Attributive styles: tell me how you explain things and I will tell you how you feel.
The attributive styles from which we interpret the world greatly influence our emotions.
Do you know what we do from the minute we are born? We learn. Actually, we learn even before we are born. Did you know that language development is already taking place in the womb?
We are an inexhaustible information-processing machine.. We continually process what is around us. We need to understand it in order to adapt and interact with our environment.
And we learn mainly by association and by consequences, our own or others'. In other words, in learning to explain to ourselves how this living thing works, we are continually searching for the cause-effect binomial. Following Heider, people act like "naïve scientists". We endlessly "study" everything around us to try to understand and explain it.
What is important, what happens or should happen, why does it happen? Without realizing it, these are big questions that we have been pondering since minute one. And in this task, and each one of us, depending on our "masters" and the environment in which we live, draws our own conclusions and creates our own attributive style..
What are attributive styles?
Bearing in mind that attribution refers to the explanation about the causes of something happening, whether they are internal or external causes, with attributive style we refer to the tendency that each one of us has when explaining what happens, based on one cause or another..
To what type of causes do we usually attribute what happens? What we are going to propose derives to a large extent from Bernard Weiner's theory of causal attribution. In this sense, we organize the causes on the basis of 3 factors or dimensions.
1. Locus of control: where the cause is located
Thus, the cause can be Internal, i.e. it is due to something within the person, or it can be External..
To say that "I have passed because I have made an effort and I have studied hard", implies attributing the cause to something internal, to a quality, the effort. On the other hand, if "I passed because the exam was very easy", it means attributing the case to an external variable, in this case, that the exam was easy, which could also have been due to luck, good or bad, to the conjunction of the stars?
This factor refers to whether the causes are stable or unstable..
If the cause is stable, it is assumed that the cause will always be present and therefore the same thing will always happen. On the contrary, if the cause is considered unstable, what is being assumed is that what has happened will not necessarily happen again.
For example, "I'm sure I'll get the same result in all the exams", tells us that what happened will happen again, it poses a stable scenario with respect to what happened. Faced with the same fact, an unstable scenario can be established, "this time I have succeeded, but I will not be able to do it for the next exam".
3. Situational element
This factor refers to situations in which the cause is valid.
Thus, a cause, what happened can be Global, so that it will be present in all situations, or it can be Specific, and therefore only refer to a particular situation.
"Whatever I study, I will not succeed", makes it clear that what happened, what happens will be global and it does not matter what is studied, where it is studied, the result would be the same. "Mathematics I think I find it especially hard, with biology I would find it less difficult". Either because biology is more interesting, more entertaining... the fact is that the difficulties in studying are centered on mathematics.
I'm sure that as you read on, a question has arisen: aren't the three factors related? The answer, unsurprisingly, is that of course they are related. A person's attributional styles are congruent in and of themselves.. Whether they are congruent when challenged is another matter.
How do attributional styles influence us?
From Heider's studies and theory (Attribution Theory), to Martin Seligman's research that led to the Theory of Helplessness to explain depression and its subsequent reformulations in 1975 (Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale), the theoretical construct of Attribution has been gaining the relevance it deserves.
In particular, the perception of uncontrollability, or what is the same, the perception that what is done or not done, has no relation to what happens, has an important weight in the cognitive structure present in mood disorders and depression..
Actually, it is rather the explanation given to this perception of uncontrollability that explains the hopelessness related to mood disorders.
Among many other theories and authors, this research laid the groundwork and highlighted the importance of attributions and attributional styles. Although they do not explain everything, they do have a lot to say in disorders such as depression, anxiety...
And you: what style do you have?
Answering this question involves questioning what theory we have constructed to understand and explain why things happen and how we "should" act. and how we "should" act.
The attributional style that each of us has learned will undoubtedly determine what decisions we make and how we face our daily lives. To help us specify how we tend to attribute the causes of what happens around us, it is important to incorporate a new variable and observe how we explain successes or failures.
If we take this table as a reference, what boxes would you check for the positive (a success) and the negative (a failure) that occurs in your life?
Although it has been mainly researched and associated with depression and mood disorders and anxiety disorders, knowing our attributional style is also an important tool for us, to know our attributive style is also a useful tool to know how we manage our day to day, and ultimately to manage our own life..
Attributions and mood: how is it related?
Before continuing, it is important to note that not everything can be summarized or explained on the basis of attributional styles; people are much more complex and richer than can be summarized in an attributional style.
However, a multitude of cases and our experience in the clinic highlight the fact that depression is usually associated with a certain attributional style, as follows.
Successes, positive events, tend to be explained on the basis of external, specific and unstable causes. That is to say:
- External Causes: it happens because of something external to the person. Chance, that he/she was a "good person", the test was easy, a favor was done, and so on.
- Specific Causes: That is, it happened specifically in that situation, with that test, with that person.
- Unstable Causes: It has to be considered that the positive thing will not happen again.
On the contrary, negative events are attributed to:
- Internal causes: The negative is explained by something internal, by some negative internal quality.
- Global causes: What happened will happen with other people, in other situations...
- Stable causes: Now that it is due to something internal, it will always be so.
Therefore, it is important that we pay attention to our attributive style.... If you notice that you tend to take responsibility for the negative but not for the positive, and to consider that this will always and everywhere happen, it is likely that hopelessness will appear, and it is certainly not a good companion in life.
We don't often realize how much information we disregard, and how we skew the way we perceive what happens to us. We tend to replicate over and over again the way we have learned to interpret things. Therefore, it is important to know what our explanatory hypotheses are, our attributive styles, and to learn to review and question them.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)