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Attributional Styles and Mental Health

1 February, 2016 - 17:09

As we have seen in this chapter, how we make attributions about other people has a big influence on our reactions to them. But we also make attributions for our own behaviors. Social psychologists have discovered that there are important individual differences in the attributions that people make to the negative events that they experience and that these attributions can have a big influence on how they feel about and respond to them. The same negative event can create anxiety and depression in one individual but have virtually no effect on someone else. And still another person may see the negative event as a challenge and try even harder to overcome the difficulty (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000).

A major determinant of how we react to perceived threats is the type of attribution that we make to them. Attributional style refers to the type of attributions that we tend to make for the events that occur to us. These attributions can be to our own characteristics (internal) or to the situation (external), but attributions can also be made on other dimensions, including stable versus unstable, and global versus specific. Stable attributions are those that we think will be relatively permanent, whereas unstable attributions are expected to change over time. Global attributionsare those that we feel apply broadly, whereas specific attributions are those causes that we see as more unique to particular events.

You may know some people who tend to make negative or pessimistic attributions to negative events that they experience. We say that these people have a negative attributional style. This is the tendency to explain negative events by referring to their own internal, stable, and global qualities. People with a negative attributional style say things such as the following:

  • “I failed because I am no good” (an internal attribution).
  • “I always fail” (a stable attribution).
  • “I fail in everything” (a global attribution).

You might well imagine that the result of these negative attributional styles is a sense of hopelessness and despair (Metalsky, Joiner, Hardin, & Abramson, 1993). Indeed, Alloy, Abramson, and Francis (1999) found that college students who indicated that they had negative attributional styles when they first came to college were more likely than those who had a more positive style to experience an episode of depression within the next few months.

People who have an extremely negative attributional style, in which they continually make external, stable, and global attributions for their behavior, are said to be experiencing learned helplessness (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Seligman, 1975). Learned helplessness was first demonstrated in research that found that some dogs that were strapped into a harness and exposed to painful electric shocks became passive and gave up trying to escape from the shock, even in new situations in which the harness had been removed and escape was therefore possible. Similarly, some people who were exposed to bursts of noise later failed to stop the noise when they were actually able to do so. Those who experience learned helplessness do not feel that they have any control over their own outcomes and are more likely to have a variety of negative health outcomes, including anxiety and depression (Henry, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 1984).

Most people tend to have a more positive attributional styleways of explaining events that are related to high self-esteem and a tendency to explain the negative events they experience by referring to external, unstable, and specific qualities. Thus people with a positive attributional style are likely to say things such as the following:

  • “I failed because the task is very difficult” (an external attribution).
  • “I will do better next time” (an unstable attribution).
  • “I failed in this domain, but I’m good in other things” (a specific attribution).

In sum, we can say that people who make more positive attributions toward the negative events that they experience will persist longer at tasks and that this persistence can help them. These attributions can also contribute to everything from academic success (Boyer, 2006) to better mental health (Vines & Nixon, 2009). There are limits to the effectiveness of these strategies, however. We cannot control everything, and trying to do so can be stressful. We can change some things but not others; thus sometimes the important thing is to know when it’s better to give up, stop worrying, and just let things happen. Having a positive, mildly optimistic outlook is healthy, as we explored in Social Cognition, but we cannot be unrealistic about what we can and cannot do. Unrealistic optimism is the tendency to be overly positive about the likelihood that negative things will occur to us and that we will be able to effectively cope with them if they do. When we are too optimistic, we may set ourselves up for failure and depression when things do not work out as we had hoped (Weinstein & Klein, 1996). We may think that we are immune to the potential negative outcomes of driving while intoxicated or practicing unsafe sex, but these optimistic beliefs can be risky.

The findings here linking attributional style to mental health lead to the interesting prediction that people’s well-being could be improved by moving from a negative to a (mildly) positive or optimistic attributional style. Attributional retraining interventions have been developed based on this idea. These types of psychotherapy have indeed been shown to assist people in developing a more positive attributional style and have met with some success in alleviating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorders (Wang, Zhang, Y., Zhang, N., & Zhang, J., 2011). Dysfunctional attributions can also be at the heart of relationship difficulties, including abuse, where partners consistently make negative attributions about each other’s behaviors. Again, retraining couples to make more balanced attributions about each other can be useful, helping to promote more positive communication patterns and to increase relationship satisfaction (Hrapczynski, Epstein, Werlinich, LaTaillade, 2012).

Attributions also play an important part in the quality of the working relationships between clients and therapists in mental health settings. If a client and therapist both make similar attributions about the causes of the client’s challenges, this can help to promote mutual understanding, empathy, and respect (Duncan & Moynihan, 1994). Also, clients generally rate their therapists as more credible when their attributions are more similar to their own (Atkinson, Worthington, Dana, & Good, 1991). In turn, therapists tend to report being able to work more positively with clients who make similar attributions to them (O’Brien & Murdock, 1993).

