The wheels of our brain constantly turn, gobbling up data, evaluating its worth, and spitting out a reasonable, but subjective explanation. Its the way we make sense of the world, organize information, and predict consequences of possible action. How we explain, according to attribution theory, impacts how we feel. Scientists have discovered that we have distinct patterns of explanation that resiliently endure throughout our lives. Our pattern of explanation is our explanatory style; and our style determines emotional reactions to the good and bad events in our lives.
”There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”~William Shakespeare
Basically, its not the event that makes us happy or sad but our explanation of the event that is responsible for the emotion.
Our Need to Explain
T. Franklin Murphy wrote “we organize experience (with the associated thoughts, emotions and triggers) into a coherent story, tidying the chaos into usable and logical chunks. These self-created stories give events meaning, tying them to foundational beliefs about ourselves and the world. Memory stores emotions together with explanations to create a mental model so we can better navigate life. Squeezing meaning from the chaos is the essence of wisdom—or sometimes foolishness” (2016).
Our explanations are necessary. Without them, we would gain little wisdom from the joyous and painful experiences. When we attribute a cause (give an explanation), we create structure to seize upon similar joys and avoid similar pains.
Without attaching meaning to occurrences, life is just a confusing sludge of chaotic feelings. Once meanings are attached, we organize, draw wisdom, and better predict how to act in the future. Of course, meanings are subjective and often wrong. Errant predictions—prediction errors—based on explanations provide new information and the opportunity to update beliefs to reduce the discrepancy.
Life experience and genetics merge to create dispositional differences. Our unique combination colors our views in dazzling but different colors. Two people may experience the exact same event, yet draw opposite conclusions.
Experience is always seen from the backdrop of context; and context is always partially formed from personal histories. Our explanations are not completely random events. We adopt patterns of explanation. These patterns become our explanatory style. Our attributional and explanatory style, then, has a bearing on our “propensity towards optimism or pessimism and in turn, subsequent positive or negative mental states and outcomes (Houston, 2019).
Martin Seligman explains that “we develop habits of explanation which can be described as an explanation style” (2006). Our explanatory style can be optimistic or pessimistic. Depending on our style, our explanations can improve or derail our lives.
Three Dimensions of Explanation: Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization
Explanatory style research measures explanations on three dimensions. Researchers label individual styles as optimistic or pessimistic depending on the placement of an individual’s explanations on the continuum of these dimensions.
These measurements then can be used to determine associations between individual explanatory styles and other occurrences. Explanatory style has been associated with depression, resilience, healing from disease, relationship intimacy, and a long list of other successes, failures, and illnesses.
The three dimensions of explanatory style:
This dimension refers to the permanence or transience we give events in our explanations. We perceive an event as stable or unstable. A stable explanation views an event as part of a continuing problem.
For example a stable explanations:
- I always fail these tests
- I never can make the right decisions about investments
Examples of unstable explanations:
- I failed this test
- I blew this investment decision
“Always” and “never” statements signal stable explanations, expanding an event as a stable problem across time rather than a single occurrence that is now over.
Pervasiveness is the a global-specific dimension. A global explanation projects causes across multiple domains in our lives.
An example of a global explanation:
- I never do anything right.
- I have no will power
Examples of specific explanations:
- Math is difficult for me
- My will power to refrain from eating sweets is lacking
Global-specific explanations can be measured on a continuum. Specificity in the first example (math is difficult for me) can be even more specific. This chapter is difficult for me.
Personalization is an internal-external dimension, depending on if we attribute an event to something internal (personality, skill, character trait) or something outside of ourselves (contextual circumstance). Internal explanations are often termed personalizing. Our underlying self schema contributes to personalized explanations. We explain our involvement according to the preconceived notions we already hold about ourselves. T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “personalization also overgeneralizes events as personally relevant, taking unrealistic responsibility for outcomes beyond one’s control” (2021).
An example of internal explanations:
- I failed the test because I am stupid
- My spouse left me because I am lazy
Examples of external explanations:
- I failed the test because it was difficult
- My spouse left me because she fell in live with someone else
Pessimistic and Optimistic Explanatory Styles
The pessimist or optimist explain events differently across the three dimensions (permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization). When we refer to the pessimist or optimist, we are referring to a persons explanatory style.
