What Are Attributional and Explanatory Styles in Psychology?

Attributional and explanatory styles
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How do you view positive and negative life events?

Perhaps you blame yourself when faced with failure while never giving yourself credit for the good. In the face of adversity, can you see past the present moment and know that things will get better?

The way you attribute and explain positive and negative events to yourself can impact your life in ways you may not realize.

 

What are Attributional and Explanatory Styles?

Over time the concept of attributional and explanatory styles evolved into a comprehensive theoretical framework, becoming a major research paradigm within psychology with a bearing on individuals’ propensity towards optimism or pessimism and in turn, subsequent positive or negative mental states and outcomes.

In psychology, the term attribution has two predominant meanings. The first refers to explanations of behavior; the second refers to inferences (attributing blame, for example). “What the two meanings have in common is a process of assigning: in attribution as an explanation, a behavior is assigned to its cause; in attribution as inference, a quality or attribute is assigned to the agent on the basis of observed behavior.” (Malle, 2011, p.17).

Similarly, Fiske & Taylor (1991, p. 23) suggested attribution theory “deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment.”

Not to be confused with dispositional optimism – which sees optimism as a broad personality trait (Carver & Scheier, 2003) – the explanatory style is more concerned with immediate tendencies to view everyday events from a predominantly optimistic or pessimistic perspective.

According to Buchanan & Seligman (1995, p.1), “the general definition of explanatory style is quite simple, it is our tendency to offer similar explanations for different events.” Additionally, explanatory styles can cause people to have disparate perceptions of the same event.

Put simply your attributional and explanatory style is the way in which you explain your circumstances to yourself.

 

A Look at the Psychology

People have a propensity to seek explanations for events. Whether it is within politics, science, philosophy, psychology or in everyday life, we want to know why things happen. Within psychology, this persistent drive to work out the ‘why’ compelled researchers to investigate why some individuals favor certain explanatory approaches over others (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).

While human responses to uncontrollable events in laboratory settings were of interest, psychologists naturally became curious about real-world applications. This real-world focus was particularly in relation to how individuals make sense of their actions, how this impacts emotions (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995) and how we regulate these emotions (Gross, 2000)

Does an individual’s explanatory characteristics determine their emotional state? Why do some individuals seem to give up and accept their fate in the face of adversity while some remain upbeat despite a string of ‘failures’? Why do some appear powerless in the absence of control? Through asking such questions psychologists developed a number of hypotheses resulting in a plethora of studies concerning optimistic and pessimistic behavioral patterns and the potential long term effects on psychological health.

60 years of research into the ways individuals habitually explain events has cultivated a theory which is not only reliable but also measurable.

 

The Theory of Explanatory Styles

Grounded in scientific method, theories of psychology are ever-evolving as practitioners and researchers in the space constantly review, validate and propose new hypotheses. The theory of explanatory styles is no different; research in the field stretches back decades and continues to spur fresh publications as time goes on.

Heider (1958, as cited in Malle, 2011) initially distinguished between perceived internal and external causes for events. Subsequently, attributional theorist, Weiner (1972) drew a distinction between (temporally) stable versus unstable causes, with stable attributions for failure being seen to contribute towards poor or low levels of motivation. The third dimension of helplessness was first introduced by Kelley (1972) who focussed on ascriptions of global versus specific causes for adverse events.

The concept of explanatory style with three parameters (internality, stability, and globality) and the inclusion of a proposed distinction between optimistic and pessimistic attributional styles was hypothesized by Abramson, Semmel, Seligman, & Von Baeyer (1978).

Explanatory style as we know it was born primarily from two antecedents: The Learned Helplessness Model and The Reformulation of the Learned Helplessness Model.

Learned helplessness model

Learned helplessness proposes that control over the environment is a fundamental precursor of positivism for any organism. If an individual is repeatedly exposed to unavoidable painful or otherwise negative stimuli, they will come to expect that such events are uncontrollable and potentially develop a sense of hopelessness and depression as a result (Overmier & Seligman, 1967).

First observed in laboratory experiments in which animals were subjected to painful electric shocks with no opportunity for escape or avoidance, Maier & Seligman (1976) found that, after a period, animals would passively endure the pain.

