Stress and Your Attributional Style

Your perspective can affect your stress levels.
How you see the world greatly affects your stress levels. Eric Raptosh Photography/Blend Images/Getty Images

Have you ever heard the term "attributional style" and wondered what it meant?  This term refers to how people explain the events of their lives--to others and to themselves. More specifically, it refers to how people attribute the causes and effects of events in their lives, and whether they classify these events as something that will affect the in a positive way, something that they can change, and to what degree.

 (Attributional style and explanatory style generally refer to the same thing.)  There are three facets of how people can explain a situation that can cause them to lean toward a state of optimism or pessimism:

  • Stable Vs. Unstable:  Could the event be classified as potentially changing across time or unchanging across time?  When people perceive something as stable, they expect it to be something they can reliably count on.  When someone looks at a the event of earning a good grade on a test, for example, they can attribute it to a more stable underlying cause, such as a strong ability in that subject or good study skills in general, or they can attribute it to a more unstable trait like "luck" that they had that day.  If they attribute positive events to more stable causes, they lean toward optimism in that they can more reasonably expect these positive events to occur again, since they have a stable, recurring cause.  If one can earn a good grade on a test due to their ability, one may reason, they can expect to do well on future tests as well.
  • Global vs. Local: Can this event be explained as something more universal throughout one’s life or specific to a part of one’s life?  Does a positive event mean more positive events to come, in other ares of life?  Optimists tend to think so.  Staying with the example of a good grade earned on a test, optimists may see one good grade as evidence that more good grades will follow, in this specific class and in other classes as well. They see a positive event as evidence that there will be more global positive events to come.  A pessimists may more likely consider it an isolated event: one good grade doesn't mean anything in terms of how one will fare on the next test, in a pessimist's estimation.
  • Internal vs. External: This has to do with whether one looks at the cause of an event as within oneself or outside oneself.  When someone tends to view things as being within their control, a style of viewing the world known as an internal locus of control, they feel that they have more control over things.  With the example of doing well on a test, someone with an internal locus of control may see a good grade as something that had more to do with them and their abilities than any other factors, and would estimate that they'd have the ability to repeat the positive event.  This contributes to a more optimistic explanatory style and world view--the idea that we have a great deal of control over our lives is empowering.  Someone with a more external locus of control would attribute a good grade to more factors outside themselves, such as the exam itself being easier than average, the material being easier to understand, or it being a "lucky" day.  Although this type of thinking doesn't sound obviously "negative" and pessimistic, this type of attributional style is more in line with pessimistic thinking; pessimists are more likely to see things as outside of their control.  

    Read about positive and negative explanatory styles, about the benefits of optimism, and the difference between positive psychology and positive thinking.

    Continue Reading