Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Attributions and emotion

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Attributions and emotion: How do attributions affect emotion?[edit | edit source]


Overview[edit | edit source]

This book chapter aims to discuss attributions and emotions, how cognition affects our way of seeing the world, and what we can do to fix our negative outlook on things. The history and theory of attributions is discussed, to give readers an in-depth understanding of what attributions are. Knowing about how we make attributions and why is aimed at helping the reader to fully understand themselves so that they can be mindful and aware of it next time they appraise a situation. Emotional states such as depression and stress will be discussed, with some handy self-help tips to guide you as you read.

What are attributions?[edit | edit source]

Attributions are judgements we make about our environments and the people in them. They are explanations we give ourselves that affect how we think about others (Weiner, 1985). During the early 20th century, Fritz Heider was among the first to explore this topic. He questioned why and how people attributed characteristics to an imagined object such as the smell, colour, texture, shape, and size. (Malle, 2004). People’s desire to explain their life events and interactions is at the core of Attribution Theory (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 1980, 1985, 1986). Questioning the reasons of why things happen, why they did not happen, why they bought something, why are they friends with that person; attributions are the explanation to the cause of an event and we use this to explain our queries (Weiner, 1985, 1986). For example, if you are pulled over while driving you may ask yourself ‘why did I get pulled over?’ The answer to this could be ‘because I was speeding; because I did not see that stop sign; because I was being tailgated’, which makes impatience the attribution used to explain the behaviour. This is your way of understanding the event without having to acknowledge that in reality, you might just be an inconsiderate driver. How does this affect your emotions? Attributions affect our emotions based on our understanding of the outcome of a particular event (Weiner, 1985, 1986). For example, you are angry because you were speeding and were caught; you are sad because you genuinely did not see that stop sign and you still got a fine; you are frustrated because you were being tailgated, which made you speed up, which got you pulled over. Lets consider emotions more closely.

What are emotions?[edit | edit source]

Emotions are comprised of feelings that make us feel in a certain way in a certain situation (Izard, 1993; Reeve, 2009). Emotions are the result of biological reactions that occur in order to help us adapt to the changing environment or situation we find ourselves in (Reeve, 2009). Our minds (cognition) and our bodies (biological) react to a given stimulus that then produces emotion. Two perspectives that aim to explain what causes emotion are the cognitive and biological perspectives. Cognitive perspective argues that people cannot experience emotion without first having evaluated their situation. This appraisal (good/bad, frightening/boring) elicits an emotional response. Alternatively, the biological perspective argues that people do not need to evaluate their situation before experiencing emotion. We experience the physiological response that then influences our emotions. What makes the biological perspective more plausible than the cognitive perspective is that Izard, Hembree, Dougherty and Spizzirri (1983) conducted studies on infants and their emotional responses. Everyone knows infants are not cognitively developed enough to appraise a situation and decide their emotions based on this appraisal. The fact that Izard and colleagues' (1983) infants smiled at a high pitched voice (Reeve, 2009; Wolff, 1969) and displayed anger as a response to pain (Izard et al., 1983; Reeve, 2009), indicates that cognition does not influence emotional causality, but in fact biology does.

However there are other theories that argue that a combination of the two systems causes emotion. Buck (1984) put forward this idea that both cognition and biology work together activating and regulating emotion. When considering how attributions affect emotion, the cognitive perspective provides some clues. Attributions are our evaluations of our surroundings and explanations for why things occur - this is considered a part of the cognitive appraisal system. The attributions we place on things in our lives elicit certain responses from ourselves (i.e. an internal attribution: I failed that math test, because I did not study, this makes me upset; as opposed to an external attribution: I failed that math test, because it was too hard (neglecting the fact that you did not study), this makes me annoyed).

Theories of attribution

Attribution theories[edit | edit source]

Among several theories of attribution, Harold Kelley's Covariation Model and Weiner's Three-dimensional Model will be focused on in understanding how this affects our emotions and how we can use this to improve our lives and general well-being.

Covariation model[edit | edit source]

Covariation Model in Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2010
Covariation Model in Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2010
The covariation model, developed by Harold Kelley, is one of the theories of attribution where people infer causes for behaviour through other elements that are present or not present when a behaviour occurs (Kelley, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1973). For example, you may know when your sister lies because she raises her eyebrows. You are inferring from this that she is a liar, because every time she lies, she raises her eyebrows. The theory maintains that the causal attributions we make are made in a logical and rational manner when we recognise the cause of a behaviour based on the inferences made from internal or external factors (Kelley, 1967). Internal refers to attributions to the person and personal control. External refers to the environment or the circumstances (Hewstone & Jaspars, 1987). Kelley's covariation model is comprised of three standards from which people make attributions about behaviours; consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency (Kelley, 1973).
Covariation model of attribution[edit | edit source]

From consensus, distinctiveness and consistency, people make attributions about behaviour that is ether internal or external.

