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The Search For Attributions

The social psychology theory known as Attribution Theory was developed by Bernard Weiner, around 1980. I got to take a graduate class from Dr. Weiner several years after that. He was good-natured and unpretentious, and I enjoyed the class, which covered his own Attribution Theory, and other related topics.

I like this theory so much, because it is intuitive, and is very applicable to real world situations. When I was first delving into social psychology, something I had never studied as an undergraduate, and I was learning about all these theories, one of my professors ruefully admitted that “these are never really replicated outside of the lab.” They do not provide sure-fire or shortcut guides to understanding behavior. And they usually relate to perceptual and subjective matters, not subject to rigorous scientific validation. But the best theories, like Cognitive Dissonance, and Attribution Theory, are insightful, and have import.

The basic concept of Attribution Theory is that attributions that people make as to the reasons for something happening, will have a great influence on how they will approach future situations. Attributions, in this context, are simply the cause that we attribute to a result; the “why did this happen?” that humans are always trying to discern.

I believe that Dr. Weiner briefly said that the two parts of the newspaper where you most see attributions, are the stock market pages, and the sports pages. We know how the network and sites which closely follow the stock market, seem compelled to provide “a reason” for why the market went up or down. And sometimes there well may be that reason, but there usually are other reasons, too.

But we hear that “the market went up today, on hopes of a business acquisition.” But then if the market goes down the next day, we are told that there was a new matter that caused the decline. Or the old, “Buy the rumor, sell the news,” which says that the market goes up on rumors ; and then when the deal or merger does happen, they have already priced it in, so it goes down again. Or–and this is the most obvious, but rarely gets the headlines–sometimes billion dollar hedge funds buy stocks, they go up, and then they sell them back at a quick profit, and they go down. Thus the traders make the movement, not the events that the trades are attributed to.

Those of us who follow sports are always hearing players or coaches make attributions to preparation or attitude after a win. “We approached this game differently, we told each player to take the responsibility; we told them that this was a clean slate, a new start.” It sounds great, but often the team loses the game after that; what happened to the new resolve? It may well be that after the fact–the big win–the coaches and players want to make an attribution to how they practiced, what was said in the locker room, but that was basically the wish to believe that the approach led to the different level of performance., because they won this game.

Sometimes, a team’s ups and downs, or the stock market gyrations, can be looked at as “regression to the mean,’ where an undue up or down is often followed by a result closer to the established mean, assuming there is one. That sort of goes along with “the law of averages.” If there is a baseball player whose batting average over the last five seasons is always within a few points of.280, and then he starts the first half of the next season batting .320, he is likely to slump a bit and end up close to his mean. It does not always happen, but it often does. And all the other attributions as to why he went up, and now down, might really just be overreactions, the human need to find reasons for everything.

Here is a social example of where Attribution Theory is significant, and you can see the impact of attributions. I hope that no one will somehow be offended by the example; one has to be careful these days. Imagine that a man meets a woman, in some fashion, and he thinks she is attractive, and wants to ask her out on a date. So he calls her up, and asks if she would like to have dinner with him on Friday. And she says, “I can’t on Friday, but thank you for asking.’

So what does he make of that? What does he attribute her “no” to? Maybe she has a date with someone else. Maybe it is a casual date, or maybe an ongoing relationship. Maybe she is involved with someone. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to go out with our protagonist. He could ask about such things, but that is very awkward and ego-risking. So he thinks about whether he should ask her out the next week. Or whether he should wait a few weeks, so as not to appear overeager. Or whether he should just give up on going out with her. Or maybe he is wildly hypothesizing, and he should not make much of her declining his invitation.

The attributions he makes are crucial as to how he proceeds. But there is a deeper level. What if he decides that she doesn’t find him attractive ‘in that way.” And he worries that maybe this is an ongoing issue. Maybe this will keep happening. So maybe he will decide to not ask any more women on dates. That seems extreme, but it can occur, depending on the attributions he makes. Is her “no ” only specific to her, or is it more generic? And his sense of self-esteem, and past occurrences before going into this interaction, are obviously important factors as to how much he might generalize from this one situation.

Now, hopefully most people have enough self-confidence to take a “no” as not being a general indictment of them. But it can happen. Not just with dates, but with job interviews which do not result in an offer; or a couple of auditions which result in, “Next!” Or a book or song you write which does not sell like you had hoped. Do you attribute such disappointments to “one of those things,” or, “tastes will vary,” or do you at some point decide that ‘it’s not them, it’s you,”; or at least that what you are offering, is not what the public wants?

Going back to the dating example, what if a friend of this man hears about this, and he tells him that he had also asked her out, and she turned him down; and he knows three other men in the office department (or school, or political group) who asked her out, too, and she did not go out with any of them, either That would be apt to make the protagonist feel better about himself. But what if his friend just made that up, to try to help him to feel better? Was that a good or bad thing he did?

When I took this class, Attribution Theory had just been developed, so there was not much in the way of practical examples. There was a story about how some prestigious academic university back East, had tried something involving first-year students whose grades were below average. A group of them were then required to attend an event where people came in, said that they were upperclassmen, and that they also had done poorly their first year, but they had learned from that, developed better study habits, and then made Honor Roll after that. “You can do it, too!” And supposedly this group of first-year students did better the next year than those which had no such intervention. But the presenters were not what they described themselves to be; they were students there, but they had not done poorly the first year, as they had pretended for the desired effect.