Pessimistic Explanatory Style
Martin E. P. Seligman wrote, “the defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault” (2006). Defined in terms of the three dimensions, pessimists explain bad events in a stable, global and internal fashion. Yet, the pessimist tends to explain fortuitous events in unstable, specific, and external ways.
Research suggests that “explanatory style for good events is often independent of explanatory style for bad events” (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995). The pessimist’s explanation style serves a double whammy. They weaken the positive affect of ‘good events’ while magnifying the negative affect of ‘bad events’.
Houston wrote that the pessimists “personally blame themselves for bad events and perceive the root cause to be a fixed factor. When something good happens, they tend to attribute it to luck and see the cause as temporary” (2019).
Optimistic Explanatory Style
In terms of the three dimensions, optimistic people explain ‘bad events’ in unstable, specific, and external narratives while using explanations of stable, global, and internal traits for the positive events. Seligman wrote, “the optimist when confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to one case…(and) believe defeat is not their fault…” (2006).
Helplessness, Depression , and Explanatory Style
Early studies in helplessness explained a frightening phenomenon of the impact of uncontrollable events that had no evident escape routes. When people (or animals) suffered from traumatic events where their actions had no impact on the outcome, they often submitted, becoming hapless and hopeless victims.
Murphy wrote, “during the 1960’s, Martin Seligman stumbled upon a discovery that he referred to as ‘learned helplessness.’ He found that animals repeatedly exposed to inescapable shocks would eventually become passive, enduring future shocks without protest, even when an escape route was easily available” (2015).
Helplessness arises from events where we have little or no self efficacy on the outcome. In the specific circumstances of a particular event, we are helpless. Our explanation of this helplessness is very impactful. Do we see our helplessness as a passing state, specific to the current incident, and caused by something outside of ourselves? Or do we perceive our helplessness to be a state that will continue, apply to multiple domains, and be caused by an internal trait or characteristic?
Seligman wrote, “failure makes everyone at least momentarily helpless. It’s like a punch in the stomach. It hurts but he hurt goes away—for some people almost instantly” (Seligman, 2006).
Our Need For an Explanation
Yet, gratefully, scientists discovered that helplessness wasn’t inevitable. The original learned helplessness model failed to account for the range of reactions displayed by people when faced with uncontrollable circumstances. Many faced the events with resilience, adapting in healthy ways, rather than helplessly submitting to the shocks of life.
Buchanan and Seligman wrote:
The contrary findings could all be explained by proposing that when people encounter an uncontrollable event, they ask themselves why it happened. The nature of their answer—the causal explanation they entertain—sets the parameters for the helplessness that follows. If their causal attribution is stable, then induced helplessness is long lasting; if unstable, then it is transient. If their causal attribution is global, then subsequent helplessness is manifest across a variety of situations; if specific, then it is correspondingly circumscribed. Finally, if the causal attribution is internal, the individual’s self-esteem takes a tumble following uncontrollability; if external, self-esteem is left intact (1995).
According to the revised helplessness theory, then, “a negative explanatory or attributional style can, when combined with stressful life events, precipitate the development of depression (Johnson & Miller, 2019). A style that attributes negative events to internal, stable, and global causes, and positive events to external, unstable, and specific causes may contribute to depression.
Research supports this theory, linking explanatory style to depression. A 2015 meta analysis, involving 51,407 participants found that an “attribution style involving internal, stable, global and composite causes for negative outcomes was positively associated with depression” (Zhang, Hu, & Yang, 2015).
Seligman adds rumination to the mix. “Rumination combined with pessimistic explanatory style is the recipe for severe depression” (2006). A difficult event occurs, we view it from a stable, global, and personal perspective, and get caught in ruminations. This is a dangerous formulation. Our systems overwhelm and we depress.
The Sequence Leading to Depression
According to this theory, a particular sequence of events occur, leading to symptoms that parallel clinical depression.
- an individual encounters an uncontrollable event
- the individual perceives that their actions do not influence the event
- the individual creates a narrative for the cause of failure
- if the person explains the failure with a stable cause, they will expect the future to continue to be uncontrollable
- this expectancy produces a sense of helplessness (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).
We must not commit the all-or-nothing cognitive error of jumping from a mere association between explanatory style and depression to a belief that a negative (pessimistic) explanatory style is solely responsible for depression.
Two major influencing causes, more so than a person’s explanation style, are genetic predispositions for depression and actual life circumstances.
Genetic predispositions for depression create vulnerability. According to the diathesis–stress model if the combination of the predisposition and the stress exceeds a threshold, the person will develop a disorder (depression). Selye’s general adaptation theory explains that “excessive stress occurs when the demands made on an organism exceed that organism’s reasonable capacities to fulfill them” (Maté, 2011, Kindle location 575). When excessive stress continues over time, the physical and psychological processes of adaptation begin to faulter.
Selye theorized that “the body has a limited supply of adaptive energy with which to deal with stress and that this amount declines with continuous exposure.” He explains that “when there has been trauma, stress levels are chronically high and the body loses its capacity to adapt or recover, leading to adrenal fatigue and exhaustion” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle location 1,768).
Life and Stress
Life events create stress. “There is a substantial body of literature indicating that the actual life circumstances of depressed individuals are more negative than those of nondepressed people” (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).
In a complex and cruel irony of life, depression creates a reciprocal interaction with experience. Once depressive symptoms take hold, the organism reacts in ways that invites more negative events. The depressed person pulls back. Life feels threatening so they limit engagement. Their limited engagement creates more vulnerability and less resources for managing life stresses. Behavior activation theory suggests we recover by fighting against the urge to pulling back through purposeful action.
The point is that depression is the result of negative life events and personal resources to adaptively respond. When our capacity is overwhelmed by life demands, depression ensues.
No matter what our explanatory style may be, life events can overwhelm our capacity, exhausting our bodies and minds, creating vulnerability for disease and maladaptive responses.
Why Does Our Explanatory Style Matter?
Explanatory style matters because life events are subjective. Our explanatory style can strengthen or weaken the impact of a negative event. A healthy explanatory style can also enhance coping skills to effectively mediate traumatic events. Buchanan and Seligman put it this way, “the less negative a person’s cognitive style, the more negative an event needs to be in order to interact with that style and contribute to the formation of symptoms” (1995).
Feeling affects may occur before any cognitions take place. We often group feeling affects together with emotions. However, emotions are much more complex of construction. Life events trigger bodily changes, perhaps, enhanced by subjective interpretation based on past experiences, other times biologically independent of cognitions. Our body system readiness states change, preparing us physically to respond.
Gary James of Birmingham University explains that our body systems homeostatic balances fluctuate “to adapt the individual to ever-changing circumstances such that there is a connection between external conditions and the body’s ability to meet the demands imposed by them…” (2020). These fluctuations create a feeling affect. The feeling affect, together with the contextual surrounding, may be fodder for further cognitive explorations, and explanations.
Zlatan Krizan and Garret Hisler wrote that “once in the focus of executive attention, immediate affective reactions may develop into more full blown emotions because they are endowed with a richer set of cognitions generated by attribution and appraisal processes” (2017).
Our explanatory style may keep otherwise overwhelming events within our capacity to adapt and recover. As Houston explains, “individuals with pessimistic explanatory styles are more likely to experience pervasive and chronic symptoms of helplessness when faced with uncontrollable negative events. Maladaptive thought patterns can fuel issues such as depression by creating a cycle of negative thought that perpetuates the problem” (2019).
Defense Mechanisms, Explanatory Style, and Depressio
Defense mechanisms act independent of explanatory theory. An interesting study in 2000, found that mature defense mechanisms help mitigate the impact of negative attribution styles in the development of depression. The study also found that optimistic attributions styles mitigated the negative impact of immature defenses (Kwon & Lemon).
Explanatory Style of Positive Events and Resilience
While optimistic explanatory styles (positive attributional styles) see negative events as transient, specific, and caused by outside forces, they explain positive events the opposite. Positive events are seen as stable, global, and internal, meaning they will last a long time, apply to a wide range of circumstances, and are caused by personal attributes.
Example of Optimistic View of Positive Life Events
An example of a stable, global, and internal attribution to scoring high marks on a midterm in mathematics would generate thoughts such as these:
- I am going to get all A’s from here on in.
- I am going to get good grades in all my classes this semester
- I am intelligent
We can easily see how these attributional explanations provide an emotional boost. Much more positivity flows from these generous explanations than from a more cautious approach of transient, specific, and external explanations.
- I got lucky, next test is going to bring my score average back down.
- Wow, I did well on this test.
- The teacher gave us an easy test this time.
Research has shown that there is not a strong association between attribution style for positive events and the onset of depression. Our explanation of negative life events is much more involved.