Model Example
Consensus Consensus is the general behaviour of people toward the same stimulus and in the same situations. It is the behaviour that covaries across many people (Kelley, 1967). For example, a high consensus would mean that many people agree that Sarah is rude. Low consensus would mean that only you think that Sarah is rude. Moreover, high consensus is attributed to the stimulus or behaviour (Sarah really is rude). Alternatively, low consensus is attributed to the individual (only you feel Sarah is rude; Kelley, 1967).
Distinctiveness Distinctiveness is the way in which a person responds to the stimuli, and if they behave the same or differently in similar situations (Kelley, 1967). Carrying on with the previous example, distinctiveness is high when you think only Sarah is rude. Distinctiveness is low if you believe everybody you interact with is rude.
Consistency Consistency is the frequency of a behaviour toward similar stimuli in different contexts. For example, if you always think that Sarah is rude then consistency is high. If you rarely think that Sarah is rude then consistency is low.

While there is limited research, one could argue that this attributional style could affect emotions in the following way: If there is a low consensus about whether Sarah is rude, then you could feel embarrassed or dissociated. These negative feelings could make someone feel more isolated and alone if they have a predisposition to depression. If there is a high consensus that Sarah is rude, then one might feel connected with their peers and more assured of their beliefs and decision making skills. These positive feelings could influence further happiness/confidence in other areas of the individual's life.

Three-dimensional model[edit | edit source]

Bernard Weiner's Attribution Model
Bernard Weiner's Attribution Model

Bernard Weiner (1992) introduced the idea that our perceptions and attributions of why we did well or not so well in a performed a task, predicts the level of effort we will put forward into future tasks. When our attributions contribute to positive affect and high expectations of success in the future, we develop a willingness and motivation to engage in these activities again and perform at the same standard as before (Munton, Silvester, Stratton, & Hanks, 1999). Attributions that cause a negative affect decrease confidence in the expectations of success in the future. Future behaviour is influenced by these cognitive assessments when we are presented with similar encounters (Munton et al., 1999). Weiner's model includes three components: stability, locus of control and controllability. Weiner’s model also elicits emotional responses (Weiner, 1985, 2006). Weiner maintains that Locus of Control is linked to pride and self-esteem. This means that people are likely to feel proud by an accomplishment if they attribute it to an internal behaviour (from themselves). Stability is linked to feelings of hopefulness. Unstable attributions that are made when the cause is stable changes the outcome. This subsequently changes the emotional response. Controllability elicits feelings of shame, guilt, gratitude, and anger. An example would be someone who believes their poor performance in playing guitar is a controllable attribution due to lack of effort. They may feel guilt. By contrast, someone who feels their poor performance is due to an uncontrollable cause, such as the inability to even play guitar, are going to experience feelings of shame (Weiner, 1985). It is these emotional responses from attributions that affect attitudes and motivation toward future tasks that are similar.

Three-dimensional model of attribution[edit | edit source]

Weiner (1974, 1979) created a three-dimensional model to the causal dimensions of attributions.

Dimensions Examples
stability (stable vs. unstable) Stability is just what the word implies. The cause of an event is unchanging. For example, ability can be seen as stable. Effort can be seen as unstable (Weiner, 1974).
locus of control (internal vs. external) Internal attributions are the interpretations of a person’s behaviour that is attributed to their character, personality and/or attitudes (Weiner, 1985, 1986; Weiner & Graham, 1989). Mood and skills are internal, the weather and luck are external. For example, when you ring to speak to someone at the bank about your money and the lady on the other end is rude and unhelpful, you decide that she is just that type of person all the time. When in actual fact, the rude lady just received news that her son was expelled from school.
controllability (controllable vs. uncontrollable) Controllability is the level of control a person has over event. For example, skill can be controlled but aptitude and luck cannot be controlled (Weiner, 1974).