As well as developing a more positive attributional style, another technique that people sometimes use here to help them feel better about themselves is known as self-handicapping. Self-handicapping occurs when we make statements or engage in behaviors that help us create a convenient external attribution for potential failure. There are two main ways that we can self-handicap. One is to engage in a form of preemptive self-serving attributional bias, where we claim an external factor that may reduce our performance, ahead of time, which we can use if things go badly. For example, in a job interview or before giving a presentation at work, Veronica might say she is not feeling well and ask the audience not to expect too much from her because of this.

Another method of self-handicapping is to behave in ways that make success less likely, which can be an effective way of coping with failure, particularly in circumstances where we feel the task may ordinarily be too difficult. For instance, in research by Berglas and Jones (1978), participants first performed an intelligence test on which they did very well. It was then explained to them that the researchers were testing the effects of different drugs on performance and that they would be asked to take a similar but potentially more difficult intelligence test while they were under the influence of one of two different drugs.

The participants were then given a choice—they could take a pill that was supposed to facilitate performance on the intelligence task (making it easier for them to perform) or a pill that was supposed to inhibit performance on the intelligence task, thereby making the task harder to perform (no drugs were actually administered). Berglas found that men—but not women—engaged in self-handicapping: they preferred to take the performance-inhibiting rather than the performance-enhancing drug, choosing the drug that provided a convenient external attribution for potential failure. Although women may also self-handicap, particularly by indicating that they are unable to perform well due to stress or time constraints (Hirt, Deppe, & Gordon, 1991), men seem to do it more frequently. This finding is consistent with the general gender differences we have talked about in many places in this book: on average, men are more concerned than women about using this type of self-enhancement to boost their self-esteem and social status in the eyes of themselves and others.

You can see that there are some benefits (but also, of course, some costs) of self-handicapping. If we fail after we self-handicap, we simply blame the failure on the external factor. But if we succeed despite the handicap that we have created for ourselves, we can make clear internal attributions for our success. “Look at how well I did in my presentation at work, even though I wasn’t feeling well!”

Engaging in behaviors that create self-handicapping can be costly because doing so makes it harder for us to succeed. In fact, research has found that people who report that they self-handicap regularly show lower life satisfaction, less competence, poorer moods, less interest in their jobs, and greater substance abuse (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Meta-analytic evidence shows that increased self-handicapping also relates to more negative academic outcomes (Schwinger, Wirthwein, Lemmer, & Steinmayr, 2014). Although self-handicapping would seem to be useful for insulating our feelings from failure, it is not a good tack to take in the long run.

Fortunately, most people have a reasonable balance between optimism and realism in the attributions that they make (Taylor & Armor, 1996) and do not often rely on self-handicapping. They also tend to set goals that they believe they can attain, and to regularly make some progress toward reaching them. Research has found that setting reasonable goals and feeling that we are moving toward them makes us happy, even if we may not in fact attain the goals themselves (Lawrence, Carver, & Scheier, 2002). As the saying goes, being on the journey is often more important than reaching the destination.

Key Takeaways

  • Because we each use our own expectations in judgment, people may form different impressions of the same person performing the same behavior.
  • Individual differences in the cognitive accessibility of a given personal characteristic may lead to more overlap in the descriptions provided by the same perceiver about different people than there is in those provided by different perceivers about the same target person.
  • People with a strong need for cognition make more causal attributions overall. Entity theorists tend to focus on the traits of other people and tend to make a lot of personal attributions, whereas incremental theorists tend to believe that personalities change a lot over time and therefore are more likely to make situational attributions for events.
  • Individual differences in attributional styles can influence how we respond to the negative events that we experience.
  • People who have extremely negative attributional styles, in which they continually make external, stable, and global attributions for their behavior, are said to be experiencing learned helplessness.
  • Self-handicapping is an attributional technique that prevents us from making ability attributions for our own failures.
  • Having a positive outlook is healthy, but it must be tempered. We cannot be unrealistic about what we can and cannot do.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Think of a time when your own expectations influenced your attributions about another person. What type of expectations did you have and what type of attributions did you end up making? In hindsight, how accurate do you think that these attributions were?
  2. Which constructs are more cognitively accessible for you? How do these constructs influence the types of attributions that you make about other people?
  3. Consider a time when you or someone you knew engaged in self-handicapping. Why do you think that they did this? What was the outcome of doing so?
  4. Do you think that you have a more positive or a more negative attributional style? How do you think this style influences your judgments about your own successes and failures? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages for you of your attributional style?


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