In the previous episode of our series, we have dealt with the theory of learned helplessness, that is, the phenomenon which makes people - who have sometimes previously experienced uncontrollability in a situation - tend to fall into passivity and resignation. Causal attributions play an essential role in this process as well as in the development of emotions. Being so, in the case of personally significant events, people ask themselves the question, why they occurred and, accordingly, they make so-called causal attributes – (Heider.1977; Forsterling & Stiensmeier-Pelster, 1994). These, on one hand, depending on the actual external circumstances, but on the other hand, they also depend on personal factors, such as self-concept of a person’s capability and ability to vary on different dimensions.
This allows a person to search for the origin of an experienced success or a failure, taking in consideration, for example, internal factors such as one's ability, willingness to perform, effort, etc., or external factors like luck, working conditions or whether a task may have been to difficulty. In addition, these causes can be either stable or variable. Stable causes can be, for example, the skills of the learner and the difficulty of a task. Of course, skills can be fundamentally boosted by training, but during a concrete event that leads to success or failure, usually, they don't change. The situation is different with variable causes, such as the invested effort, luck or misfortune. These can also easily change, even during a short period of time. A third relevant dimension, which has already been explained in connection with the theory of learned helplessness, is the fact whether a cause was perceived as controllable or uncontrollable. In the context of a current task processing, skills may only change slightly. In this respect, they are stable and currently cannot be controlled by the individual. The effort, on the other hand, is controllable by the individual. One can intensify efforts while processing a task, subside in its efforts, or stop processing completely. The difficulty of a task is stable, since a task always makes the same demands at different times and is not controllable by the individual. Luck and misfortune are alternating, and they are also not controllable by the individual.
From the three described dimensions (external, stable/variable, controllable/uncontrollable), Weiner (1979) has developed a differentiated categorization system of subjectively perceived causes to explain success or failure in performance situations. Depending on where a causal attribution can be found within this system, different behaviors and emotions are to be expected. It is particularly hindering for further success if a person in case of success assumes, that his or her achievements were based on external, variable and uncontrollable causes ("I was lucky"), whereas he or she looks for the causes of failure in internal, stable and uncontrollable causes ("I just don't have enough talent"). Both mindsets will usually be associated with unpleasant emotions such as shame and will not motivate the person concerned to actively contribute to the repetition of their success, but instead, it would contribute to avoiding another failure. Being so, this could also serve as a good starting point for breaking down your own maladaptive patterns. For example, it may be worthwhile to look for variable, controllable causes if you want to change. In doing so, it should never be forgotten that we also have a long learning history in our luggage in terms of cause attributions for success and failure. We must be aware that patterns may have been created that can prevent us from making the most of our potential.
Forsterling, F. & Stiensmeier-Pelster, J. (Ed.) Attribution theory. Göttingen: Hogrefe.