The research suggested that helplessness is a learned behavior. When placed in a situation where there is no control over the outcome, the animals were conditioned to expect that future attempts to negate the shocks would be futile and therefore gave up trying. Hiroto & Seligman (1975) hypothesized that humans, like animals, would cease attempts to change their circumstances if it was deemed to be out of their control, highlighting the importance of how we attribute causality and control in mediating our mental state.

Attributional reformulation of the learned helplessness model

The question arose as to why, in situations where there is no control over the outcome, some people give up more easily and succumb to depression while others do not.

The original helplessness theory hypothesized that experiences with uncontrollable events led to difficulties in motivation, cognition, and emotion. The reformulated theory postulated a mediating effect for causal attributions in the process by which uncontrollable events produce behavioral deficits (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman 1993).

The reformulated model included three causal explanatory dimensions of attribution; stable/unstable causes, internal/external causal statements, and global/specific causal explanations (Abramson et al., 1978) which we will look at in more detail later.

Abramson et al., (1978) postulated the reformulated theory as a way to account for the habitual explanations individuals impose on their world, rather than for single explanations of specific failures as Weiner’s theory had suggested. These explanations allow individuals to describe causes of events, while at the same time highlighting a predisposition to view everyday interactions and events from a predominately positive (optimistic) or negative (pessimistic) standpoint.

By examining the specific ways in which individuals cope with and explain uncontrollable events, Abramson et al., (1978) posited that people develop a characteristic causal explanation for unpredictable life events. This predisposing explanatory set was later termed “explanatory style” by Peterson and Seligman (1984).

 

What are the Different Styles?

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Explanatory styles range from pessimistic to optimistic. A pessimistic explanatory style is characterized by explanations of the causes of negative outcomes as being stable, global, and internal, and the causes of positive outcomes as being unstable, specific and external in nature.

Conversely, optimistic explanatory styles are characterized by explanations for negative outcomes as being due to unstable, specific and external causes, while positive outcomes are perceived as due to stable, global and internal causes.

Optimistic explanatory style

The way you mentally explain the things that happen to you is at the heart of optimism. Optimists explain positive events in terms of personal, permanent causes and negative events in terms of external, temporary causes.

An investigation into post-transplant patients suggested that quality of life can be significantly affected by personality characteristics such as optimism. In fact, it was found that an optimistic explanatory style was more significantly associated with higher quality of life than age and gender. A pessimistic explanatory style was found to be significantly associated with self-reported depressive symptoms.

Furthermore, patients with an optimistic explanatory style described a significantly higher quality of life than pessimists (Jowsey, Cutshall, Colligan, Stevens, Kremers, Vasquez, Edwards, Daly, & McGregor, 2012). An optimistic explanatory style is associated with higher levels of motivation, achievement, and physical well-being and lower levels of depressive symptoms (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).

In a workplace environment, those with an optimistic explanatory style show greater productivity relative to those with a pessimistic style (Seligman & Schulman, 1986). Unlike pessimists in the learned helplessness model, those with an optimistic explanatory style assume that situations will work out for the best in the end.

Pessimistic explanatory style

Pessimists have the opposite explanatory style. They personally blame themselves for bad events and perceive the root cause to be a fixed factor. When something good happens, they tend to attribute it to luck and see the cause as temporary.

The reformulation of the learned helplessness model of depression and the hopelessness model of depression predict that individuals who have a proclivity for pessimistic styles of explaining events experience failure more frequently than those with a more optimistic style in achievement-based scenarios.

Additionally, individuals with pessimistic explanatory styles are more likely to experience pervasive and chronic symptoms of helplessness when faced with uncontrollable negative events. Maladaptive thought patterns can fuel issues such as depression by creating a cycle of negative thought that perpetuates the problem (Eisner, 1995).

Depressive symptoms are most likely to occur when a vulnerable person experiences negative environmental circumstances (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). In this situation, a person is deemed vulnerable if they interpret the cause of negative events as something that cannot be changed (stable attribution) and affecting their whole life (global attribution). A person with these traits could be described as having a specific type of depression, called hopelessness depression (Schneider et al., 2012).