Attribution bias

What is attribution bias?[edit | edit source]

Self-serving bias[edit | edit source]

Self-Serving Bias is when people attribute success to internal factors and failures to uncontrollable external factors (Shaver, 1970). An example of this is when you receive a good mark for an assignment, one might attribute that good mark to ones ability and intelligence. Whereas one might attribute a bad mark to a bad lecturer or unfair marking. One view of why this happens is that people want to protect their self-esteem. Alternatively, researchers have also found that when the outcome matches ones expectation they will most likely attribute to internal factors. When the outcome does not match the expected outcome the person is more likely to attribute to external factors (Roesch & Amirkham, 1997). Another theory of self-serving bias is the protection of self-image. This theory predicts that people attribute their success to external or situational factors instead of internal factors so that others will not see them as vein (Roesch & Amirkham, 1997; Shaver, 1970).

Fundamental attribution error - (FAE)[edit | edit source]

The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the tendency to overemphasize the dispositional, internal, personality related aspects, to explain the behaviour of others, while at the same time, underemphasizing the environmental/situational contributions to the behaviour (Gilbert & Malone, 1995; Schwarz, 2006). For example, Sarah failed the book chapter assignment. You attribute this to the fact that she was too lazy to complete it properly (dispositional), while you neglect to take into account the fact that she caught pneumonia and missed four weeks of classes (situational). FAE does not account for your own behaviour where the situation can be considered.
Ross, Greene, and House (1977) developed the FAE when they realised social psychologists (Bierbrauer 1979; Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959) had a habit of underestimating the effect the situation had on events and behaviours (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). Bierbrauer's (1979) research on the measures of perceived situational influence in Milgram’s experiment did not measure the situational attributions directly (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). As a result his participants failed to see the intimidation the experimenter in Milgram’s study exhibited being dressed in a laboratory coat and giving orders to shock one another (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). Similarly, Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) study on dissonance did not account for the amount of pressure placed on participants when the experimenter requested they tell a white lie (Gilbert & Malone, 1995).

Actor observer bias[edit | edit source]

The Actor Observer Bias (Jones & Nisbett, 1971) is the tendency for an individual to draw on external situational explanations when interpreting their own behaviour, whilst attributing other's observed behaviour to internal, dispositional causes. Jones and Nisbett (1971) suggest that this effect may occur due to differences in perspectives and salience of certain factors. When interpreting our own behaviour, we know how we have behaved in the past. That previous situation is used as the primary determinant. When we observe others however, all we notice is their behaviour as it happens. It is this appears to be the determining factor. To test this theory, Storm (1973) reversed the normal perspective of actors - those who had performed certain behaviours earlier, were now able to observe themselves through the use of a videotape. The previously external attributions became more internal, as participants began to attribute their actions to their personality and preferences. Interestingly, this effect is also reduced if we are making attribution for individuals that we know well (Aron, Aron & Smollan, 1992). It is suggested that because we have more information about the needs, motivations and thoughts of these individuals, we are more likely to account for the external forces that impact behaviour.


Emotional states and attributions[edit | edit source]


There are many contributing factors that affect emotional responses. However, the cognitive perspective is more applicable to this chapter, as it argues that it is our appraisals of situations and people that elicit our emotional responses. Several theorists (Lazarus, 1984; Scherer, 1994, 1997; Weiner, 1986) claim that cognitive processing and appraisals are necessary to emotional production (Reeve, 2009). Lazarus (1991a, 1991b; Reeve, 2009) believes that it is the way we understand an event as relating to us personally that creates an emotional response. It is our appraisal of the events affect on our personal safety and well-being that elicits the emotion, rather than the actual event. For example, Lucy has depression. She feels stressed and fearful because the man next to her has a hammer. She is worried he will hurt her. Lucy feels she attracts bad things. However, Lucy may feel differently if she appraised the situation more positively. If Lucy appraises the situation in a more positive manner, she would see that the man is a builder at work. This could make Lucy feel relieved. Therefore, Lucy's appraisal of the man with the hammer could elicit a different emotional reaction based on how she looks at the situation.


As previously noted, Weiner (1986; Reeve, 2009) uses the outcomes of life events and the appraisals of these outcomes as the catalyst for emotional reaction. If we attribute success to ourselves and personal skill, we may feel pride and joy. So, if you receive an HD on your book chapter assignment; you attribute this grade to your hard work and dedication to the class, you feel pride. Alternatively if you attribute your HD grade to all the feedback you received, not to your hard work, the emotional response may change from pride to gratitude (Reeve, 2009). Despite the outcome being the same, it is clear that when we attribute a situation differently the emotional response is affected.

