Attributions: Explaining Our Own Behavior

November 27, 2009


In this video, I discuss an attribution process we use to explain our own behavior. This is an abbreviated version of explanatory style that I got from Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, which I recommend highly.

When we look to explain our own behavior, once again we try to determine if it was something internal – e.g. personality, attitude, values – or something external – e.g. process, training, staffing – that caused our behavior.  We also try to determine if that cause is stable (it will always be that way) or unstable (it is subject to change).  


For example, if I have a success, and I explain that success as something about me (my skill), and I think that explanation is stable (I am always going to be skilled), then I will probably feel pretty good about myself.  And if I have a failure, and I explain that failure as something about me (I don’t have what it takes) and stable (I will never have what it takes), then I am likely to feel pretty bad and possibly even depressed. 

Seligman suggests that we can learn to be more optimistic by changing how we explain the things that happen to us.  If you or anyone you know have ever suffered from depression, I would recommend taking a look at Seligman’s book Learned Optimism.

As a final example, let’s say I had a failure, and I reach the conclusion that there were things outside of my control (e.g. processes, policies, procedures) that played a big part in my failure, and those are potentially subject to change.  Now instead of being depressed I can feel optimistic and hopeful.

Does this suggest that we should never accept responsibility for our failures?  NO! 

Recall that if you have an internal locus of control (LOC), you inheriently want to assume responsibility for the things that happen to you and take action to affect your future outcomes.  So people with an internal LOC can see the systemic causes of their behavior, but they assume responsibility for taking action to change those causes so they don’t experience the same failure over and over again.  They don’t dump on their leaders (this sucks and so do you!); instead, they partner with them to fix the crappy system.

In my final article in this series on attribution, I’ll give you my two-cents worth on how to deal with the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias, so stay tuned!

Related Posts:

Attributions: A Method to Explain the Behavior We Observe in Others

Attributions: The Fundamental Attribution Error and The Self-Serving Bias

Attributions: An Introduction

Attributions: Let’s Talk First About Locus of Control

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Comments (4)

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  1. Ilango says:

    Hi Bret,
    I got to tell you are so clear and concise when you are explaining things. This video is one such example. I am glad I have taken organizational behavior in my first semester. I am learning and will continue to learn by listening to motivational speakers like you. Thanks

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Ilango,and thanks for the kind words! Bret

  2. Tracey says:

    Hi Bret,

    I love your attribution series. However, I find myself a bit distracted by the beautiful backgrounds in your videos! It makes me want to be outside when I am committed to be inside!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Tracey! I hope you found the information helpful. Attribution is a powerful concept, but the biases are powerful and difficult to overcome. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret