For a long time, the standard decision-making process stated that people choose between alternative courses of actions to maximize the probability of a desired outcome. However, psychologists noticed that individuals tend to have a unique propensity towards interpreting those outcomes in a specific, highly characteristic way. This way of interpreting events is known as an explanatory style or an attributional style.

When something bad happens, do you tend to blame yourself or take it lightly? When something good happens, is it a fluke?Or do you think it’s something you deserve? Turns out these questions means a lot about you.

What Is An Explanatory Style

what is an explanatory style
Every one has a propensity towards a specific emotional reactions

Explanatory style is a cognitive variable of personality that reflects how people usually explain the causes of either good or adverse events.

Your explanatory style is your usual way of interpreting and explaining events to yourself.

People interpret occurrences and life events in different ways.

In some cases, the situation itself may explain the successes or failures encountered.

In other cases, the individual uses stable and recurrent explanatory patterns, which Abramson et al. (1978) called attributional style or explanatory style.

When an uncontrollable event occurs, and when the explanations are not obvious, then the explanatory style should influence the way an individual will behave.

The following video gives a funny example on what is an explanatory style.

Origins of Explanatory Style Theory

Critics Of The Learned Helplessness Model

The emergence of explanatory style theory was a result of another psychological model that we covered before: Learned helplessness.

Several criticisms began to emerge as research on the learned helplessness model progressed. Some researchers have denounced the lack of internal validity of some experiments, by providing other explanations for the behavior observed
in individuals.

For example:

  • The reaction to failure feedback that led subjects to use a self-protection strategy (e.g., Frankel & Snyder, 1978).
  • The subject’s focus on elements that do not concern the task itself (e.g., Mikulincer & Nizan, 1988).
  • The hostility experienced towards the experimenter given the aversive nature of some experimental manipulations (e.g., Silver, Wortman & Klos,1982).

seem to constitute as many alternative explanatory hypotheses to that of the learned helplessness model.

On the other hand, the very validity of the learned helplessness theory has been questioned. The model does not explain all the reactions that individuals show to uncontrollable events.

In fact, some individuals are more prone to showing the presumed deficits of learned helplessness, while others do not show these deficits.

For example, the lack of control over the drawing of balls in the lottery does not lead to motivational, cognitive, or emotional deficits in the players. Also, the model does not explain why, in some situations where there is no control over the outcome, certain individuals give up more quickly and experience the feeling of helplessness while others do not.

Thus, the model of learned helplessness in its original formulation seems to constitute an oversimplification when it is applied to humans (Peterson & Park, 1998).

Reformulation Into The Attributional Model

To resolve the contradictory results observed in the literature, Abramson et al. have developed the theory by taking into account how a person explains or interprets his or her lack of control over a situation.

The nature of his response – the causal attribution he formulates – then gives the characteristics of the feeling of helplessness that follows:

  • If the causal attribution is stable (“it will last a long time because no matter what I do, nothing will change”), it will induce chronic helplessness.
  • If it is unstable, then the feeling of helplessness will be transient.
  • On the other hand, if the causal attribution is global (“it’s the same for everything I try”), then the symptoms of helplessness are likely to propagate to various domains.
  • If the causes are specific, then the symptoms will be limited to a particular area.
  • Finally, the perception of a lack of control attributed to an internal object (“it’s all my fault”), will lead to a decrease in self-esteem, which will not be the case, if the cause invoked is external (“it was complicated”).

These assumptions form the basis for the “attributional” reformulation of the learned helplessness theory (Abramson et al. 1978).

This new formulation of the theory does not change the assumptions of the original model: uncontrollable events are presumed to lead to deficits when they generate a dissociation between the individual’s expectations and the results obtained. But it is completed by explaining the mediating effect by which those events produce behavioral deficits.

The nature of these deficits now depends on the causal attribution issued by the individual, i.e., the attributional (aka explanatory) style.

Explanatory Style’s Dimensions

Personalization, pervasiveness and permanence
The three Ps: Personalization, pervasiveness and permanence.

