Learning Lab

Sort Out Your Attitude…

Many years ago Epictetus said “We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them.” What he didn’t say, but is implied in the statement, is that we all differ in how we view events. It seems that our early experiences play a major role in shaping our attitudes so that optimists tend to ‘own’ good things that happen to them whilst at the same time distancing (or externalising) bad things. Pessimists do the opposite. At the extreme ends of the scale (depressives at the negative end, bankers perhaps at the other end) we often talk about serious cognitive biases that distort our worldview. The example I gave last time was that depressed individuals are more likely to remember negative memories than non-depressed (even when each group has had a similar number of negative events). They are also more likely to interpret ambiguous information in a negative way. In fact, we all have slight biases, which affect the way we behave – but given that we learn our attitudes, the really important bit is that we can re-learn and change how we see the world.

Early work in depression used blunt tools such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to try and promote ‘recovery.’ More recently a more specific and evidence-based tool has been used – repeated trans-magnetic stimulation (rTMS). This involves putting a small magnetic coil against the scalp and then administering repeated pulses of stimulation. The technique changes the excitability of the neurons within reach of the magnetic pulse – producing a transient influence on that part of the brain. Targeting the prefrontal cortex appears to help recovery in people with depression (Paus and Barrett, 2004). This area is the same one as I mentioned last time – the one that was abnormal in depressives, and lights up in healthy individuals when they make attributional judgements (Liljeholm et al., 2011).

So it appears the functioning of the PFC is important for attributions. Interestingly, mindfulness practice has been shown to shift the balance in PFC neural activity (Barnhofer et al., 2010). And it also promotes a healthy and balanced attributional style (and treats depression). Mindfulness is a process that enables an individual to acknowledge and analyse thoughts without being caught up in any emotional baggage that might be attached. A sort of non-evaluative way of seeing the world in the moment. Specifically, mindfulness practice increases left-sided PFC activity relative to the right – this is thought to promote an approach-oriented disposition (Barnhofer et al., 2010). In other words, when we have a healthy and positive state of mind (including a balanced attributional style) our left PFC increases its activity relative to the right and this makes us more likely to engage our goals, approach challenges and be generally more positive about the world.

Another way of bringing about a positive shift in our attributional styles is by using ‘attributional training’ – a technique developed through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Sometimes called the ABC approach, it focuses on the causes of our negative thinking and challenges that negativity. This challenge provides evidence that our thinking is unbalanced and helps to reset our attributional system. I won’t go into the details here as there are many resources on the web (see the reference section for some starters – though be aware that most resources were originally designed for depressed individuals).

Both mindfulness and attributional training can be hard work – you have to stick with them and build up a routine (remember routines!). But they are worth the commitment (use implementation intentions…)

Even though attributional training was developed for people with depression, it can be used by anyone (Seligman, 2006). In fact a couple of studies have demonstrated its enormous value in the workplace. The first study gave a group of long-term unemployed individuals 7 weeks of CBT (including attributional training) and then assessed them 4 months later. 34% of the CBT group had a full-time job at this point, compared to 13% of the controls (Proudfoot et al., 1997). The lesson? If you want to get a job, focus on changing the way you think. The second study went into a workplace and gave a group of employees a similar 7 week course. Afterwards, compared to controls, the CBT group had significantly improved their attributional styles and also reduced staff turnover (fewer had left), increased productivity and improved well-being (Proudfoot et al., 2009). The lesson? If you want to be happier and more productive in your job then change the way you think.

The prefrontal cortex may play an important role in helping you interpret events in the world around you. As the balance of activity shifts from right to left, you become more positive, approach-oriented and optimistic. You can achieve this shift either by standing very close to a magnet… or by taking charge of your brain and changing the way you think.

– Dr John –


Barnhofer T, Chittka T, Nightingale H, Visser C and Crane C (2010) State Effects of Two Forms of Meditation on Prefrontal EEG Asymmetry in Previously Depressed Individuals. Mindfulness 1:21–27

Liljeholm M, Tricomi E, O’Doherty JP and Balleine BW (2011) Neural Correlates of Instrumental Contingency Learning: Differential Effects of Action–Reward Conjunction and Disjunction. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(7) 2474 –2480

Paus T, Barrett J (2004) Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the human frontal cortex: implications for repetitive TMS treatment of depression. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 29(4):268-79.

Proudfoot J, Guest D, Carson J, Dunn G and Gray J (1997) Effect of cognitive-behavioural training on job-finding among long-term unemployed people. Lancet 350: 96–100

Proudfoot JG, Corr PJ, Guest DE and Dunn G (2009) Cognitive-behavioural training to change attributional style improves employee well-being, job satisfaction, productivity, and turnover. Personality and Individual Differences 46, 147–153

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