“The air-conditioning in the hall was so cold, of course I missed all my shots.”
“We could’ve won, if only our star player wasn’t ill!”
“So lucky that we revised that topic at the last minute, and the teacher really tested it!”Perhaps these statements strike you as familiar. Maybe you’ve heard or even made some of these remarks during a game, when receiving examination results, or simply after a round of Mobile Legends.
What’s the similarity amongst all these statements?
They all imply reasons such as one’s own hard work or unexpectedly cold air-conditioning for some event, be it one that is marked by success (like doing well in a class test) or by failure (like missing all my shots). This idea that we tend to explain our successes or failures using a variety of reasons is a core assumption of what psychologists call attribution theory.
In social psychology, attribution refers to how people ascribe (or attribute) a reason to a behaviour or an event, while attribution theory refers to the body of frameworks that explain this process.
Bernard Weiner, a psychologist who specialises in this field, has proposed four major types of attributions that we often make:
In 1971, Weiner and a team of psychologists further categorised these four attributions along two dimensions - locus (i.e. internal or external) and stability (i.e. how constant a cause is across different situations).
For example, my ability to pass the ball in football is an “internal” attribution because my skill at passing may differ from my teammates, but it is also a “stable” attribution because it is unlikely that I would drastically improve or regress my passing skills in the short run.
Over time, others like R. M. Rosenbaum identified a third dimension--controllability--which simply refers to how much control an individual has over something. Some attributions like “task difficulty” would likely be uncontrollable (think of a draw of opponents in a tournament) while others like “effort” are more controllable (think of how you can choose to stay back after training to do a bit more PT).
At this point, you may be wondering: “all this theoretical stuff sounds interesting… but what does it have to do with the ‘real’ world?”
One major application of attribution theory is that of “attribution retraining”, which involves helping an individual change his or her unhelpful attributions to more helpful ones. This often requires one to replace one’s uncontrollable attributions (“I can’t dribble well because I can’t focus on the ball”) with controllable attributions (“I can’t dribble well because I did not practice much”).
A study done by the University of Exeter found that children who were given some form of attribution retraining improved drastically in a “ball dribble task”. At first, these children remarked that they could not dribble well because of factors that were uncontrollable to them. The researchers then took some time to help these children experiment with a “strategy” to dribble the ball, a factor that they could control. At the end of the study, all the children improved greatly and showed greater confidence levels in their abilities.
What does this mean?
In general, by changing your own attributions, you may find that you become more motivated to work harder and smarter. Many studies likewise show that good results in all kinds of contexts like examination grades or sporting achievements often follow from altering the kind of attributions one makes.
Perhaps what Ralph Waldo Emerson said makes sense after all, “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”
The article is based on the research of our YouthCreators.
Content by: Matthew Seah
Kassin, S., Fein, S., & Markus, H. (2011). Social Psychology. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.
Rosenbaum, R. M. (1972). A dimensional analysis of the perceived causes of success and failure. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
Sinnott, K., & Biddle, S. (1998). Changes in Attributions, Perceptions of Success and Intrinsic Motivation after Attribution Retraining in Children's Sport. International Journal Of Adolescence And Youth, 7(2), 137-144. doi: 10.1080/02673843.1998.9747818
Weiner, B. (2010). The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: A history of ideas. Educational Psychologist, 45, 28-36.
Weiner, B., Frieze, I. H., Kukla, A., Reed, L., Rest, S., & Rosenbaum, R. M. (1971). Perceiving the causes of success and failure. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.