Explanatory style is the color that our interpretations of life events tend to have. Like the three elementary colors (Red, green, and blue) that form the image we see on screens, real life also has three “elementary colors,” or dimensions, through which we see and explain the events we encounter.

Those dimensions were first coined by the psychologist Christopher Peterson in 1991.

To explain events, people answer the following questions:Who or what causes the situation? Is this situation permanent or just temporary? How much of my life does this situation affect?

Thus the three dimensions, also known as the three Ps are personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness.

Personalization (Internal vs External)

Personalization shows the propensity to attribute an outcome to an internal (“I passed the exam because I studied hard”) or an external factor(“I passed the exam because it was easy”).

Individuals with a tendency to internalize failures and unfortunate events (“I am not a lucky person,” “I failed because I don’t deserve to be happy,” “He/she left me because I’m boring,” etc.) are potentially prone to depression, low self-esteem, and helplessness.

Please note that “internalizing” here is not in the sense of proactively taking responsibility for our life course, but rather it is seeing oneself as a victim of his own shortcomings.

On the other hand, individuals with a predisposition to attribute failures to external factors (“I didn’t play well because it was raining, I will be better next time”) are found to lead more healthy lives psychologically and physiologically.

Permanence (Stable vs Unstable)

This dimension shows how we do see a situation in time. Is it a temporary occurrence (unstable), or a permanent one (stable)?

For positive outcomes, optimists tend towards a stable attribution when interpreting events (“I always keep coming with these excellent ideas,” “I am a natural sales closer”). While pessimists tend towards an unstable attribution (“I just got lucky this time,” “Those straight A’s won’t last for long”).

On the opposite side, for adverse outcomes, optimists lean more towards an unstable attribution (“I missed this opportunity today, I will not miss the next one “), while pessimists lean towards a stable attribution (“I always fail to make a good impression”).

Pervasiveness (Global vs. Specific)

Pervasiveness is the extent to which the situation touches on other areas of one’s life. It denotes an event as global (“It’s going to affect everything that happens to me”), or specific (“It’s only going to influence this”).

Pessimists perceive adverse outcomes to be consistent, irrespective of context (“Everything I try fails”). In contrast, optimists believe that negative outcomes are specific to that case and don’t hold true to all areas of their lives. For example, if they fail at something, it doesn’t mean that they are a failure and will fail at everything.

The 3 Ps explained in video format:

Locus of Control

What is Locus of Control

The concept of locus of control refers to a person’s belief in what determines their success in a given activity, or more generally, what factors does a person believe determine the course of his life.

The concept of locus of control was proposed by Julian Rotter in 1954 and is based on the theories of social learning.

A concept similar to it is that of self-efficacy, which refers to the person’s belief in his or her ability to achieve an objective, introduced by psychologist Albert Bandura.

Internal vs Exteranal Locus of Control

internal and external locus of control
Locus of control can be internal or external.

People who believe that their performance or fate depends mainly on themselves have an internal locus of control (LOC). Those who believe that external factors beyond their influence primarily determine their performance have an external locus of control.

Rotter’s original design proposed a continuous scale with a dichotomous variable represented in the extremities by:

  • External individuals: who do not link their behavior and self-reinforcement, “my performance depends on my opponent.”

  • Internal individuals: who link consequences and results to internal factors. Example: “my performance depends on how hard I trained.”

This conception dominated for several years, until several authors questioned this unidimensional two-factor structure (internal/external).

Multidimensional structures were then accepted as the most appropriate way to conceptualize the locus of control. And were intended for various populations or specific situations such as:

  • The Children LOC scale (Nowicki, Strickland, 1973).
  • The hierarchical internality scale for the elderly (Alaphilippe, Chasseigne, 1993).
  • The Multidimensional health locus of control scale (Wallston, Wallston, DeVellis, 1978) for the health field.
  • The Multidimensional multi-attributional causality scales (Lefcourt, 1981) for academic domains and social studies.

