Attributional Style And Socializing
A lot of social problems are sustained by maladaptive thought patterns. Before you can start dealing with them you have to understand what they look like. In another article I talked about cognitive distortions. Here I'll cover one more way people who struggle with issues like shyness or depression tend to view the world in a way that perpetuates their difficulties. The ideas I'll cover are summaries of well-established concepts from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
A person's attributional style, also known as their explanatory style, describes how they tend to, often unconsciously, explain various life events to themselves. When someone forms an explanation it involves three factors:
Whether they see the cause of the event as internal or external
For example, if someone does well at a new video game some internal explanations may be, "I'm good at games" or, "I'm quick to learn how to play games from this genre." An external explanation may be, "This game is easy" or, "The person I'm playing against is making a bunch of mistakes."
Whether they see the situation as stable or unstable
Other ways to put this would be seeing the event as unchangeable vs. changeable, or permanent vs. temporary. For example, if someone gets stuck in traffic on their way to work a more stable explanation might be, "The traffic in this city has gotten steadily worse. It's going to be like this from now on." A more unstable explanation is, "The traffic is bad today, but it could be fine tomorrow. It varies."
Whether they see the event as having a more global effect on their lives or if it's specific to that particular, local situation
For example, if a person makes a new type of error at work, a global explanation would be, "I'm probably going to start making more mistakes on the job in general." A specific/local explanation is, "I have a hard time with this new database software, but that doesn't mean the rest of my work will suffer."
Optimistic and pessimistic styles
People can have an overall explanatory style that's optimistic or pessimistic. Someone with an optimistic style tends to see positive events as being internal, stable, and global. For example, if they're learning the guitar and they have a good practice session they'll explain it as, "I have a knack for learning new things. I've always had that strength, and it will help me pick up other skills down the road." Conversely, they dismiss negative events as external, unstable, and specific. If they have a poor practice session they might tell themselves, "I sounded bad because I was tired and distracted from work. Plus the strings need to be changed. Once I replace them I'll start playing well again. Even if I didn't sound the best today, overall I'm still quick to pick up new talents."
People with a more pessimistic attributional style are the opposite. If something good happens to them they often write it off as external, stable, and specific; It was because of some flukey outside factor, it won't last, and it doesn't say anything about the bigger picture. When something bad occurs their explanation is internal, stable, and global; The negative situation was brought about by one of their inherent, unwavering flaws, a flaw which negatively impacts their life in all kinds of other ways.
Two other factors in explanations
Aside from the three main factors that go into an explanation, there are two others that sometimes come into play. The first is whether the person sees a situation as controllable or not. Optimistic types tend to see both positive and negative events as being at least somewhat under their control. People with a pessimistic style tend to see everything as uncontrollable. Even if a good event happens, they don't see it as something they have the power to recreate.
The second factor is whether the person is able to come up with any explanation at all for why a situation occurred. Those with an optimistic style usually have no problem explaining things. When something bad happens to a more pessimistic individual they often have no problem telling themselves in self-flagellating detail why it went down that way. However, if something positive occurs they may go, "I have no idea why that happened", therefore robbing themselves of any possibility of chalking some of it up to positive traits within themselves, or of gaining any useful feedback.
Effects of attributional styles
It's not hard to see how these two styles could have totally different effects on a person's mood and confidence. People with an optimistic explanatory style have a kind of mental armor. When something goes well it increases their already steady confidence and encourages them to keep doing what they're doing. When things go wrong they brush it off. Their self-esteem is maintained and they persist in the face of setbacks. You could argue they're slightly deluded, but it's an adaptive illusion.
A pessimistic attributional style keeps people stuck in a rut. When something goes well for them they dismiss it. They don't allow their successes to boost their self-image, teach them anything useful, or change their beliefs. When something goes wrong they take it as evidence that they're hopeless losers and that there's no point in trying to fix their problems. This is all bad enough is someone is just living day to day. If they're actively trying to make changes in their life their explanatory style will make them more likely to become discouraged, not feel they're making enough progress, and give up.
Attributional style and socializing
People who are depressed tend to have a pessimistic explanatory style all around. People who struggle socially tend to have a pessimistic explanatory style at least when it comes to their social interactions. They may explain things pessimistically in other areas of their life, but not necessarily. Here are a bunch of examples:
Dismissing positive events
- "I guess I had a good conversation with Eve after class, but that's only because she's not intimidating and she asked a lot of questions to get me talking. It's not like it would happen with anyone else."
- "Dave accepted my invitation to hang out on Saturday, but it's probably just because he has nothing else to do this weekend. He doesn't have a lot of other friends either. It's not like anyone who's more popular and busy would want to spend time with me."
- "I had the courage to approach some people I didn't know at that party, but it's only because I'd had a few drinks, and they were friends of friends so I knew they weren't going to be rude to me. None of this is going to help me have the guts to strike up some conversations when I go to that Meetup.com event next Friday where I don't know anyone."
Taking all the blame for negative events
- "I had the most awkward conversation with Kumar after class. Of course I did. I suck with people and I always will."
- "Dana said she was busy when I asked if she wanted to see a movie this Tuesday. She doesn't want to hang out with me because I'm boring. I'll always be seen as too boring. I'll never have a social life."
- "I felt too shy to talk to anyone I didn't know at that party. I'm just too inhibited around other people. I've always been this way. I don't know why I bother trying."
To provide some contrast, here's how a more socially confident person with an optimistic explanatory style might view the same situations:
Giving themselves credit for positive events
- "I had a nice conversation with Eve after class. I'm generally good at talking to people. I mean if I look back, much more often than not things go fine when I talk to someone. I can use the same skills to successfully talk to other people."
- "Dave accepted my invitation to hang out on Saturday. I think I'm a pretty likable person and we seem to get along so it's only natural he'd want to hang out. The same thing would be likely to happen if I invited other people out."
- "I had the courage to approach some people I didn't know at that party. It's hard to push my comfort zone, but with time I've been able to get better at facing my fears. I expect I'll be able to apply the same skills to the meet up this Friday."
Not taking all the blame for negative events
- "I had the most awkward conversation with Kumar after class. We were both in a rush and I was preoccupied with the midterm I have tomorrow. We also don't have a ton in common. When it comes to other people, I usually have no problem talking to them."
- "Dana said she was busy when I asked if she wanted to see a movie this Tuesday. She probably really is busy. Even if she isn't and doesn't want to hang out more it just means one person doesn't see me as a good match. Lots of other people would still be interested in being friends with me."
- "I felt too shy to talk to anyone I didn't know at that party. I've been stressed about other things lately, and that probably made my shyness a bit worse temporarily. I'm sure it will pass. There's nothing to say I won't be fine at the party coming up two weeks from now."