Explanatory Style

Self-Attribution by Carl Richards

Pessimist by Jim Benton

Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. There are three main components: Personal (internal vs. external), Permanent (stable vs. unstable), and Pervasive (global vs. local/specific).

‘Personalization’ refers to how one explains the cause of an event. People experiencing events may see themselves as the cause; that is, they have internalized the cause for the event (e.g. ‘I always forget to make that turn,’ as opposed to, ‘That turn can sure sneak up on you’). ‘Permanenence’ describes how one explains the extent of the cause. People may see a situation as unchangeable (e.g., ‘I always lose my keys’ or ‘I never forget a face’). ‘Pervasiveness’ measures how one explains the extent of the effects. People may see a situation as affecting all aspects of life (e.g., ‘I can’t do anything right’ or ‘Everything I touch seems to turn to gold’).

People who generally tend to blame themselves for negative events, believe that such events will continue indefinitely, and let such events affect many aspects of their lives display what is called a ‘pessimistic explanatory style.’ Conversely, people who generally tend to blame others for negative events, believe that such events will end soon, and do not let such events affect too many aspects of their lives display what is called an ‘optimistic explanatory style.’ Some research has linked a pessimistic explanatory style to depression and physical illness. The concept of explanatory style encompasses a wide range of possible responses to both positive and negative occurrences, rather than a black-white difference between optimism and pessimism. Also, an individual does not necessarily show a uniform explanatory style in all aspects of life, but may exhibit varying responses to different types of events.

Attributional style emerged from research on depression, with researchers contending that a characteristic way of attributing negative outcomes – to internal, stable and global causes – would be associated with depression in response to negative events. As a diathesis–stress model of depression, the model does not predict associations of attributional style with depression in the absence of objective negative events (stressors). A meta-analysis of 104 empirical studies of the theory indicates that the predictions are supported. The ‘learned helplessness’ model formed the theoretical basis of the original research on attributional style. More recently, authors of the original study proposed a modified ‘hopelessness theory.’ This distinguished hopeless depression and more circumscribed pessimism. It emphasizes the dimensions of stability and globality rather than internality, and suggests that stable and global attributions (rather than internal cause attributions) are associated with hopelessness depression. Hopelessness theory also highlights perceived importance and consequences of a negative outcome in addition to causal attributions as factors in clinical depression.

Developmentally, it has been suggested that attributional style originates in experiences of trust or lack of trust in events. Along with evidence from twin studies for some heredity basis to attributional style., studies show that repeated exposure to controllable events may foster an optimistic explanatory style, whereas repeated exposure to uncontrollable events may foster a negative attributional style. Trust in interpersonal relationships is argued to build an optimistic explanatory style. Additionally, attributional style may be domain-specific, for instance work-related attributions vs interpersonal attributions.

Attributional style is, at least superficially, similar to ‘locus of control.’ However, the locus of control is concerned with expectancies about the future while attribution style is concerned with attributions for the past. Whereas locus of control cuts across both positive and negative outcomes, authors in the attributional style field have distinguished between a Pessimistic Explanatory Style, in which failures are attributed to internal, stable, and global factors and successes to external, unstable, and specific causes, and an Optimistic Explanatory Style, in which successes are attributed to internal, stable, and global factors and failures to external, unstable, and specific causes.

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