Chat with us, powered by LiveChat

Attributional Style
Help Sheet

Attributional Style – Help Sheet


Attributional Style: is the way you explain a negative event to yourself. The way you think about why a bad thing has happened to you. The conclusions you draw from a negative event: the meaning you attribute to it.

For example, say you fail a Math’s test at school. If you have a positive attributional style you might say something like: “This was an unusually hard test. I didn’t study well for this one. I was unusually tired on the day. I’ll just make sure that next time I’ll study a bit more and get a better night’s sleep before the test”

But if you have a negative attributional style you are more likely to say something like “ I’m bad at maths. The results show whata bad student I am. Nothing is going to change. And it means I’m bad at other hard subjects as well. I’m not going to do will at school”

Explanatory Style Dimensions & Examples

A person’s attributional style describes how they explain life events to themselves. When someone forms an explanation it involves three dimensions that influence how we explain an outcome, namely internality versus externality, stability versus instability, and globality versus specificity (Peterson, 1991), easily remembered as the three Ps: personalisation, permanence, and pervasiveness, respectively.

Internal Vs External (Personalization)

Is an outcome caused by factors within oneself or outside oneself? Was success or failure down to inherent abilities or failings or caused by favorable or impinging external conditions?

An individual with a propensity to blame failure on themselves and success on external factors shows more severe helplessness deficits such as passivity, depression, poor problem solving, low self-esteem, poor immune function, and even higher morbidity than a person who explains failure as being due to extraneous factors (Maier & Seligman, 1976; Peterson, 1988).

An internal attribution occurs when an individual blames a negative outcome to an inherent failing or a positive outcome to their own abilities. For example, “I failed the exam because I’m stupid” (pessimistic) or “I passed the exam because I worked hard” (optimistic).

An external attribution occurs when a negative or positive event is attributed to the situational context. For example, “I failed the exam because the room was too noisy” (optimistic) or “I passed the exam because I got the right questions” (pessimistic).

This can be exhausting as we end up constantly ruminating over things we’ve said or done in case we might have inadvertently hurt someone.

We can end up like a chameleon – always changing who we are depending on who we are with.

Appearances are really important to us , so we can become quite obsessed by our bodies, our hair, our clothes, and our material possessions.

Some of my clients who have this schema say that they can never really relax when they are with others as they are constantly worrying that they might say something that will upset others, come across as stupid or sound boring.

Stable Vs Unstable (Permanence)

Is the situation changing across time or is it permanent? This dimension is the degree to which we attribute outcome causality to temporary or temporally-fixed factors. Weiner (1972) drew a distinction between stable versus unstable causes, with stable attributions for failure being seen to contribute towards poor or low levels of motivation and greater expectations of future failings.

A stable attribution occurs when an individual believes an outcome will persist indefinitely.
An unstable attribution occurs when an outcome is attributed to a transient factor, specific to a period of time.
Pessimists tend to believe that the causes of negative life events to be permanently fixed factors.
Optimists, however, believe that setbacks are because of temporary factors
In terms of positive outcomes, an individual with a tendency towards an optimistic explanatory style may attribute a positive outcome to a permanent factor while a pessimistic explanatory style would view the positive outcome as the result of transient, ‘one-off’, factors. For example, “I’m always good at tests” versus “My brain was uncharacteristically clear on the day of the test”.

Global Vs Specific (Pervasiveness)

The third dimension was introduced by Kelley (1972) who focussed on ascriptions of global versus specific causes for adverse events. The globality dimension indicates a tendency to catastrophise negative events, with the expectation that negative things will continue to occur in other aspects of life. Peterson, Maier & Seligman (1993) suggested this tendency is related to poor problem solving, social estrangement, and risky decision making.

A global attribution occurs when an individual attributes an outcome to a factor they perceive to be consistent, irrespective of context.

A specific attribution occurs when an individual attributes an outcome to a factor only relevant in the specific context or setting of the experience.

Pessimists tend to believe that negative life events have a pervasive effect on other life events, while optimists believe that positive life events result from pervasive circumstances, but that failures are isolated incidents. Put simply, if you consider yourself to be “unlucky” then a negative experience can seem like a precursor for future failure. If you see a negative experience as something more specific, failure is easier to shake off.

The attribution of positive events to stable, global, and internal factors, and the attribution of negative events to external, unstable, and specific factors, is considered to be a “healthy” attributional style.

Conversely, the attribution of negative events to internal, stable and global can contribute to depressive processes.

Task: Work On Awareness

So, try to think about how you are explaining negative events. Are you seeing the causes as resulting from a deficiency inside you (internal), if that’s not going to change (stable) and that affects large parts of your life (global)? If so, try and challenge that view. Look for evidence that’s not the case. Try to reframe the event and see it as external, changeable and localised in it’s effect.