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Making Attributions for a Healthier Attitude

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"Instead of attributing all problems to personal failure, think of the complexity of your behavior. Take responsibility for your behavior, but don't blame yourself."

Simple Explanations for Others' Behavior. A natural human tendency is to simplify explanations, especially explanations regarding the behavior of other people. Even science teaches the importance of being parsimonious; in other words, don't use a complex explanation when a simple one will do. However, many times we over-simplify the cause of behavior, both as individuals and as a science.

Fundamental Attribution Error. In social psychology, a concept known as "the fundamental attribution error" describes the tendency to view too much of someone else's behavior as related to internal factors. For instance, if a person is fired from a job, we may think, "That person is incompetent," even though we could as easily think, "That job was not right for that person." We tend to believe that the problems other people have are due to some internal fault or flaw and we tend to over-estimate the degree of the person's responsibility.

Complex Explanations for Our Own Behavior. Interestingly, we tend to view our own behavior in a more complex manner: we attribute our own failures to external factors and our successes to internal factors. If we get fired from a job, we may think, "My boss had it in for me," whereas, if we get promoted, we may think, "I am intelligent and hard-working." This concept is even more complex, however, because individuals disposed to depression think in the opposite manner: they attribute their failures to internal flaws and their successes to luck. Therefore, in the same situation of being fired from a job, they may think, "I deserved it because I'm an incompetent idiot."

How These Explanations Affect Us. So why is all this important? Because the way we make attributions about behavior affects relationships and self-esteem. If we over-simplify behavior, we may contribute to poor self-esteem, or ruin a relationship. Think about a recent argument you had, preferably one that focused on your behavior. Now think about how much of the argument was due to the other individual over-simplifying the reasons for your behavior followed by your attempts to justify the behavior. You may be surprised to see how many disagreements relate to this tendency to overlook the complexities of human behavior.

For example, a woman tells her husband that he doesn't care about her because he forgot about her birthday. In this example she simply equates forgetting her birthday with not caring. However, from her husband's view, his forgetting may be much more complex. His family of origin may not have celebrated birthdays, and so, his concept of the importance of birthdays may be different than his wife's notion. Or, he may have been experiencing a number of stressful situations that required a great deal of energy. Or, the neurological make-up of his brain may not be conducive to remembering dates. These three possibilities cover the areas of learning history, current environmental stresses, and biological predispositions. None of them have anything to do with whether he cares about his wife or not.

What makes human behavior even more interesting is that the three possibilities elaborated above may all be involved in a single behavior. Thus, the man above may have his background, stress, and genetics working against him in remembering birthdays. But his wife made the simple attribution that his behavior indicated he didn't care about her. I'll leave it to your imagination what may happen next in their interaction due to her not understanding the complexity of his behavior.

Understanding the complexity of human behavior doesn't mean that we excuse people's behavior; it just means we allow for more complex explanations. Such a stance is particularly crucial in interactions with children as they are heavily influenced by adults' responses. For instance, if a father criticizes his son for not paying attention in school and attributes this problem to laziness, the boy may begin to think of himself as lazy. This occurs especially when the child has no alternative explanation. One possible explanation may be that the child has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which is a biological condition. However, until recently, the variability in the performance of children with ADD led many people to choose the simple explanation that the child wasn't trying. Often, we need to look beyond these simple explanations to see what the real problem may be. Quickly attributing a simple explanation can blind us to other possibilities.


Environmental Factors. Appreciating the complexities of human behavior involves understanding that we are biological beings--that our basic make-up, such as intelligence or disposition, is part of our genetic coding. However, that genetic coding is influenced by our experiences, which includes both our learning history and our current stresses. For instance, an individual may be born with a predisposition to develop an above average intelligence. However, poor nutrition and lack of environmental stimulation may result in an intelligence level that falls short of the genetic coding.

Biological Predisposition. In the area of mental and physical disorders, the "diathesis-stress" model for illness explains that a "diathesis", or predisposition, exists within a particular individual for a specific illness. Having a predisposition means that the individual has the tendency to develop the illness under certain conditions. However, this explanation also means that the individual will not develop the disorder or that the disorder may not be as severe under certain conditions. What I have noticed in my practice is that those clients who have the most severe anxiety or depression often grew up with parents with similar problems. Thus, they have both the genetic coding and the learning from their parents' modeling of irrational thinking and behavior.

Personality Traits. We can think of many of our personality traits in a similar manner. If we take a child with a high activity level and put her in an environment where she must sit still and then criticize her when she doesn't, she may develop low self-esteem and begin to act in an oppositional and defiant manner. Whereas, a similar child whose energy is accepted and directed, may learn to focus his activity in a goal-directed way and feel good about himself.

As you see, behavior is not as simple as "will-power" or the individual's fault. As a society, we need to begin to look at behavior in it's complexity instead of trying to place blame. This allows us to explore the behavior less judgmentally. Such a stance permits the individual to examine his or her behavior without being defensive.


Identify the attribution. First, when you find yourself upset by certain behavior of others, ask yourself why you are upset. If you find yourself blaming the other person, such as "He's doing that on purpose," see if you can think of other possible causes of the behavior. For instance, you might consider when a child is screaming for your attention, "He's behaving this way because he learned this behavior gets him attention." By thinking of such possibilities, it gives you an opportunity to respond in a helpful manner. You might decide to reinforce appropriate behavior and ignore the screaming. Or in another scenario where someone is ignoring you, instead of taking it personally, you might think "Maybe she has an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to talk with people." If you begin to think about other possibilities such as these, you may find it easier to cope with situations and know what to do.

Recognize the complexity of behavior. Second, if you have a tendency toward depression, you need to give yourself a break. Instead of attributing all problems to personal failure, think of the complexity of your behavior. Take responsibility for your behavior, but don't blame yourself. What I mean by this is to accept the consequences resulting from your behavior, but don't degrade yourself for making mistakes. For instance, if you start an exercise program, and you don't exercise for a week, instead of berating yourself for failing, just start again. Tell your-self, "The most important thing is trying, not whether I succeed or not." Such an attitude actually allows you to accomplish more rather than spending energy to blame yourself.

Recognize the biology of behavior. Third, recognize the importance of biology and accept your limitations and the limitations of others. Some people are not biologically inclined to be Olympic athletes; other people are not meant to be thin; and others are not inclined to be color coordinated. We have our differences, our talents, and our limitations. We can not be perfect in everything. Each of us needs to accept ourselves as we are. By truly accepting ourselves, we will also be able to accept other people.

Such a recognition also allows you to accept mental illness as no different than physical illness. If you don't blame yourself or others for physical illness, then don't place blame for mental illness. As with any illness, it is our responsibility to do what is necessary to take care of ourselves. One way to do so is to learn the skills to manage our lives. The way we think and cope with stress affects not only our mental health, but also, our physical health.

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