People attempt to find meaning and reasons for almost everything, especially for negative and unexpected experiences, which they endure. Attribution takes place when we want to understand the reason, the meaning and the purpose behind a certain behavior or an event. The idea of purposelessness and randomness is disturbing to us and therefore, we search for causality in everything that we perceive.
Attributional style refers to the way in which people explain the causes of events in their lives. Causality dimensions are internality, stability and globality. Internality stands for the belief of the individual that an event is more likely to happen to him or her, because of who he /she is. The individual believes that he or she caused the outcome. The other side of the dimension is external causes, which refers to the belief that the causes originate from the environment i.e other people. The decision, whether to attribute a behavior or an event to external or internal causes depends on the estimation of the individual of the extent to which personal or environmental factors had influenced the event. An individual who perceives a lot more influence of circumstantial elements, for example, will attribute the behavior to external factors. Stability refers to the fact that a cause seems to always re-occur. It is a permanent fixation that relates to the person. The last dimension, globality is the perception that a certain reason than an event occurs is persistent in various situations. Seligman (1990) suggests that attributional style originates from the way one feels about oneself and how one generally views the world. There is often a common thread among all attributions that a person tends to make.
Depressed individuals often attribute good events to external, temporary and specific factors and negative events to internal factors, global and stable factors (Alloy et al., 2006).
If we take for example the attribution for a negative event
I.E. : A depressed person had a project at work and he did not meet the dead line.
Then the attribution tendency will be: this is totally my fault (internal) I can’t do anything right (global ). It is hopeless, why did I even bother? I will always mess up (stable)
An example for attribution for positive event:
I.E The depressed person met de deadline and the project was good
Then the attribution tendency will be: God, I was lucky this time (Temporary). Maybe this time it went well but I always mess up (specific). Thank god I got some help from my colleagues, without them I could not have made it (External).
Attribution of good events to external sources means that the individual does not take credit for a positive outcome. One deprives oneself from enjoying a positive social feedback. Such an individual does not think that he or she succeeded due to effort, efficacy and skill. This leads to low self-esteem and reduced self-efficacy. The over- tendency to attribute a negative event to personal and stable characteristics of the individual also has consequences to the self-esteem (Peterson, 1993). The depressed believes that the same negative consequences will always repeat themselves in other areas as well because of who he /she is. The attribution may be pessimistically biased and not reflect actual reality (Moore & Fresco, 2007). It contributes to the onset and maintenance of depression. The depressed is essentially caught in a vicious cycle of self-blame and despair. The healthy attributional pattern is more diverse, balanced and case specific. The common tendency of non-depressed individuals is to attributed attribute positive events to stable, global, and internal causes, and negative events to temporary, specific or external causes.
If these descriptions sound familiar then you might have a’depressed’ attributional style. Knowing this cognitive tendency is half the battle. Now you need to apply this knowledge in your daily life. Become aware of how you think and analyze events as they occur. Did you automatically attribute negatively? Stop and think, is there another way of looking at the situation? Is there an alternative analysis perhaps? Are there other factors that were involved that you did not consider? Are you being fair to yourself and your abilities? Are you generalizing? minimizing or overestimating a certain factor? Are you caught in a depressed attribution style? Then, you need to consciously test and adjust to a more non-depressed style. Changing attribution style will not only alter how you perceive yourself and the world, but will also improve your coping abilities and your mood. It is worth a try…
Alloy, L. B, Abramson, L.Y., Whitehouse, W. G., Hogan, M. E., Panzarella, C., & Rose, D. T. (2006). Prospective incidence of first onsets and recurrences of depression in individuals at high and low cognitive risk for depression. Journal of Abnormal Psycholology,115, 145–56.
Moore, M. T., & Fresco, D. M. (2007). Depressive Realism and Attributional Style: Implications for individuals at Risk for Depression. Behaviour Therapy, 38, 144–154.
Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helplessness: a theory for the age of personal control.New York:Oxford university press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism. New York: Simon and Schuster.