Explanatory Style

The reformulation of learned helplessness theory focuses on the cognitions, or thoughts, a person has that may lead to feelings of helplessness. More specifically, the focus is on the explanations that people give for events in their lives, particularly the unpleasant events (Peterson et al., 1993). Imagine that you had submitted a paper in your class and that you received a surprisingly low grade on that paper. A common question you might ask yourself is "What caused the low grade on my paper?" Your explanation for the cause of the low grade might reveal something about your explanatory style. When things go wrong, who or what typically gets the blame? Psychologists prefer the term causal attribution to refer to a person's explanation of the cause of an event. To what cause would you attribute your paper's low grade? Was it because you happened to be in a rush and submitted a quickly written paper? Was it because you are simply a poor writer? Was it because the professor who graded it was unduly harsh in her grading? Or was it because your dog ate your original paper, so you quickly wrote another, which was not nearly as good as the one your dog ate? All of these explanations are causal attributions for the event.

Psychologists use the term explanatory style to refer to tendencies some people have to frequently use certain explanations for the causes of events. Explanations for the causes of events can be broken down along three broad dimensions. First, explanations for events can be either internal or external. The poor paper grade could be due to something pertaining to you (internal, such as your lack of skill) or something pertaining to the environment (external, such as the professor's being unduly harsh). Some people blame themselves for all sorts of events and are constantly apologizing for events that are outside their control. This is called the internal vs. external dimension of explanatory style. The more internal your explanation, the more likely you are to blame yourself for unpleasant events, even those events over which you have little or no control.

A second dimension concerns whether the cause of the event is stable or unstable. For example, if you were temporarily set back by your dog eating the original version of your paper, then that would be an unstable cause (assuming your dog does not eat all of your papers). However, an explanation that concerns your lack of writing skill is a more or less permanent, or stable, characteristic. When bad events happen, some people tend to think that the causes of such situations are permanent, that the causes are stable and long-lasting. This is called the stable vs. unstable dimension of explanatory style.

The third important dimension of causes of events concerns whether the cause is global or specific. A specific cause is one that affects only the particular situation (e.g., writing papers), whereas a global cause affects many situations in life (all areas involving intellectual skills). For example, you might have explained the cause of your poor paper grade like this: "I am just unable to write; I can hardly put a noun and a verb together to form a sentence." This is a global explanation and might imply that you would be expected to do poorly in whatever task required writing. Using global explanations is like blowing things out of propor tion. For example, a person may be robbed while walking through a park at night. He or she might then develop the view that all people are bad—"People are rotten at the core and cannot be trusted." Tendencies such as these and their opposite, the tendency to explain events in terms of very specific causes (e.g., "That person who robbed me is bad"), are referred to as the specific vs. global dimension of explanatory style.

Whenever someone offers an explanation for an event, that explanation can be analyzed in terms of the three dimensions: internal-external, stable-unstable, and global-specific. Most people use different combinations of explanations—sometimes blaming themselves, sometimes blaming external causes, sometimes blaming specific causes, and so forth. However, some people develop a consistent explanatory style. For example, suppose someone consistently blames herself whenever anything goes wrong. After arriving at her destination on a plane that was late, the woman apologizes to her friend who picked her up at the airport, saying, "I'm sorry I'm late," when, in fact, she was not at all responsible for being late. She might say to her friend instead, "I'm sorry that the plane I was on was late and that you had to be inconvenienced. Next time I'll use a different airline." This might be a more appropriate external explanation for the real cause of being late.

Explanatory style can be assessed in a variety of ways. The Attributional Style Questionnaire, published by psychologist Chris Peterson (1991), presents the person taking the questionnaire with several scenarios representing various common good and bad events. It asks

A Closer Look (Continued )

participants to imagine such events happening to them. They are then asked a series of questions about the likely causes of each event. The questions refer to internal versus external causes, stable versus unstable causes, and global versus specific causes. While this questionnaire asks about the causes of both good and bad events, researchers typically find that explanatory style for bad events is what matters most. In fact, when using the term "explanatory style" psychologists imply "for bad events."

Another way to score explanatory style is to obtain a person's descriptions of the causes of various bad events. At-tributional style can actually be scored from diaries, from letters, or even from TAT stories (Peterson, 1995; Peterson & Ulrey, 1994).