Then I read that maybe this was an apocryphal story. Or maybe it is true, but their improvement could be attributed to the so-called “Hawthorne Effect,” where just the fact that someone showed an interest in helping them, improved their performance. But whatever the case, it does highlight the interest in learning whether changing people’s negative attributions might cause them to have more optimism and confidence, which by itself could lead to better results. And if so, is this a good thing, if the person or group dedicated to changing your attributions is making up facts?

I think that it is a very compelling subject. The attributions we make come from various sources. Our self esteem. Our past experiences . What other people have told us about ourselves. What our parents have told us. We rarely know exactly why something happened, and of course there may be more than one reason, intertwined with others What we take from it, may be more crucial to us than the actual fact of an event.

The media thrives on making attributions. “This happened because.” Someone lost an election. A party lost a number of elections. There are people from Mexico coming up to the border. Gas prices are higher. There are demonstrations. Someone’s poll numbers are going up or down. Economic numbers are moving. So they say that it is because of this or that. Who gave the media the power to make attributions? No one, but they are the media, we watch their stations, and they feel compelled to make them.

People in their daily life make attributions all the time with regard to a variety of things. The media makes them every day, as well, but theirs are directed outward, to other people. I do not have the sense that media reporters and executives are scrupulous in doing this, they seem to think that they have carte blanche, and that they are almost required to toss in their attributions, which are of course not stated to be such, but are often presented as truths.

And the general attributions made by media types can take hold, almost become accepted wisdom. They become cornerstones which other related attributions are built upon. “This public official is doing the same kind of thing he did before, showing the same stubbornness,” or ” he exhibits the same inability to make a clear decision.” It becomes a theme, simply based upon media’s original attributions as why some person or political party chose this or that course of action. and then their eagerness to validate their original assessment.

The media is not composed of brilliant analytical minds. And even the most brilliant analysts will vary in their insights and attributions as to why something was said, or something happened. But the media are the conduit for attributions.

Imagine if there were some outside figure, or Greek Chorus, which would always interpret events for you, tell you why they happened. In the Greek plays, the chorus usually seems to be the voice of wisdom. But that is a literary device.

We are having attributions provided for us by the entities whose original job was to cover and describe events. Reporting and commentary now merge. Some people ignore this, and are capable of making up their own minds; others want to be told what attributions to make. And we should never forget that the vast empire of right wing media is always ready, often ahead of the fact, to provide their own attributions, often known as “spin,’ but nonetheless powerful in shaping the reactions they are trying to obtain.

It is something to think about, the next time you hear someone making attributions as to what caused a particular event for you, or in the society at large. They may be true, or partially true, one of several causes. They may be inaccurate, based on incomplete facts. They could be the result of preconceived biases, or reflexive reactions. They may just be the most facile responses, the ones that we are most comfortable with relying on in when we are searching for explanations. Realizing that they are just attributions, maybe insightful, maybe not, but not validated truths, is important to at least keep in mind.

To unfortunately end on a darker note, every time there is a mass shooting, there is the search for attribution of cause, called “motive.” Not to necessarily imply that it is a rational motive, but to try to find out, “Why?” The media usually drops this topic within a few days, they have other stories to cover; but they certainly dwell on it right after the event.

Sometimes I think that looking for a motive for these events is some kind of collective quest for sanity. As if, if we could only find a proximate cause, attribute it to drink or drugs or stress at work, or a violent political group, we would gain some kind of understanding which would not frighten us so much To consider that this is simply part of a societal sickness in America: no rhyme nor reason, outside of the perpetrator’s head, and the gun, and the people to shoot at; that there is no understanding, just the horror of it, and the likelihood that different but identical people, each with their own psyches and stories, will repeat it, would evoke the line from “King Lear.” “That way madness lies.” So people seek for attributions, instead.

2 Responses

  1. Truthful attributions can be used to cover up a lie. The media and Progressive Politicians prefer focusing on younger people because if they win them over, they have their support for the next 30 years. Just as I recall you once mentioning that promises made to the Union you belong to need to kept, promises made to our Seniors should not be shunted aside so their resources can be migrated over to Immigration issues. Once this truth is buried, Progressives look like the Good guys and everyone else needs to be “enlightened” to their way of thinking. My Mother was medically abused in front of my eyes in California Democrat Centric ER. Turns out the ER did not like older patients because it is more difficult to scam Medicare than it is to scam someone pre-medicare whose doctor is “out of network” and therefore the ER can charge obscenely high rates for their ER related services. The ER set in motion my Mother’s death because she was not a financially viable patient even though she had both Medicare and MediCAID. The California Healthcare Unions supported Keeping Med Mal at a 250,000 dollar cap, the LOWEST in the entire country, because it means less lawsuits. Teachers Union, ER, Doctors, all supported killing a Proposition that was going to raise med mal caps using inflation to determine a new figure after 35 years of no change. The 250,000 med mal cap basically ensures that no Senior is safe in a California ER. California Dems, they’re the good guys? They’ve been in charge in California for the past 30 years.

    • I am certainly sorry about your mother. I don’t think I ever wrote anything about keeping promises to unions, ,maybe that was someone else. I personally think that the Medical Malpractice caps should be higher. I don’t know that it was the unions who were the biggest opponents to raising it, I think the insurance companies were a major factor, but I am not intimately aware of where the money came from for the anti- campaign.

      Republican George Deukmajian was governor of California from 1983-1991. Republican Pete Wilson was governor from 1991-1999. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor from 2003-2011. All were strongly supported by business, and the insurance lobby. In fact, Schwarzenegger’s major campaign issue was changing Workers’ Compensation law to cap case recoveries, medical costs,, and rehabilitation to new jobs for injured workers.

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