals.


A mail survey was conducted in a metropolitan area in the Northeast. Registration of new car owners with the Department of Motor Vehicles (as listed by R. L. Polk Company), formed the sampling frame. A sample of 3043 (every other name on the list compiled for the month of May 1986) was sent three mailings commencing in September 1986, at two-week intervals. A total of 1401 usable responses were received -- a response rate of 46%. The questionnaire was directed at the person mainly responsible for buying the new car.

While the study shares a common problem with other surveys of search behavior -- the need to rely on recall of past events, the average time interval between purchase and participation in the study, four and a half months, was shorter than in virtually all studies of search behavior known to the authors (a comparable time interval for Punj and Staelin (1983) was about 6 months). To test whether "forgetting" was significant, the responses were split into three groups based on the return postmark. Since there were no significant differences (using t-tests and p < 0.10) between those who responded initially and those who responded later, we can discern no significant pattern of forgetting over the time span of data collection.


The primary measure used in this paper is locus of control (LOCUS). We used the short form of the James' Internal-External Locus of Control Scale (1957), consisting of eleven items (shown in the Appendix). The scale was borrowed from Robinson and Shaver's (1973) Measures of Social Psychological Attitudes. The James' scale was chosen for its simplicity and suitability for the study design employed. It has been reported to have split half-reliabilities ranging from 0.84 to 0.96, test-retest reliabilities of 0.71 to 0.86 and nonsignificant correlations with the Marlowe-Crowne Desirability Scale. The scale is unidimensional, i.e. all items were expected to load on a single factor and show no gender differences. A median split is taken: the bottom half is the INTERNALS and the top half belong to the EXTERNALS category. These categories should be understood to be relative to one another. We must keep in mind that the James' locus of control is a general personality measure and is not context-specific. Also, it is clearly seen that there is no obvious criterion contamination between locus of control and the various dependent measures used in this study.

We examined several other measures found in information search studies (particularly on automobiles) including time spent in search, number of search activities, number of dealers visited, number of models examined and number of cars test-driven (Brucks 1985; Olshavsky and Summers 1974; Punj and Staelin 1983). These are outlined next.

1. Time spent in information search (HOURS): Respondents were asked to estimate the approximate number of hours they spent in gathering information before buying their car.

2. Number of search activities (ACTS): A count is made of participation in the following activities: (a) talking to friends/ relatives about new cars or dealers, (b) reading books/magazines articles, (c) reading ads in mags/listening to ads on tv/radio, (d) reading about car ratings in magazines, (e) reading auto manufacturer brochures/pamphlets, (f) driving to and from dealerships, (g) looking around showrooms, (g) talking to sales people, and (h) test driving cars.

3. Number of models examined (NMODEL): The number of models considered during the purchase process was assessed as [1], [2], [3], [4], [5-7], [8-10] and [>10] cars.

4. Number of dealers visited (NDEAL): The number of dealers visited before buying their new car was determined using the same categories as for NMODEL.

5. Number of cars test-driven (NTEST): The number of cars test driven prior to buying their new car was obtained using the same categories as for NMODEL.

6. Importance of decision (IMPORT): The importance of choosing the car was assessed on a 7 point scale (1 = Very important decision, 7 = Very unimportant decision).

7. Interest in product category (INTRST): The new car buyers responded on a 7 point Likert scale (1=Strongly Agree, 7 = Strongly Disagree) to the statement: I have a great interest in cars.

8. Financial Risk in the purchase decision (FINRISK): The respondents were asked to estimate the probability (1 = Improbable, 7 = Probable) that the car purchase would lead to a financial loss due to poor warranty, high maintenance costs, and/or high monthly payments. They also reported the importance of the financial loss if it should occur (1 = Unimportant, 7 = Important). FINRISK is computed as the multiplicative function of the probability of the loss and it's importance (Peter and Ryan 1975).



The new car buyers also responded to several statements on a 7-point Likert scale (1= Strongly Agree, 7 = Strongly Disagree), including prior beliefs about the market, complexity of the informational environment, expectations from search, felt stress, social approval and subjective knowledge about cars. These statements are detailed in Table 2.


The sum of the 11 items constituting the locus of control scale showed a mean value of 12.7 and a standard deviation of 5.1. There was no gender difference, as expected. The eleven items loaded on a single factor (with 38% of the variance being extracted) demonstrating unidimensionality. The reliability of the scale (Cronbach's alpha) was found to be 0.83. A median split was done to obtain the INTERNAL group (LOCUS _ 12) and the EXTERNAL group (LOCUS > 12).

Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations of internals and externals across a variety of information search measures. Compared to externals, internals are found to spend more hours in information search, engage in more search activities, consider more models, visit a greater number of dealers and test drive more cars. Thus, across all the measures of search used in this study, internals are seen to exhibit a greater degree of information search than externals. Using t-tests, the differences are found to be statistically significant (p < 0.05) in all cases, thereby providing empirical support for Hypothesis 1.

Table 2 shows the analyses of the two groups across several statements, constituting a variety of process variables. Externals appear to believe in the stability of the marketplace more than internals. i.e. generalizability of information from the recent past. Externals also believe that sales are a signal of quality to a greater extent that internals. Not surprisingly, externals think that advertising is more credible than internals, though they are both skeptical. Externals also find the informational environment to be more complex. The implication of such beliefs about the marketplace is that externals need to search less than internals.

In a cost-benefit framework, it has been hypothesized that buyers would search for more information with increased benefits and that costs would act as constraints (Ratchford 1980). We find that expected benefits of search are, indeed, higher for internals.

Internals may be gathering more information to find out which cars are more suitable and get exactly what they want, thereby also convincing themselves that they are making the best buy. In addition, they appear to be gathering information so that they may advise family members and friends. Not only do externals have less of the above incentives, but they feel that information search takes too much time and takes too much effort. In fact, the car purchasing experience was felt to be stressful and extensive shopping was believed to make the purchase choice harder rather than easier. Overall, we find that the cost-benefit framework is substantiated, thereby providing support for Hypothesis 2.





Externals also seek approval of family and friends (item 13 in Table 2) to a greater degree than internals, supporting Hypothesis 3. If someone is less dependent on others' approval, it might be expected that they (i.e. internals) need to spend less time worrying about such things. They may also be more knowledgeable, or at least think that they are more knowledgeable.

Using Brucks' (1985) subjective knowledge scale (items 14 and 15 in Table 2), we found that internals do indeed rate themselves as being more knowledgeable and familiar with the product class than externals, thereby supporting Hypothesis 4.

Besides determining that internals search more than externals, we are able to find the underlying reasons: internals have restrictive beliefs about the marketplace, see greater benefits resulting from search, do not see it as requiring too much effort and consider themselves more knowledgeable.

In addition to distinguishing internals from externals and understanding some of the reasons possibly causing the difference, we were also interested in determining whether locus of control is a theoretically significant variable for explaining information search. In a study of consumer search, Potter and Coshall (1987) observed that perceived risk, interest in shopping, social status of the purchase, and the perceived time pressure influence the number of stores shopped at. Thus, if we controlled for interest in the product category, risk perception and importance of purchase, would locus of control have any influence on information search? We ran multiple regressions, using each count measure shown in Table 1 as the dependent variable. The independent variables were (1) locus of control, (2) importance of product choice, (3) interest in the product class, and (4) perceived financial risk. The beta values are shown in Table 3.

Overall, the four regressions were significant (p < 0.05). However, only for NTEST did each of the four independent variables reach statistical significance. For ACTS, NMODEL and NDEAL, only two independent variables were significant. LOCUS achieved statistical significance in three out of the four cases. Relative to the other independent variables, it can be seen that the influence of LOCUS is pretty stable and the beta values are comparable.

Though consumer researchers have frequently studied personality as a predictor of consumer brand and product choice, most studies that have used personality as a predictor of brand and product choice have failed to explain a meaningful degree of variance (Kassarjian 1971; Sheth, Newman and Gross 1991). This study is no exception. Locus of control is a general personality measure. By their very nature, general personality measures cannot be expected to have high predictive power in specific contexts. Such measures represent only one of many variables which enter the prediction of behavior. However it is worthwhile to first establish a relationship between a generalized construct and the behavior under study before attempting context specific modifications. By providing a theoretical grounding for our study and using a standardized personality test for an appropriate purpose, we seek to improve our understanding of search behavior.

The findings of this study may be generalized to hold for search behaviors for durables, where involvement is high, but may not hold for most nondurables. Whether involvement plays a moderating effect is left for future investigation. Besides, it would be useful to compare how the locus of control construct compares with involvement, product knowledge and other predictors of search behavior and the possible interactions. This is also left for future research. Another recommended area of investigation is the development of a specific personality measure -- locus of control for information seeking -- that would improve predictive power.


In this study, we investigated the influence of locus of control on external search for information. Internals are found to engage in a greater degree of information search compared to externals, using a variety of measures -- hours spent, number of search activities, number of models considered, number of dealers visited and number of cars test driven. Internals perceive greater benefits to search and find the purchase process less stressful. Internals see the informational environment as less complex and their prior beliefs about the marketplace are also less constraining. Finally, locus of control is found to have a statistically significant influence on search. Further research for developing specific locus of control measures for information search would help to improve predictive power.


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