Depression[edit | edit source]

Lets put it into perspective: if Lizzie is an emotionally stable individual she will see her good grades as a result of her hard work. If Katie is a depressed individual, she would probably attribute her good grades to a mistake in the marking.
Test yourself with the Depression Screening Test

When someone says they feel depressed they may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • thoughts of hopelessness/helplessness
  • irritable mood
  • decreased energy
  • increased fatigue
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • low self-esteem
  • impaired judgement and decision-making
  • loss of concentration (APA, 2000)

Depression is the mood state that affects how we perceive the world. Depressed individuals see the negative side of life. Gladstone and Kaslow (1995) conducted a meta-analytic review of the attributions of teenagers and children when depressed. Over 28 studies, they found that higher levels of depression were linked to external and unstable attributions that were made for events that were positive (i.e. receiving a good grade). For events that were negative (i.e. receiving a bad grade), attributions made by depressed individuals were more internal and stable.

Depression help[edit | edit source]

Awareness: If you want to change your attributions to be happier, you must be aware. Consciously changing your negative attributions of things to positive attributions helps. If you are upset because you were rejected at your fourth job interview because you believe you are not good, attractive or smart enough for the part; actively recognising this negative attribution would mean you alter it to look at the economic state instead (Sanger, 2011).
Alternate attributions: Generating alternative attributions for yourself is often difficult and hard to do. However, overcoming the discomfort makes you learn how to see alternative viewpoints and believe in them. If you do not fully believe what you are telling yourself (e.g. that your boss did not meet you at lunch because he was too busy, and not because he hates you), it makes it harder for you to attribute things positively in the future. It requires some determination and active thinking, but once you positively attribute something, it makes it easier to do again, and again. It makes the foggy lenses you have been viewing the world through clean so you can see life more clear (Sanger, 2011).

Stress[edit | edit source]

Stress is the response to highly demanding situations people experience when they lack the resources or skills necessary for the situation (Sapolsky, 2003). While it is the demands of our environment that contribute to a stress-related response, it is our appraisals of that environment that allows stress to be experienced/not experienced. Folkman and Moskowitz (2004), and Lazarus (1966) believe that humans have an evaluative component before stress occurs. However, sometimes our cognitive appraisals of life are not accurate and our feelings are disproportionate. Depending on your personal resources, social factors and the general happenings in our lives, appraisals of things become more or less negative/positive. A confident, financially stable and skilled man who has been retrenched, may see unemployment as an opportunity to spend more time with his family, start a new career, or even start a new business from home. On the other hand, his low skilled, low self-esteemed friend who also was retrenched may see unemployment as a significant setback in finances, identity and status (Allen, 2010).
Lazarus & Folkman 1984: Appraisal of adverse events
Lazarus & Folkman 1984: Appraisal of adverse events

Changing and being mindful of your negative attributions toward situations can helpful if you always feel stressed. Mindfulness is a good way to be aware of your cognitive processes. Once you are aware of them, you are able to change them for the better. If you are aware that you are feeling overwhelmed by your book chapter assignment and you can see that your appraisal of its existence is negative, you can change your thinking to be positive. This will not only decrease your stress levels but also increase your confidence and self-efficacy.

Stress help[edit | edit source]
Emotion focused coping strategies
Distraction: Engaging in a task other than the one that is causing stress (play computer games instead of writing your book chapter assignment)
Reframing: Reappraise the issue in a more positive way ("completing this book chapter assignment is character building and I will be more intelligent once I have completed it", as opposed to, "this book chapter assignment is just so comprehensive and I do not think I'm smart enough to complete it, so I'll just play computer games")
Social support: Discussing the issue with friends and family to get reassurance, help, and support (post to Moodle about the difficulties you are having with your book chapter and gain feedback and support from your peers)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter aimed to give readers the insight and tools in understanding how their appraisals of life can affect their emotional states. We have defined attributions and emotions, looked at the differing theories and causes of different attributions. Moreover, we have explored the effects depression and stress has on our perceptions and consequently how our perceptions then cause further distress.

For your information...

See also[edit | edit source]

Extrinsic Motivation 2013 Book Chapter

Intrinsic Motivation 2013 Book Chapter

Failure and Happiness 2013 Book Chapter

Actor Observer Bias PsychWiki

Self-Serving Bias PsychWiki

Self-Serving Bias Video

References[edit | edit source]

Allen, F. (2010). Health psychology and behaviour in Australia. North Ryde, NSW: McGraw-Hill.

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