Seligman (1998) proposed that the explanatory style theory of optimism provides pessimistic people with an avenue to alter their pessimistic thinking patterns to be more optimistic, thus fostering mastery and resilience. For example, studies with middle-school children showed that retraining pessimistic thinking into optimistic thinking can significantly reduce the incidence of depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus, and Seligman, 1986).

 

Explanatory Style Dimensions & Examples

A person’s attributional style describes how they explain life events to themselves. When someone forms an explanation it involves three dimensions which influence how we explain an outcome, namely internality versus externality, stability versus instability, and globality versus specificity (Peterson, 1991), easily remembered as the three Ps: personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness, respectively.

Abraham, Seligman and Teasdale (1978) postulated that the way in which we attribute negative outcomes plays a role in mediating the negative psychological impact of adverse events.

Internal vs External (Personalization)

Is an outcome caused by factors within oneself or outside oneself? Was success or failure down to inherent abilities or failings or caused by favorable or impinging external conditions?

An individual with a propensity to blame failure on themselves and success on external factors shows more severe helplessness deficits such as passivity, depression, poor problem solving, low self-esteem, poor immune function, and even higher morbidity than a person who explains failure as being due to extraneous factors (Maier & Seligman, 1976; Peterson, 1988).

An internal attribution occurs when an individual blames a negative outcome to an inherent failing or a positive outcome to their own abilities. For example, “I failed the exam because I’m stupid” (pessimistic) or “I passed the exam because I worked hard” (optimistic).

An external attribution occurs when a negative or positive event is attributed to the situational context. For example, “I failed the exam because the room was too noisy” (optimistic) or “I passed the exam because I got the right questions” (pessimistic).

Stable vs Unstable (Permanence)

Is the situation changing across time or is it permanent? This dimension is the degree to which we attribute outcome causality to temporary or temporally-fixed factors. Weiner (1972) drew a distinction between stable versus unstable causes, with stable attributions for failure being seen to contribute towards poor or low levels of motivation and greater expectations of future failings.

  • A stable attribution occurs when an individual believes an outcome will persist indefinitely.
  • An unstable attribution occurs when an outcome is attributed to a transient factor, specific to a period of time.
  • Pessimists tend to believe that the causes of negative life events to be permanently fixed factors.
  • Optimists, however, believe that setbacks are because of temporary factors

 

In terms of positive outcomes, an individual with a tendency towards an optimistic explanatory style may attribute a positive outcome to a permanent factor while a pessimistic explanatory style would view the positive outcome as the result of transient, ‘one-off’, factors. For example, “I’m always good at tests” versus “My brain was uncharacteristically clear on the day of the test”.

Global vs Specific (Pervasiveness)

The third dimension was introduced by Kelley (1972) who focussed on ascriptions of global versus specific causes for adverse events. The globality dimension indicates a tendency to catastrophize negative events, with the expectation that negative things will continue to occur in other aspects of life. Peterson, Maier & Seligman (1993) suggested this tendency is related to poor problem solving, social estrangement, and risky decision making.

A global attribution occurs when an individual attributes an outcome to a factor they perceive to be consistent, irrespective of context.

A specific attribution occurs when an individual attributes an outcome to a factor only relevant in the specific context or setting of the experience.

Pessimists tend to believe that negative life events have a pervasive effect on other life events, while optimists believe that positive life events result from pervasive circumstances, but that failures are isolated incidents. Put simply, if you consider yourself to be “unlucky” then a negative experience can seem like a precursor for future failure. If you see a negative experience as something more specific, failure is easier to shake off.

The attribution of positive events to stable, global, and internal factors, and the attribution of negative events to external, unstable, and specific factors, is considered to be a “healthy” attributional style.

Conversely, the attribution of negative events to internal, stable and global causes is hypothesized to be “depressogenic” and to act as a diathesis that interacts with life events to produce depression (Abramson et al., 1989).

Examples of Explanatory Style

Michelle the optimist and Susan the pessimist complete an assignment for school:

Michelle the optimist receives an ‘A’ from her teacher. Michelle’s optimistic explanatory style means she is more inclined to attribute her success to her own hard work and ability – she worked hard on the assignment and is good at this subject.