The explanatory style that most puts a person at risk for feelings of helplessness and poor adjustment is one that emphasizes internal, stable, and global causes for bad events. This has been called the pessimistic explanatory style.

This style is in contrast to the optimistic explanatory style which emphasizes external, temporary, and specific causes of events. For example, one scenario on the Attributional Style Questionnaire asks you to imagine being on a date that goes badly, in which both you and your date have a lousy time. You are then asked why this might happen to you. If your explanation involves an external attribution to an unstable and highly specific cause (e.g., "I happened to choose a movie that neither one of us liked, then we went to a resturant where the service was poor, and afterwards my car got stuck in the mud"), then you are scored as more optimistic than someone who offers an internal, stable, and global interpretation (e.g., "I just have trouble relating to people, I cannot keep a conversation going, and I

am completely shy when it comes to the opposite sex"). (See Figure 12.3.)

Is explanatory style a stable characteristic? One study examined explanatory style over the life span (Burns & Seligman, 1989). A group of participants, whose average age was 72 years, completed a questionnaire on explanatory style and provided diaries or letters written in their youth, an average of 52 years earlier. The diaries and letters were content analyzed for explanatory style. The correlation between these two measures of explanatory style for negative life events that were generated five decades apart, was .54, indicating a significant amount of stability in explanatory style.

What are some of the correlates and consequences of pessimistic versus optimistic explanatory styles? In Chapter 13, we discuss the role of explanatory style in depression, and, in Chapter 18, we will return to the topic of

Internal/external Stable/unstable Global/specific

Optimistic style

Pessimistic style

Internal/external Stable/unstable Global/specific

Optimistic style

Pessimistic style




"My girlfriend

"My girlfriend broke

"My girlfriend

broke up with me

up with me because

broke up with me

because her parents

she needs all her

because she found

forced her."

time right now to

out I dated Julie

devote to the charity

last weekend."

drive, which only

lasts one month."




"My girlfriend

"My girlfriend broke

"My girlfriend broke

broke up with me

up with me because

up with me because

because I'm from a

I'm shorter than her,

I'm an inconsiderate,

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and she wants

two-timing, unfaithful

I'm not going to

someone who is

jerk who couldn't

college, and I have


keep a relationship

very little ambition

going if his life

in life."

depended on it."

Figure 12.3

The three dimensions underlying explanatory style, with their pessimistic and optimistic versions.

Figure 12.3

The three dimensions underlying explanatory style, with their pessimistic and optimistic versions.

explanatory style again in some detail, with reference to health. However, in this chapter we will examine two intriguing studies relating explanatory style to health and early death.

In one study, researchers obtained data on 99 Harvard University undergraduates from the classes of 1942-1944. Explanatory style was scored from questionnaires obtained when the students were age 25, on average. Physical health was then measured several decades later, at ages 45 to 60, using data obtained from physical exams. Pessimistic explanatory style in college predicted poorer health 20 to 35 years later. Indeed, among the subjects who had died by age 60, a larger proportion of the deaths was found among subjects with a pessimistic explanatory style. The authors concluded that a pessimistic style in the college years is a risk factor for poor health and mortality in middle and late adulthood (Peterson, 2000; Peterson, Selig-man, & Vaillant, 1988).

How does explanatory style exert its negative influence on health? Researchers have speculated about many different pathways. Pessimistic feelings may lead a person to be passive and to act helplessly rather than to engage in appropriate health behaviors. Or pessimistic persons may have a smaller social support network; they may withdraw from social relations or may be deficient in social skills. One pathway that has been investigated concerns differences in physiological responses to stress among pessimistic and optimistic persons. A study of older adults (ages 62 to 82 years) found that a pessimistic explanatory style was related to lowered competence of the immune system (measured by number of T-helper cells and T-lymphocyte response to a small infection). The relationship between pessimistic style and lowered immunocompetence held even when researchers controlled for such factors as health history, medication, sleep patterns, and alcohol use. A pessimistic explanatory style may be an important psychological risk factor in the early course of immune-related diseases, at least among older people (Kamen-Siegel et al., 1991).

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  • sofia
    What is specif explantory style?
    1 year ago

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