Attributing the cause of our own outcomes

We can also see how this might be applied to academic settings. If a student fails an important test, they might simply attribute it to a one-off, a low grade that will be improved upon next time because they'll work harder and make sure they understand what is required. On the other hand, our student might attribute failure to lack of intelligence (something they view as internal and stable, that is, something about them they cannot change). If previous attempts to complete the task have also been unsuccessful, our student might assume that any future attempt will also lead to disappointment. These beliefs then impact behaviour - motivation and confidence fall.

Control (our ability to employ adaptive attributions) can be seen as a link between academic buoyancy and academic achievement. Academically buoyant students are more likely to hold an adaptive attributional style, in that they feel able to change their behaviour and elicit success even after a setback. This is often referred to an optimistic attributional style but it is probably closer to a realistic attributional approach. Rather than attributing failure to lack of intelligence (an internal attribution), they would be more likely to attribute it to lack of effort (which is external and unstable, that is, it can be changed). On the other hand, a person with a pessimistic attributional style would attribute failure to a factor such as intelligence, but in the event of success, they would be more likely to attribute it to luck.

Success is, therefore, related to how in control we feel and the ability to associate the cause of our behaviour to factors that we can change. If a student failed a test and attributed failure to a lack of effort, they can alter their behaviour (work harder) and influence future outcomes. If they attribute failure to a lack of intelligence, they are less likely to believe that any kind of behaviour change is worth pursuing. In a similar way, a student might attribute success (such as a good grade on an exam) to hard work and the execution of effective learning strategies, while another student might attribute success to luck, a fluke or a particularly easy task. The second student still believes that outcomes will continue to be negative, rejecting their effort and hard work in favour of something beyond their control (such as luck). Failure still remains internal, specific and global, despite success.

Control also has a predictive quality. Those who display previous adaptive attributional behaviour also display improved academic outcomes. Additionally, those students who have successfully negotiated setbacks in the past become more adept and confident in their ability to overcome them in the future. But this relationship is complex (Houston, 2016). A student might, therefore, suffer a low score on a test and attribute the cause of the low mark to not understanding the task correctly and, as a result of this attribution, ensure that they are fully able to rectify this next time. This feeling of control then impacts subsequent achievement through increased confidence and the use of adaptive strategies. This then impacts other factors such as academic self-concept (Chapter 11).

Dimensions of causality

Attributions, whether applied in social or individual contexts, include three specific dimensions. These dimensions have been mentioned in the previous examples but it's worth clarifying these terms.

Locus of causality

Attributions are classified along a dimension known as the locus of causality from internal to external. If we attribute behaviour to an internal locus of causality we assume that outcomes resulted from something within us; if we attribute the outcomes to an external locus of causality we view the event as having been caused by something outside ourselves.

Global and specific

We also attribute causes based on whether they apply to all situations (global) or to only one situation (specific). A student might attribute the cause of a bad mark on a maths test as specific to the subject and to that particular test. On the other hand, the student might decide that this one disappointing result is not only related to that specific maths test, but all maths tests and maths in general. This dimension can be extended even further to include all academic subjects and even life outside school.

Stable and unstable

Stable causes are those that are difficult to change such as intelligence or personality traits; unstable causes can be changed. For example, a student might fail a test because they didn't utilise effective revision strategies. Effective revision, therefore, is an unstable cause of the failure (it can be changed). Intelligence, however, is often thought of as stable (it doesn't change). If our student attributes lack of intelligence to their failure they are more likely to believe that they cannot improve. Whether the student views their failure as either stable or unstable will then affect future expectations.

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