If Michelle had failed the assignment, she would likely have attributed this to external factors – she didn’t do well because her neighbors were having a loud party. Michelle stills believe that she will do well in future assignments, the failure was not due to her lack of knowledge and will not impact future grades.

Susan the pessimist receives an ‘A’ for her assignment. Susan’s pessimistic explanatory style means she is less inclined to attribute her success to her own skills – it was probably just luck or maybe her teacher was feeling generous, it certainly wasn’t due to her ability in the subject.

If Susan had failed her assignment, she would most likely blame herself – she’s just no good at these things. Susan knows that she will probably do badly in future assignments.

Alex the optimist and Michael the pessimist work hard on important proposals for work:

Alex the optimist meets with his directors and they love his idea. Alex’s optimistic explanatory style means he is more likely to attribute this success to his own skills and ability – his skills are internal, stable, and global.

If Alex’s employers had disliked his proposal, he would likely have attributed this to external factors – maybe they were preoccupied with other things. Alex still expects future proposals to be successful because the proposal failed due to their temporary problem and not his lack of ability.

Michael the pessimist meets with his directors and they are impressed with his idea. Michael’s pessimistic explanatory styles mean he is more likely to attribute this success to external factors – he was lucky on the day but this does not mean he will be successful in future endeavors.

If Michael’s employers had not been impressed with his proposal he would be inclined to attribute this to internal factors – he’s just no good at presentations. Michael knows that future attempts will be unsuccessful because the failure was due to his own lack of ability.

Good Situation Bad Situation
Optimist Permanent
Pervasive
Personal (Internal)
Temporary
Specific
External cause
Pessimist Temporary
Specific
External cause
Permanent
Pervasive
Personal (internal)

 

Locus of Control – Internal and External

Locus of Control was originally proposed by Rotter (1966) as a generalized and enduring belief about how responsive and controllable our environment is. Locus of control is a continuous scale; at one end are individuals who attribute success or failure to things they have control over, at the other end are those who attribute their success or failure to forces outside of their control.

Locus of control can be categorized as internal or external. Buchanan & Seligman (1995) suggested that it is particularly related to the internality dimension of explanatory styles as they are concerned with the source of outcomes (i.e. within or outwith the person).

People with an internal locus of control believe the environment is responsive to their own, relatively permanent, characteristics and that rewards are determined by personal actions. Macsinga & Nemeti (2012) examined the relationship between explanatory style, locus of control and self-esteem in a sample of university students. Their findings indicated that students with high-self esteem were more likely to exhibit an internal locus of control and, in turn, utilize more active coping strategies.

Conversely, individuals with an external locus of control regard their environment as being outside of their control, believing that positive and negative outcomes are the result of forces independent from them as an individual (Macsinga & Nemeti, 2012). Peterson (1991) observed that perceptions of control are usually inferred from the causal attributions people give. Thus, when attributions for negative events are internal, stable, and global, the event will arguably be regarded as uncontrollable.

If you are curious as to whether you possess an internal or external locus of control, take Rotter’s locus of control test.

 

Interesting Studies

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Obtaining information about explanatory styles allows researchers to make better predictions about other aspects of an individual, such as their happiness and health (Peterson, Buchanan, & Seligman, 1995).

The following studies are just some examples of the impact explanatory styles can have on other aspects of life, including well-being or the lack thereof, success in the workplace and academic achievement.

Offenders

Maruna (2004) investigated the cognitive perspective in criminology by studying offender and ex-offender verbalizations. Focusing on the degree to which offenders accept responsibility for their crimes, it was found that active offenders tended to interpret the good events in their lives as the product of external (not due to me), unstable (won’t last) and specific (this will have no impact on other aspects of my life) causes.

On the other hand, they were more likely to believe that negative events in their lives as being the product of internal (my fault), stable (will last), and global (this will impact other aspects of life) forces.

This attribution of negative events to internal, stable and global causes is a diathesis that interacts with life events to produce depression (Abramson et al., 1989).