The optimistic view (stable, global, and internal) of positive events, however, has been linked to recovery from and resilience to depression. “Attributional style and the occurrence of positive events predicted decreases in symptoms of depression as well as decreases in hopelessness” (Fresco, Alloy, & Reilly–Harrington, 2006).
What is the “Right” Explanatory Style?
We often slip into “right” and “wrong” judgments when faced with opposing traits or characteristics. Explanatory styles presents the same trap. We want to draw from these studies the best explanatory style to adopt for wellness. However, there is no universally best explanatory style that applies to all situations.
The best explanatory style is context dependent. Many narcissistic demagogues subscribe to an optimistic explanatory style as they destroy the life of others. They would do well to explain life events with a more realistic optimism, personalizing some of their harmful behaviors so they can be addressed and improved. Some overly positive views miss significant facts that can be useful for improving futures.
Studies on depressive realism found that non-depressed individuals distort information and the depressed see the world more accurately. Research findings suggest that “non-depressed individuals exhibit a systematic tendency to make more internal, stable, and global attributions for positive events than for negative events, often referred to as a ‘self-serving’ bias… In contrast, depressed individuals are more even handed (similar) in their attributions for positive and negative events” (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).
Which way is the best? Well, that would depend on the context. The ultimate measure is the adaptiveness of our explanation to mitigate stress while continuing to motivate action towards healthy goal fulfillment.
If our optimistic explanation style, makes us feel good sitting on the sofa, letting life pass us by, achieving little, and hurting others, perhaps, then, we could use a little more realism.
Changing Explanatory Styles
If our default explanatory styles are not working for us, we can change them. Seligman said, “helplessness can be learned therefore it can be unlearned” (2006). ”Seligman proposed that the explanatory style theory of optimism provides pessimistic people with an avenue to alter their pessimistic thinking patterns to be more optimistic, thus fostering mastery and resilience” (2019).
Those who do not believe change is possible (helplessness) create a self fulfilling prophesy. They will remain in capable of change.
Habits of explanation begin early in our lives and operate unconsciously, tainting everything we encounter. Before we can change, we must dredge up these automatic programs, exposing them to the light of consciousness, and them challenging their accuracy. The basic concepts of cognitive behavior therapy are a suggested method for changing explanatory styles.
We must recognize automatic thoughts before we can work with them. Many automatic thoughts can be expressed in quick phrase or sentences. These cognitive heuristics efficiently give meaning to new events.
Lets take, for example, a belief such as, “if I fail, I’m stupid.” This belief is stable, global, and personal. Therefore, any failure filtered through this belief creates a pessimistic explanation, leading to the demoralizing and shameful conclusion that “I’m stupid.”
The underlying program or rule is not seen. All we experience is the sense of stupidity for failure.
Any real change requires discovery of these unwritten silent rules working beneath awareness. Once we discover the rule, we can dispute it.
Leslie S. Greenberg, PhD, a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada teaches therapists that “the first step involves working with the person to identify negative, hopelessness-inducing thoughts and beliefs and to help the person experience his or her sense of agency in the production of the experience of hopelessness” (2015, Kindle location 3,172).
Many of our automatic thoughts have no claim to reality. We pick up beliefs from society and personal interactions, integrating the foundational explanations into the unseen world of our minds. Consequently, these basic judgements become the invisible masters of what we think and how we feel. However, once we recognize their existence, we can go to work, applying concepts of logic to dispute their validity, and transform the beliefs into something that better serves our lives.
We can dispute rascal and detrimental thoughts in a number of ways:
A Few Final Words on Explanatory Style
The theory of explanatory styles has some usefulness as we struggle to understand our subjective interpretations. We can mediate these beliefs and transform some of our emotional reactions.
“Learned optimism works not through an unjustified positivity about the world but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.”~Martin Seligman
I believe life is much more complicated than a linear set of events, moving from an experience, to a cognition, and landing at an emotion. We bounce back and forth, once an outside event begins the movement. Feeling affects, cognitions, and emotions constantly interacting, impacting each other, and impacting the surrounding environment. Explanatory style may play a role in this dynamic interplay of events many times before the concluding scene.
In preparation for writing this article, reading through Martin Seligman’s books, I found limited mention of the role of genetics in emotion. Perhaps, Seligman purposely avoided the discussion of biological underpinnings of emotion because our genetic profile is the ultimate stable, global, personal explanation for emotion.
Explanatory style has a place in psychology. It is a staple concept of positive psychology, and the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy.
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