Negative attribution style, also known as pessimistic explanatory style, refers to the way we explain positive and negative events. The term negative attribution style originated with from research by Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale (1978) arguing that a person’s way of attributing negative outcomes – to internal, stable and global causes – would be associated with depression.
Attribution styles, often referred to as explanatory style in psychological literature, is a foundational concept for many cognitive behavioral therapies. The idea is based on the theory that we subjectively interpret experience and those interpretations impact our emotions, moods, and mental health.
Attribution (Explanatory) Style
Martin E. P. Seligman explains, “there are three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization” (2006). We subjectively interpret events as permanent or passing, pervasive or limited, and internal or external. These interpretations determine how the event will impact our psyche.
Attributional style refers to the way individuals evaluate them selves in circumstances in both positive and negative life experiences.
Seligman categorized two styles. The pessimistic (or negative attribution style) and the optimistic style.
Pessimistic (Negative) Attribution Style
The pessimistic style interprets negative life events in stable, pervasive and personalized terms. Or in other words, they see negative events as likely to continue, impacting many areas of their lives, and caused by internal characteristics.
When not hired for a job applied for, the person with a negative attributional style will believe they will never be hired by anyone (permanent), they are a failure in life (pervasive), and they lack the character traits that employers desire (personalized).
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). The negative cognitive style may interpret fortuitous events differently, in an unstable, specific, and external way.
Research suggests that “explanatory style for good events is often independent of explanatory style for bad events” (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995). T. Franklin Murphy wrote that “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'” (2022).
Elaine 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 Attribution Style
The optimistic explanation style to negative events perceives bad life events in temporary, limited, and external terms.
The same negative event of being passed over for a job would be seen from a different angle. The optimist would explain this life quite differently. They would believe they would get the next job they applied for (passing), that being passed over for the job doesn’t impact the many other areas in life that they succeed at (limited), and that the person conducting the interview must be biased (external cause).
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).
Negative Attribution Style and Depression
Saylik and Szameitat wrote “a negative attributional style is one of the main precipitating factors of psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.” They continue, “individuals with a stable negative (likely to persist over time), global (persists throughout life) or internal (the cause of the negative events are internal) attributional style burden themselves with blame and negative expectations.” (2018).
According to the theory, interpretations of current and past events in terms of any of the three components of a negative attributional style (stable, global, and internal) influence expectations for future events and, subsequently, lead to feelings of helplessness and suppress behaviors to improve their situation.
According to Abramson, Metalsky, and Alloy (1989), people that view negative life events through a negative cognition style (negative attribution style) and dysfunctional attitudes are at greater risk for depression.
Research supporting this theory over the past thirty years is mixed.
Negative Life Events
The negative attribution style must be evaluated in relation to the diathesis stress model. Accordingly, the diathesis–stress model theorizes that if the combination of the predisposition and the stress exceeds a threshold (window of tolerance), the person may develop a disorder. Notably, neither theory suggests that depression occurs without first the occurrence of stressful life events. In other words, those that encounter more stressful events are more likely to suffer from depression.
Our attribution style diminishes or magnifies the stress of an event. However, if an event or a series of events is sufficiently overwhelming, exceeding personal resources to process it, depression is still a possible response. Evidently, hopelessness and depression occur more often among cognitively vulnerable people when confronted with negative events. People who do not exhibit a negative cognitive diatheses also may develop hopelessness and depression, however, the events typically must be of greater magnitude to reach their threshold (Buchanan & Seligman,1995, page 118).
Examples of a Negative Attribution Style
- I will never feel better
- This will never change
- I’ll always struggle to survive
(‘Always’ and ‘never’ flag permeance)
- I never can do anything right
- Everybody hates me
- I fail at everything
(‘Any’ or ‘very’ flag pervasive attributions)
- I’m stupid
- I can’t make friends
- I have no skills
(Self-labels describing character rather than an isolated behavior flag personalized attributions)
A Few Words from Psychology Fanatic
The way we experience life and our explanation of events is very subjective. While, certainly, explanations are influenced by present feeling states, but it stands to reason that feeling states are also influence by subjective interpretations.
We have little or no immediate control of those immediate feeling affects, however, our interpretations occur over time. However, our explanation are subject to examination, influence, and adjustment through cognitive reappraisals. In conclusion, reappraisals have the power to influence future feeling reactions to new events. Therefore, we should refine and improve our appraisals.
Abramson, L., Metalsky, G., & Alloy, L. (1989). Hopelessness Depression: A Theory-Based Subtype of Depression. Psychological Review, 96(2), 358-372.
Abramson, L., Seligman, M., & Teasdale, J. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49-74.
Buchanan, G., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). Explanatory Style. Hills dale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Houston, Elaine (2019) What Are Attributional and Explanatory Styles in Psychology? Positive Psychology. Published 3-11-2019 Accessed 4-22-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022) Explanatory Style. Psychology Fanatic. Published 3-21-2022. Accessed 4-23-2022
Saylik, R., Szameitat, A. (2018). The Association Between Negative Attributional Style and Working Memory Performance. The Open Psychology Journal
Seligman, Martin, E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage; Reprint edition