Children and adolescents

A study by Girus & Seligman (1985) found a pessimistic explanatory style to be a predictor of symptoms of depression among children. Further research by Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus, and Seligman (1991) found that children who experience a major negative uncontrollable event, for example, parental separation, have a tendency towards more negative attributional styles compared to children who experience fewer uncontrollable life events.

Additionally, Eisner (1995) suggested that trust in adolescence plays an important role in attributional style. Those who experienced mistrust of others also exhibited a negative explanatory style, indicating that trust or lack thereof may be a factor in developing a negative attributional style (Eisner, 1995).

In the workplace

Seligman and Schulman (1986) conducted a longitudinal study of sales productivity and turnover in relation to explanatory styles. After being hired (but before receiving training) life insurance agents completed the ASQ and over the course of 12 months, the participants’ productivity and turnover data were collected.

Agents with an optimistic explanatory style were more likely to still be employed in the position, and sell more insurance than agents with a pessimistic explanatory style.

Sport

Philippe, Sarrazin, Peterson & Famose (2003) asked participants to perform trials related to their sport and were given immediate false feedback indicating that they had performed poorly. Subjects who exhibited optimistic explanatory styles were less anxious, more confident, and performed better than pessimistic participants. The results also suggested a pessimistic explanatory style is related to higher levels of anxiety, lower expectations of future success, and to poor achievement.

Education

A considerable body of research has explored explanatory styles following academic success or failure. “Self‐serving” attributions occur frequently in academic settings whereby people tend to attribute academic successes to internal and/or stable causes and attribute academic failures to external and/or unstable causes (Miller & Ross, 1975).

Gordeeva & Osin (2011) examined the optimistic attributional style as a predictor of psychological well-being and performance in academic settings. Their findings suggested that an optimistic attributional style for events was associated with higher academic achievement in high school students and mediated the effect of academic performance upon self-esteem.

Mental health

Leposavic & Leposavic (2009) investigated the attributional style characteristics of depressive patients and found that depressive patients exhibited an inclination towards internal and global attributions of causality for negative events.

Maladaptive explanatory styles in substance abusers

Garcia, Torrecillas, de Arcos & Garcia (2005) examined the relationship between neuropsychological impairment and explanatory styles in a sample of substance abusers. Participants were assessed during a period of abstinence and asked to complete the attributional style questionnaire.

The results suggested that performance on cognitive flexibility and response inhibition tasks was directly related to making more internal attributions for positive situations and inversely related to more stable attributions for negative events.

Across the life span

Burns & Seligman (1989) analyzed explanatory style across the life span. Participants with an average age of 72 provided diaries and letters written in their youth and responded to questions about their current life.

The findings revealed that explanatory style for negative events was stable throughout adult life and may constitute an enduring risk factor for depression, low achievement, and physical illness. In contrast, there appeared to be no stability of explanatory style for positive events.

 

Attributional Styles

Optimistic Attributional Style

Optimism has been conceptualized as both dispositional (Carver & Scheier, 2003) and as an explanatory style: in terms of explanatory style, optimism refers to how an individual thinks about the causality of an event (Kirschman, Johnson, Bender & Roberts, 2011).

An individual with an optimistic attributional style tends to see positive events as being internal, stable, and global – while dismissing negative events as external, unstable, and specific.

Consider a situation where a new task is being learned – someone with an optimistic attributional style will see their successes as a result of their own skills and abilities, while failures are outside of their control and only a temporary glitch in the bigger picture.

Depressive Attributional Style

The learned helplessness model of depression proposed that control over the environment is a fundamental need for any organism. If an individual is repeatedly exposed to painful stimuli they will come to expect that such events are internal, unstable, and global thus developing a sense of hopelessness and depression as a result (Hiroto and Seligman, 1975).

This chronic style of attributing failures to internal, stable, and global causes – sometimes labeled as the ‘depressive attributional style’ – is characteristic of depression-prone people (Seligman, 2002). The depressive attributional style is considered a reliable predictor of depression and other indices of well-being (Sweeney, Anderson & Bailey, 1986).

Pessimistic Attributional Style

Where an optimist sees defeat as confined to a particular event, and not directly their fault (Seligman, 1991), an individual with a pessimistic attributional style labors under the belief that negative events will last indefinitely and are a direct result of their failings (Kirschman, Johnson, Bender & Roberts, 2011).

