General Causality Orientations Scale (GCOS)


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Scale Description

This scale assesses the strength of three different motivational orientations within an individual. These orientations, labeled Autonomy, Controlled, and Impersonal, are understood as relatively enduring aspects of personality, and each orientation is theorized to exist within each individual to some degree. There are three subscales to the measure, and a person gets a score on each subscale:

  • The Autonomy Orientation assesses the extent to which a person is oriented toward aspects of the environment that stimulate intrinsic motivation, are optimally challenging, and provide informational feedback. A person high in the autonomy orientation tends to display greater self-initiation, seek activities that are interesting and challenging, and take greater responsibility for his or her own behavior.
  • The Controlled Orientation assesses the extent to which a person is oriented toward being controlled by rewards, deadlines, structures, ego-involvements, and the directives of others. A person high on the controlled orientation is likely to be dependent on rewards or other controls, and may be more attuned to what others demand than to what they want for themselves. In the U.S., at least, a person high in the controlled orientation is likely to place extreme importance on wealth, fame, and other extrinsic factors.
  • The Impersonal Orientation assesses the extent to which a person believes that attaining desired outcomes is beyond his or her control and that achievement is largely a matter of luck or fate. People high on this orientation are likely to be anxious and to feel very ineffective. They have no sense of being able to affect outcomes or cope with demands or changes. They tend to be amotivated and to want things to be as they always were.

The GCOS (Deci & Ryan, 1985a) is available in two forms. The original scale that is well validated and has been widely used consists of 12 vignettes and 36 items. Each vignette describes a typical social or achievement oriented situation (e.g., applying for a job or interacting with a friend) and is followed by three types of responses–an autonomous, a controlled, and an impersonal type. Respondents indicate, on 7-point Likert-type scales, the extent to which each response is typical for them. Higher scores indicate higher amounts of the particular orientation represented by the response. Thus, the scale has three subscales–the autonomy, the controlled, and the impersonal subscales–and subscale scores are generated by summing the individual’s 12 responses on items corresponding to each subscale. A description of the 12-vignette version of the scale construction appears in Deci and Ryan (1985) along with data that support the instrument’s reliability and validity. For example, the scale has been shown to be reliable, with Cronbach alphas of about 0.75 and a test-retest coefficient of 0.74 over two months, and to correlate as expected with a variety of theoretically related constructs.

There is also a 17-vignette version of the scale (with 51 items). It has the original 12 vignettes and the original 36 items. However, 5 vignettes and 15 items (5 autonomy, 5 controlled, and 5 impersonal) have been added. The new vignettes and items are all about social-interactions because the original vignettes were heavily oriented toward achievement situations. The new vignettes with their items are scattered throughout, so the order of items is not the same in the two versions of the GCOS. The 17-vignette version has been used successfully in various studies (e.g., Hodgins, Koestner, & Duncan, 1996).

Causality Orientations Theory presents a perspective on individuals’ general motivational orientations that is complimentary to the more domain-specific approach of the Self-Regulation Questionnaires (e.g., Ryan & Connell, 1989) which considers reasons for engaging in particular behaviors such as doing one’s school work. According to the more general GCOS perspective, it is possible to assess an individual’s tendency to orient to and be guided by each of three general sources of behavioral regulation.

High autonomy orientations have, in past research, been associated with higher levels of self-esteem, ego development, and self-actualization (Deci & Ryan 1985) as well as greater integration in personality (Koestner, Bernieri, & Zuckerman, 1992). Cardiac-surgery patients high on the autonomy orientation were found to view their surgery more as a challenge and to have more positive post-operative attitudes, whereas those low on the autonomy orientation viewed their surgery more as a threat and had more negative post-operative attitudes (King, 1984). The controlled orientation, in contrast, has been related to the Type-A, coronary prone behavior pattern and to public self-consciousness (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Finally, the impersonal orientation has been found to predict higher levels of social anxiety, depression, and self-derogation (Deci & Ryan, 1985), and to discriminate restrictive anorexic patients from patients with other subtypes of eating disorders and from matched comparison subjects (Strauss & Ryan, 1987).

  • A French version of the scale (Vallerand, Blais, Lacouture, & Deci, 1987) is available from Dr. Robert J. Vallerand, University of Quebec at Montreal. Email: [email protected] 


12-vignette version
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19,109-134.

17-vignette version
Hodgins, H. S., Koestner, R., & Duncan, N. (1996). On the compatibility of autonomy and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22,227-237.

Key Publications on GCOS

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Publishing.

Ryan, R. M., & Connell, J. P. (1989). Perceived locus of causality and internalization: Examining reasons for acting in two domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 749-761.

Koestner, R., Bernieri, F., & Zuckerman, M. (1992). Self-determination and consistency between attitudes, traits, and behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 52-59.

Validation Articles & Adaptations

Hagger, M. S., & Hamilton, K. (2020). General Causality Orientations in Self-Determination Theory: Meta-Analysis and Test of a Process Model.

Vallerand, R. J., Blais, M. R., Lacouture, Y., & Deci, E. L. (1987). L’echelle des orientations generales a la causalite: Validation canadienne francaise du General Causality Orientations Scale. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 19,1-15.

Cooper, S., Lavaysse, L. M., & Gard, D. E. (2015). Assessing motivation orientations in schizophrenia: Scale development and validation. Psychiatry Research, 225(1), 70–78.

Rose, E. A., Markland, D., & Parfitt, G. (2001). The development and initial validation of the Exercise Causality Orientations Scale. Journal of Sports Sciences, 19(6), 445-462.

Olesen, M. J. (2011). General causality orientations are distinct from but related to dispositional traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(4), 460-465.

Lei, W., Liu, K., Li, N., Liang, X, Xiang, B….Cheng, J. (2019). Validation of the Chinese version General Causality Orientation Scale‐Clinical Population and causality orientations assessing in major depressions. Asia-Pacific Psychiatry, 11(3), e12348

GCOS used in Research Areas

Physical Activity
Rose, E. A., Markland, D., & Parfitt, G. (2001). The development and initial validation of the Exercise Causality Orientations Scale. Journal of Sports Sciences, 19(6), 445-462.

King, K. B. (1984). Coping with cardiac surgery.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester.

Williams, G. C., Grow, V. M., Freedman, Z. R., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1996). Motivational predictors of weight loss and weight-loss maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 115-126.

Williams, G. C., & Deci, E. L. (1996). Internalization of biopsychosocial values by medical students: A test of self-determination theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(4), 767–779.

Baard, P. P., Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M. (2004). Intrinsic need satisfaction: A motivational basis of performance and well-being in two work settings. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 2045-2068.

Lam, C. F., & Gurland, S. T. (2008). Self-determined work motivation predicts job outcomes, but what predicts self-determined work motivation? Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 1109-1115.

Knee, C. R., Patrick, H., Vietor, N. A., Nanayakkara, A., & Neighbors, C. (2002). Self-determination as growth motivation in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin28, 609-619.

Pro-Social Behavior
Gagné, M. (2003). The role of autonomy support and autonomy orientation in prosocial behavior engagement. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 199-223.

Weinstein, N., & Hodgins, H. S. (2009). The moderating role of autonomy and control on the benefits of written emotion expression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin35, 351-364.

Strauss, J. & Ryan, R. M. (1987). Autonomy disturbances in subtypes of anorexia nervosa. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 96, 254-258.

Weinstein, N., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2011). Motivational determinants of integrating positive and negative past identities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 527-544.