Learning Lab

The world is an illusion – use it to your advantage!

This month we are looking at attributional style, sometimes called explanatory style, and started life as something called locus of control. Essentially, they are all the same thing and relate to our outlook on life – whether we are optimistic, pessimistic and how we see the world. Here’s an example to illustrate.

Imagine two people (Ophelia and Percy) have both written a report (for arguments sake, we’ll imagine they’ve written an identical report), they both receive the same feedback “well done – some interesting ideas.” Ophelia feels supported and rewarded. Her work was ‘well done’ and also her boss thought that she had come up with interesting ideas – perhaps something she can develop further. Percy wrote an identical report and got identical feedback. However, he is furious – after all the time he put in, his boss felt his work was only worthy of 5 words of feedback! ‘Well done’ is clearly faint praise. And saying something is ‘interesting’ is clearly a euphemism for rubbish! So, whilst Ophelia sits back smiling over her job well done, Percy is in the darkest depths composing a resignation letter in his head.

The point is nicely made by 1st century Greek philosopher Epictetus: “We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them.” In other words – it is all in our heads. Optimistic Ophelia interpreted the feedback as positive; Pessimistic Percy saw it negatively. The same event, different world view.

An important part of the brain’s job is to monitor things that are happening around us and to make a judgement – did that thing just happen because of something I did, or was it out of my control? Brain imaging studies have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC) is implicated in making attributional judgements (Liljeholm et al., 2011). Interestingly, this area is abnormal in people with depression and becomes ‘normalized’ as individuals recover (Goldapple et al., 2004). So why would an area of the brain be important for depression, but also important to how we interpret the world around us? Basically, depression makes us think differently. Or perhaps, thinking in a certain way can contribute to a person becoming depressed.

One way depressed individuals think differently is that they show negative cognitive biases – they recall more negative life memories than non-depressed individuals do (even when they have had the same amount of negative life events). In other words, depressed individuals appear to be biased to thinking with a negative style. Even when they experience a positive and rewarding event, they interpret (and remember) it as a negative one (as with Percy above). Depressed individuals get better, and when they do, often their attributional style mirrors this (Haeffel and Vargas, 2011). In fact, an effective form of counselling – cognitive behavioural therapy – uses an attributional re-training tool to successfully treat depression. This is empowering – it tells us that we can change the way we think and feel better about it in the process. (And change our brains for the better!)

How does this all work?

Research has shown that optimists and pessimists categorise events differently. When something good happens to an optimist (positive feedback on a talk) they see it as internal (I did it), stable (I am usually good at this) and global (I am generally good), whereas a pessimist sees it as external (it was luck, not me), transient (it won’t happen again), and specific (I may have done well here, but I don’t do well generally). The opposite is true for negative events (e.g. optimists externalise bad events – ‘it wasn’t my fault!’). Attributional re-training shifts the balance of these biases – it uses a person’s experience as evidence to help them question their interpretations and find alternative (more healthy) ways of seeing the world (Seligman, 2006).

So where does that leave us? Well, optimists have a positively biased view of the world (the future will be bright, I am in control of my life, I can achieve my goals if I try hard) and this drives their thoughts, well-being and behaviour. But just as optimists can be accused of seeing the world through rose-tinted spectacles, pessimists see the world through gloom-tinted goggles. Ultimately, everyone is a little biased in their thinking either to the positive side, or the negative side. Too much of either can be bad (depression vs mania!).

But one final question – what if I am happy being a pessimist? What if I’d rather stay grumpy and negative about the world and my place in it? Well, that’s absolutely fine – choosing to change has to come from within or else it is doomed to failure. From an adaptive perspective, optimism probably evolved to increase the likelihood of individuals ‘giving things a try.’ For example, I am a prehistoric man sitting in a cold cave. It’s raining outside and I am hungry. The fire has gone out. Pessimistic me will say ‘it is too wet and dangerous outside, we should huddle together to keep warm and hope that the rain stops and it warms up soon.’ I won’t do anything and hope that something (beyond my control) saves the day. Optimistic me on the other hand will say ‘I bet I can find some dry wood somewhere out there. If I take my spear I may even catch something to eat. Let’s not be kowtowed by a bit of rain, let’s get out there and see what we can find.’ I will take matters into my own hands and believe I will be successful – I will disappear out through the dark grey veil of rain… Who knows which one strategy would have been the successful one – but it is the belief to give it a go and take control that drives the proactive behaviour of the optimist.

Ultimately, the way we interpret the world will affect how we interact in it. Life is not something that happens to us, it is what we do with it. The critical question for you to ask is: How would a change in the way I think affect myself and my business? It’s also worth asking whether you react defensively in certain situations (I am not good at this, I am generally not good, when things go wrong it is usually my fault) and if so, why?

Next time I’ll talk a bit more about how psychologists, clinician’s and neuroscientists have tried to help people change their thinking styles.

– Dr John –


Goldapple K, Segal Z, Garson C, Lau M, Bieling P, Kennedy S, and Mayberg H (2004) Modulation of Cortical-Limbic Pathways in Major Depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 61, 34-41

Haeffel GJ and Vargas I (2011) Resilience to depressive symptoms: The buffering effects of enhancing cognitive style and positive life events. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 42, (1) 13–18

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

Seligman MEP (2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books

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