A pessimistic attributional style advocates an inclination towards writing off positive events as external, stable and specific, in other words, the good things that happen are due to some external factor that won’t have longevity.

Conversely, when a negative event is experienced their explanation is internal, unstable, and global, i.e. brought about by their own failings and having further negative effects on other aspects of their life. This expectation that negative events will recur in several domains leads to a reduction in voluntary response initiation following a perceived failure (Seligman, 1975).

 

Martin Seligman and Explanatory Style

One name you may have come across in your inexhaustible journey along the road of positive psychology is Dr. Martin Seligman. Considered a founding father of positive psychology, former head of the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Seligman is a leading authority in the field and had a hand in developing early attribution style theories based on the learned helplessness model which later evolved into a more robust explanatory style.

Explanatory style is but the latest theory on how we as individuals explain our experiences to ourselves and has roots stretching back decades in terms of peer-reviewed literature.

The modern theory of explanatory style and the postulated role it plays in mediating between positive and negative mental states stemmed originally from the work of Overmier and Seligman (1967) in which they formulated the learned helplessness model.

During the study, rats were given electric shocks over which they had no control. It was found that rats learned that the outcome was independent of their responses and became passive, thereby learning helplessness.

However, the model didn’t account for the potential of learned optimism or for individual differences in resilience when applied to humans, therefore, prompting a reformulation of the learned helplessness model by Abramson et al., (1978).

In their reformulated model of learned helplessness, the researches proposed that an individual’s explanatory style influenced the level of optimism/pessimism with which they regarded future events.

Based on the findings, Seligman proposed three dimensions of explanatory style, neatly summarised by the three Ps:

Pervasiveness – Global / Specific: Whether or not the factors influencing an outcome are seen to be event-specific or globally applicable.
Permanence – Stable / Unstable: If the outcome is based on factors which are changeable (unstable) or perceived to be temporally fixed (stable).
Personalization – Internal / External: Relating to the level of personal control an individual feels they hold relating to an outcome.

Based on these dimensions, individuals can display an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style.

This by no means encapsulates Dr. Seligman’s total involvement in the spawning of our modern day theory of explanatory style and how it impacts on levels of optimism, pessimism and associated positive or negative emotional states.

Over the years, Seligman has refined and validated the theory as well as proposed several methods of measuring an individual’s explanatory style, including the Attributional Style Questionnaire (Peterson, Semmel, von Baeyer, Abramson, Metalsky, & Seligman, 1982), the Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire (Kaslow, Tannenbaum, & Seligman, 1978) and the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations Technique (Peterson, Schulman, Castellon, & Seligman, 1992).

There has been an abundance of research in the area of attribution theory and explanatory style, but the drive to adapt and update theories means this remains an active area of investigation.

While much of the past research regarding interventions to an individual’s explanatory style has focused on the link between a pessimistic explanatory style and depressive symptoms, the field of research into interventions which promote an optimistic explanatory style and any subsequent positive mental outcomes remains relatively wide-open (Fredrickson, 2001).

 

Methods of Measurement

How do we go about measuring explanatory styles? There are two main methods by which researchers assess attributional style: the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ: Peterson et al., 1982) and the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE: Peterson et al., 1992).

Both measures collect information from participants regarding their attributions on the three dimensions. Determining precisely where the participant’s attributions lie on each of these three dimensions is the goal of both the ASQ and the CAVE methods. The responses allow researchers to make general conclusions about the overall attributional style of the participant.

One of the earliest and most commonly utilized assessment tools for adults is the attributional style questionnaire. Developed as a test to investigate and measure individual differences in habitual explanatory tendencies, a composite explanatory style score is formed by combining scores from the three dimensions (Peterson et al., 1993).

The ASQ presents individuals with hypothetical events and asked to imagine they involve them personally. In each case, they are asked questions related to perceived causes and the situation as a whole. Responses are then rated on a scale of 1-7 along the three dimensions of internality, stability, and globality (Dykema, Bergbower, Doctra & Peterson, 1996).

