Attributional Style

Recall that attributional style is a dispositional way of explaining the causes of bad events. One way to think about attributional style is in terms of the following question: "Where does the person typically place the blame when things go wrong?" You will also recall that the three important dimensions of attribution are external versus internal, unstable versus stable, and specific versus global. Various measures have been developed for assessing people' s typical attributional style. Recall from Chapter 12 the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ), developed by psychologist Chris Peterson and his colleagues (Peterson et al., 1982). However , another very useful technique for scoring attributional style is by analyzing the content of people' s written or spoken explanations. People often spontaneously provide explanations for events in their everyday conversations or writings. It is possible to find these expla nations in verbatim material and to rate them along the attributional dimensions of internality, stability, and globality. This technique for measuring attributional style was also developed by Peterson and his colleagues (Peterson et al., 1992), who called it the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE).


Find a newspaper or magazine article in which a person is explaining an event—

perhaps a story about an accident, a natural disaster, or some sporting event. Analyze

the story, paying particular attention to quotes from various people, to find examples

of each of the three dimensions of explanatory style:

• Internal versus external

• Stable versus unstable

• Global versus specific

Come up with a characterization of the views on this event in terms of how people

attribute responsibility.

Attributional Exercise
Following the events of September 11, 2001, the then mayor of New York City—Rudolph Giuliani— exhibited a public coping style that included making attributions for the events that were external, temporary, and specific.

The CAVE technique has the advantage of allowing the researcher to study participants who are either not available or not willing to participate in typical research, provided that such participants have made public some material containing causal explanations (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988). For example, presidential speeches, particularly State of the Union addresses, often contain explanations for a great many events. And movie stars often do interviews that contain explanations for events in their lives. Psychotherapy tapes can be analyzed with CA VE, as they often contain the persons' attributions for why things happened to them. Similarly , song lyrics, children' s stories, descriptions of sports events, and myths and religious texts all contain explanations for events that can be rated for how internal, stable, and global they are.

Peterson, who has done a great deal of research on attributional style, now prefers the term optimism to refer to this individual dif ference construct (Peterson, 2000). Persons who make stable, global, and internal explanations for bad events are seen as pessimists, whereas persons who make unstable, specific, and externa explanations for bad events are seen as optimists. Optimism/pessimism is viewed as a traitlike dimension along which people dif fer. Optimists believe that life events are unstable and specific and that what they do actually influences outcomes in lif Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that they are pretty helpless when it comes to bad events, that bad events have long-lasting causes that adversely af fect many aspects of their lives (i.e., they blow things out of proportion). Consequently , pessimists believe that their behavior is not related to the outcomes in life.

Optimism has several dif ferent definitions, and distinctions can be mad between the dif ferent underlying constructs (Peterson & Chang, 2003). For example, the optimism construct employed by Peterson and colleagues (e.g., Peterson & Steen, 2002) refers to the explanatory style for bad events being to blame them on stable,

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