What's Your Attributional Style?

What the heck is attributional style?

“Attributional Style” is about how you explain the causes of events. Why you should care about your attributional style is that it’s related to depression, self esteem, and relationship happiness.

psychology PhDs think of attributions as falling along three dimensions.

1. Stable vs Temporary.
2. Global vs. Specific.
3. Internal vs. External.

(Stick with me this sounds more complicated than it is)

Depression and Self Esteem

When people are depressed or have low self esteem they’re likely to explain the causes of negative events in terms of stable + global + internal causes.

Let’s say someone with depression mucks up the icing on a cake they’re baking to take to a party.

A depressed or low self esteem person is likely to explain the icing getting mucked up as

a) something that was their fault (internal),
b) something that reflects a global characteristic of their personality (“I’m hopeless at everything” instead of just “I’m not good at icing cakes”),
c) something that’s not going to change (stable – “I’m always going to be hopeless at everything and I’m never going to be good at cake icing”)

You can see how this pattern of attributions is a recipe for unhappiness.

To make things worse, people with depression or low self-esteem tend to attribute positive events to unstable, specific, and external causes.

Let’s say the depressed, low self esteem person did a good job of icing the cake.

A depressed or low self esteem person’s attributions of a positive event might look like this –

a) Temporary – It was a fluke. I’ll probably screw it up next time.
b) Specific – I’m ok at icing cakes but I’m useless at everything that really matters.
c) External – The recipe on the packet was foolproof, or I asked my husband if it looked like the right color/consistency and I couldn’t have done it without his help.

People who have healthy self esteem tend to show the reverse patterns of attributions. They tend to attribute positive events to stable, global, and internal causes, and negative events to temporary, specific or
external causes.

These are only tendencies – people’s real attributions are a mixture of different patterns for different events. However, research studies have shown very clear overall differences in the attributions of depressed people vs. non-depressed people with healthy self esteem.

What’s the Solution

When you’re having negative/pessimistic thoughts, consider alternative attributions for whatever events or situations your negative thoughts are in response to. Ask yourself if the attributions you’re making are more like the depressed attributional style or more like the non-depressed attributional style.

(I’ll cover the links between Attributional Style and Relationships Happiness in a separate post)

Thanks for reading