While the ASQ is an efficient method to obtain attributions for multiple events, as with many questionnaire-based studies it can potentially limit the quantity and demographics of participants. In response to this, the CAVE technique is a method that allows the researcher to analyze naturally occurring verbatim materials for explanatory style.

This technique has been successfully employed with adults particularly when a retrospective analysis of explanatory style is required. In this method, verbal or written causal effect statements by subjects are rated along the same permanent, personal and pervasive dimensions.

The CAVE technique allows the measurement of populations or individuals whose behavior is of interest but who cannot take questionnaires. Explanatory style can be assessed by blind, reliable content analysis of verbatim explanations from the historical records. Subjects who are famous, dead, or otherwise unavailable can be studied as easily as anyone else so long as they have left some verbatim record whether it be transcripts, interviews, letters, diaries, or journals (Zullow, Oettingen, Peterson & Seligman, 1988).

 

Explanatory Style Test

By this point, you may think that you have a pretty good idea what your explanatory style is. To garner a deeper understanding you can take one of the many explanatory style tests online (often referred to as learned optimism tests), most of which are adapted from that of Dr. Martin Seligman.

But why is it important to know your explanatory style? This habitual way in which people explain causes has been used to predict depression, achievement, and health, with a pessimistic style predicting poor outcomes (Zullow, Oettingen, Peterson, Seligman, 1988).

According to Seligman (1990) learned helplessness has negative effects similar to depression – the belief that in the face of uncontrollable events, individual actions do not matter. Fortunately, there are ways we can unlearn this helplessness and actively learn optimism.

Remember when you complete an explanatory style test there are no right or wrong answers. The best way to recognize and change your style is to respond honestly.

The Authentic Happiness test center provides an excellent optimism test formulated by Dr. Martin Seligman. On completion of the 32 question test, you will be provided with a thorough explanation and breakdown of your results in relation to permanence and pervasiveness. Seligman’s website also provides a wealth of other tests and questionnaires ranging from life satisfaction to motivation and everything in between.

Completing this 48 question test by Stanford University should take around 15 minutes. On completion, you will be given scores based on positive and negative permanence, pervasiveness, personalization, and a cumulative overall score.

 

Attributional Style Questionnaire

The attributional style questionnaire (ASQ) was designed as a way to investigate and measure individual differences in explanatory tendencies.

The self-reporting attributional style questionnaire contains 12 hypothetical situations: six negative and six positive. Additionally, half the events are interpersonal/affiliative, while the other half are achievement-related. This distinction allows for the possibility that attributional style for affiliative events is different from attributional style for achievement events (Peterson et al., 1982).

On receiving the attributional style questionnaire, participants are given the following instructions:

  1. Read each situation and vividly imagine it happening to you.
  2. Decide what you feel would be the major cause of the situation if it happened to you.
  3. Write one cause in the blank provided.
  4. Answer three questions about the cause.
  5. Answer one question about the situation.
  6. Go on to the next situation.

 

Example scenario:

You have been looking for a job unsuccessfully for some time.

Participants will then write one cause in a space provided and answer three questions related to the cause by circling a number between 1-7, such as:

  • Is the cause of your unsuccessful job search due to something about you or to something about other people or circumstances?
    Totally due to other people 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Totally due to me
  • In the future when looking for a job, will this cause again be present?
    Will never again be present 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Will always be present
  • Is the cause something that just influences looking for a job or does it also influence other areas of your life?
    Influences just this particular situation 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Influences all situations in my life

 

And one question related to the situation, for example:

  • How important would this situation be if it happened to you?
    Not at all important 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Extremely important

 

These scores can be combined in a variety of ways in order to achieve composite scores for negative events, positive events and both combined (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).

The general patterns of responses that are given can then be used to make diagnoses or predictions. For example, a person who is unsuccessful in a job interview and explains their failure with phrases like, “I never get anything right” exhibit a stable, internal, global explanation. In the same scenario, a participant who responds to their failed attempt with, “It was a tough interview, maybe someone else was just better for the job” is giving an unstable, external, specific explanation.

You can request a copy of the attributional style questionnaire here.

