The human brain is designed to take mental shortcuts to understand its surroundings. Imagine you are driving home from work, decompressing from your busy day at the office, listening to your favorite podcast, Bialik’s Breakdown. All of a sudden a car in the adjacent lane cuts you off, forcing you to slam on your breaks and jerk to a stop. How do you feel about that other driver? Do you flip them the bird? Why do you think they did that? Well, for most of us, myself included, the immediate thought is, “What an a-hole!” In that moment we make assumptions about that driver’s motivations. We assume that their actions come from negligence or maybe even malice, but what evidence do we have to say that? The driver of the other car may be rushing to a nearby hospital because their partner is in labor, or made a genuine mistake and regrets their decision. Every day we make attributions about situations, our selves, and people around us. While these attributions may help us to make sense of our surroundings, they are often fallible and subject to subconscious influences. Today let’s break down attribution theory!
Attribution theory is an important concept in social psychology. The theory posits that humans naturally assign judgements to both their own behaviors and the behaviors of others. Attribution theory is often talked about in regard to why people succeed or fail. Let’s start by discussing attributions we make about others (Britannica, 2021). We often evaluate the successes or failures of others in terms of internal and external attributions. An internal attribution attributes an individual’s success or failure to personal characteristics. An example of this would be thinking that the person who cut you off did so because they have poor morals or bad impulse control. An external attribution attributes a person’s behavior to situational factors such as luck, social pressures, or circumstances (Reknes et al., 2019). Thinking that the person who cut you off may have been rushing to the hospital would be an example of an external attribution.
While it may seem that attribution theory would mainly apply to how we view others, it also has a lot of implications for how we view our own experiences. Let’s say you get offered a very prestigious job, why do you think you got it? Individual’s that make internal attributions about themselves may feel that they got the job because they are incredibly well-qualified, while an individual who makes external attributions may think the job was given to them out of generosity or luck. A person who believes that they have control over their successes and hardships is said to have an “Internal locus of control” while someone who feels they have little control over whether they succeed or not is said to have an “External locus of control” (Britannica, 2021; Gilbert & Malone, 1995). That said, it is important to understand that things are not black and white. Everybody has both internal and external loci of control for different aspects of their lives. Additionally, these loci often change over time for a variety of reasons.
Our locus of control has important implications for our mental health. The ways in which we view our own and other’s behaviors and achievements can greatly impact our world view and our perceived ability to control the things around us (Jain & Sing, 2015).