If I ask you “Why do you think you haven’t gotten a promotion?” or “Why do you think you did well in school?”, you might say “Because my boss doesn’t like me” or “Because I got a lot of help from my parents”. Someone else might answer “I haven’t gotten a promotion because I’m not ready for one yet” or “I worked really hard for my grades”. The truth is that the real causes of these events are probably complex and varied but we all have a particular way of thinking about them. We all have an attributional style. And they way we think about them has an impact on our behavior and self-esteem.
Attributional or explanatory style refers to the way in which we evaluate and explain events in our lives. It consists of three dimensions: locus of control, stability, and scope.
The locus of control is probably the most talked-about element of this theory. Locus is Latin for ‘place’ or ‘location’ and locus of control refers to where we think the control over the outcomes of our life lies. People with a strong internal locus of control will believe that their life events are the result of their own actions and choices exclusively. Contrariwise, a person with a strong external locus of control will think that external factors (the doing of others, their environment or plain luck) are in charge of the outcomes of their life. Just like personality dimensions, the locus of control is not an “either/or” typology, we all fall somewhere along a continuum of internal/external attribution.
The stability dimension refers to whether someone believes that the cause of outcome is stable or unstable. For example, luck is usually seen as unstable while ability or intelligence will be considered stable.
The last dimension -that I chose to call scope– refers to whether the explanation that the subject gives to an event is generalized to other events or only applies to the event at hand. For example, a person might think they only have luck with relationships but not with money.
The ‘optimal’ attributional style
At this point, you might be wondering: what would the optimal attributional style be? The answer is not so easy but let’s take a look at these two ‘extremes’:
The pessimist believes that failures are their own doing as well as stable and generalized to all possible events. Their successes are however external -nothing to do with them- unstable and specific to certain events. A pessimistic attributional style seems to correlate with depression and physical illness.
The optimist considers their failures are due to external causes that are (luckily!) unstable and specific to some events. Their successes are due to an internal factor -their own choice or their own behavior- that is also stable and generalizable to any event.
Effects of attributional styles
There has been extensive research about the effects of attributional styles on academic performance, health-related behaviors, and job performance. In general, students with an internal attributional style seem to perform better academically. Students with an external attributional style tend to receive lower grades, as they believe there is nothing they can do to do better in school.
There also seems to be a link between an internal locus of control and preventive health behaviors like exercise, breast self-examination, and weight control. People who believe they are in control of their own health, are more inclined to take up healthy habits than those who don’t.
Try to understand your own locus of control by taking this quiz.
Oettingen, G. (1995). Explanatory style in the context of culture
Tam Shui Kee Tony (2003) Locus of control, attributional style and discipline problems in secondary schools