 

Attributional Style Questionnaire For Children

attributional style for children
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The Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire or CASQ (Kaslow et al., 1984) is the main method utilized to measure attributional style in children.

Developed in large part to compensate for the difficulties that children experience when completing the adult ASQ, the CASQ was designed to be used with children as young as eight years old offering the opportunity to explore developmental elements.

The CASQ is a forced-response questionnaire consisting of 48 hypothetically good or bad scenarios (24 positive and 24 negative) involving the child, followed by two statements detailing possible explanations.

For each hypothetical event, one of the permanent, personal or pervasive explanatory dimensions is varied while the other two are held constant.

Example scenario – You get an ‘A’ on a test

Statement 1 – I am smart.
Statement 2 – I am good at the subject the test was in.

Each internal, stable or global response is scored 1, and each external, unstable or specific response is scored 0. Scores across the appropriate questions for each of the three dimensions are combined for composite positive and negative events separately (Yates & Afrassa, 1994).

More recently Kaslow & Nolen-Hoeksema (1991) created a revised version of the CASQ, a 24-item shortened measure derived from the original questionnaire with 24 events (12 positives and 12 negatives) with two choices for response.

The CASQ has been used to investigate associations between children’s attributional styles and peer manipulation (Reijntjes, Dekovic, Vermande & Telch, 2007), depressive symptoms in children (Fincham, Diener & Hokoda, 1987), development of anger in children (Bowman, Smith & Curtis, 2003).

While there are other methods, such as the vignette method (Stipek, Lamb, & Zigler, 1981), and the direct method approach (Fischer & Leitenberg, 1986) the attributional style questionnaire for children is still the most commonly applied method.

 

Take Home Message

Understanding the origins of optimism and explanatory style is extremely valuable. Growing evidence suggests that depressive symptoms, anxiety, and perhaps even physical health problems can be prevented through interventions focusing on encouraging a healthy explanatory style.

 

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About the Author

Originally from Ireland, Elaine Houston is an independent business owner and Behavioral Science graduate with an honors degree from the University of Abertay, Scotland. After graduating, Elaine developed her passion for psychology through a range of avenues, focusing on consumer and small business psychology before going on to work within her local community as a learning and development officer. When she isn’t working, Elaine enjoys exploring creative outlets such as painting, drawing, and photography.

Comments

  1. Eyo Arthur Asuquo

    During my undergraduate days in school, i wrote on my note if there is any similarity between Julian Rotter’s locus of control and Martin Seligman’s Attributional Styles…..This article has confirmed that question. thanks so much.
    Eyo Asuquo

    Reply
  2. Sharon

    Really great article – thanks!

    Reply
  3. joe

    thanks for sharing…

    Reply
  4. Remi Samuel

    This explanatory styles topic comes to me at the right time. I have lost my car to repossession on February 6th, 2017. Without reading this piece, I have chosen to ride Atlanta MARTA, while assuring myself that it won’t last. I will save enough money and buy a very good used car, so I will not be paying car loan anymore. I felt fulfilled because I was able to keep my apartment, Reading this piece have confirmed my optimism and determination to succeed. Thank you all.

    Reply
  5. Meghana Gupta

    Good article on optimistic and pessimistic perception for life situations. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  6. Steve Uhlenbrock

    I understand explanatory style pretty well. How would you compare explanatory style to one’s mindset? Carol Dwek’s book on Mindset is very interesting. Is an Optimistic Explanatory Style the same as having a Growth Mindset? Is a Pessimistic Explanatory Style the same as having a Fixed Mindset? Any information would greatly be appreciated.

    Reply
    • Brad Desmond

      Hi Steve. Yes I’d say Dwek’s Mindset model has some overlap with explanatory style and with Locus of Control theory.

      Reply
  7. maria descrivan

    Love the article. As a coach I love the level of conciuosness a client can achieve when he/she discover that changing those pessimist thoughts that take him/her nowhere, can transform his/her reality. The energy that comes with every positive thought is very powerful.

    Reply
  8. Chris

    I really like how this article was so unbiased; for example, noting that sometimes too much optimism can have negative consequences. Very interesting and thought provoking article. Thank you!

    Reply

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