Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:
- Personal. (Internal vs. External.)
- This involves how one explains where the cause of an event arises. People experiencing events may see themselves as the cause; that is, they have internalised the cause for the event. Example: "I always forget to make that turn" (internal) as opposed to "That turn can sure sneak up on you" (external).
- Permanent. (Stable vs. Unstable.)
- This involves how one explains the extent of the cause. People may see the situation as unchangeable, e.g., "I always lose my keys" or "I never forget a face".
- Pervasive. (Global vs. Local/Specific.)
- This involves how one explains the extent of the effects. People may see the 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 effects
This concept has had much relevance to the study of depression, with Abramson et al. believing that those who showed a characteristic way of attributing negative outcomes – to internal, stable and global causes – would be likely to suffer depression when negative events happened to them. It is important to remember this: since their model is a diathesis–stress model, they were not arguing that this attributional style alone caused depression, nor were they arguing that this attributional style simply increases vulnerability to depression – the model stipulates that an objective, negative event must occur in conjunction with this style for clinical depression to result. Empirical research has been performed in support of this theory, as the meta-analysis of 104 empirical studies of the theory reveals. Data have, however, been ambiguous, and some researchers believe that the theory is well-supported, some believe that it has not had impressive empirical support and some believe that, at least in the early days of the theory, the theory was never adequately tested. An important consideration here, emphasised by Robbins and Hayes, is that the Abramson-Seligman-Teasdale model of depression is a diathesis-stress model, implying that it is important to control for the severity of actual negative events in comparisons of attributional styles of depressive and non-depressives. Indeed, one of the factors accounting for ambiguity in research into the model is whether empirical researchers have assessed attributions for hypothetical events or for real events. Interestingly, those studies that have looked at attributions for hypothetical events have been more supportive of the model, possibly because these studies are more likely to have controlled for event severity.
Attributional style has been assessed on questionnaires such as the Attributional Style Questionnaire or A.S.Q., which assesses attributions for six negative and six positive hypothetical events, the Expanded Attributional Style Questionnaire or E.A.S.Q., which assesses attributions for eighteen hypothetical negative events, and various scales that assess attributions for real events, such as the Real Events Attributional Style Questionnaire or the Attributions Questionnaire. Although these scales provide empirical methodology for study of attributional style, and considerable empirical data support the Abramson-Seligman-Teasdale model of depression, there has been dispute about whether this concept really exists. Cutrona, Russell and Jones, for example, found evidence for considerable cross-situational variation and temporal change of attributional style in women suffering from post-partum depression. Xenikou notes, however, that Cutrona, Russell and Jones found more evidence for the cross-situational consistency of stability and globalism than of internalization. More data in support of long-term stability of attributional style has come from a diary study by Burns and Seligman. Using a technique called Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanation (CAVE), these authors found that over a long time period, people did show stable patterns of how they manifested attributional style.
The question of how specific the domain for which attributional style is being measured has to be addressed at this stage. Using the Attributional Style Assessment Test of Anderson, Anderson and his colleagues found some evidence for an attributional style for specific domains, such as work-related domains or interpersonal domains. Their position therefore fell midway between the enthusiasm of keen believers in attributional style, and the pessimism of those skeptical of the concept.
More recently than the "learned helplessness" model which formed the theoretical basis of the original Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale statement on attributional style, Abramson, Metalsky and Alloy proposed the hopelessness theory. This theory distinguishes between hopeless depression and circumscribed pessimism. It emphasizes the dimensions of stability and globality rather than internality, holding that attributions of one's failures to stable and global causes, rather than to internal causes, is associated with hopelessness depression. Hopelessness theory also emphasizes how perceived importance of a negative outcome, and perceived consequences of a negative outcome, are important as well as causal attributions in relation to clinical depression.
The important differences between attributional style and locus of control are that the latter is concerned with expectancies about the future, the former with attributions for the past, and that 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, successes to external, unstable and specific causes, and an Optimistic Explanatory Style, in which successes are attributed to internal, stable and global factors, failures to external, unstable and specific causes.
Explanations as to how individual differences in attributional style originate have been considered by Eisner. She notes that repeated exposure to controllable events may foster an optimistic explanatory style, whereas repeated exposure to uncontrollable events may foster a negative one, and also cites evidence from twin studies for some heredity basis to attributional style. Original with Eisner is the argument that trust in interpersonal relationships is linked with optimistic explanatory style.
- Cognitive therapy
- Fundamental attribution error
- Learned helplessness
- Locus of control
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