The locus of control is tightly related to the personalization dimension of the explanatory style theory (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995).

The Two Types of Explanatory Style

With the emergence of the concept of explanatory style, some authors began to use the terms “optimistic” and “pessimistic” to describe certain explanatory styles.

An “explanatory style” does not necessarily mean much to most people, but an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” view of the causes of events probably makes more sense.

difference between optimistic and pessimistic attributional style
This table shows the difference between an optimistic and a pessimistic explanatory style.

Pessimistic Explanatory Style

As shown in The table above, based on Seligman (1994), a person who repeatedly attributes:

  • His failures to a factor considered internal (“it’s my fault”), stable (“there’s no reason for it to change”), and global (“it’s the same in everything I do”).

  • And/or its success in a factor considered external (“I had nothing to do with it”), unstable (“I was lucky today”), and specific (“it’s the first time”),

is described as pessimistic.

Optimistic Explanatory Style

In contrast to the previous one, the one who attributes:

  • His failures to an external, unstable, and specific factor.

  • And/or his successes to an internal, stable and global factor,

is described as optimistic.

Examples of Optimistic vs. Pessimistic Explanatory Style

half empty vs half full glass

Let us take being promoted in a job as a first example.

An optimistic person would tend to attribute such an event to personal characteristics such as being intelligent, highly qualified, and an excellent fit to the new position (internal factors), which are steady over time (stable), and applicable to a variety of other circumstances, for example, when applying for another job or when to start his own business (global).

By contrast, a pessimistic person tends to ascribe such an event to factors extraneous to himself, such as the fact that there are few other employees having the same level of seniority(external), and to the peculiarities of this job only (specific), and believes that the boss’s motivation for promoting him will not last (unstable, temporary).

Now consider a person who is not offered a promotion.

A pessimistic person will be inclined to assume that the reason he was not offered a promotion has something to do with himself detrimentally, such as not being intelligent enough (internal), which will not change with time (stable, permanent), and is seen in many other situations and circumstances (global).

On the other hand, an optimistic person may attribute not being offered a promotion to the new position to not being a good fit for him (external). And believe that he will be promoted to a more suited position in the future (unstable, temporary) and that not being promoted to this particular position is only due to the skills required for that specific job (specific).

The Harmful Effects of Pessimistic Explanatory Style

pessimistic attributional style harmful effects
A pessimistic explanatory style has been proven to be damaging and inhibiting personal growth.

A field of research aimed at studying the consequences of explanatory style on different cognitive, motivational, emotional, or behavioral variables has gradually developed. Many studies have been carried out in which the style was considered as a correlate of many manifestations such as depression, illness, or helplessness.

Systematically, pessimistic people show more symptoms of learned helplessness relatively those with an optimistic view.

For example, a pessimistic style is linked to:

  • More mediocre academic performance (e.g., Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus & Seligman, 1986; Peterson & Barrett, 1987).
  • More unsatisfactory professional performance (e.g., Schulman, 1995).
  • Poorer physical and mental health (e.g., Peterson & Bossio, 2000).
  • Various depressive symptoms (e.g., Gillham, Shatt√©, Reivich & Seligman, 2000).

More generally, the explanatory style a person can adopt can reflect on variables such as:

  • Efficiency (Brennan & Charnetsky, 2000).
  • Physical injuries in athletes (Peterson, Bishop, Fletcher, Kaplan, Yesko, Moon, Smith, Michaels & Michaels, 2001).
  • Irrational thoughts (Ziegler & Hawley, 2001).
  • Marital satisfaction (e.g., Fincham, 2000).
  • Political achievement (e.g., Zullow, 1995).
  • And different types of anxiety (e.g., Mineka, Pury & Luten, 1995).

Two studies on sports performance were led by Rettew and Reivich in 1995. The first used baseball teams and the second used basketball teams. In both cases, the teams with the optimistic style won more matches during the season studied and “bounced back” more after a defeat than those with a pessimistic style.

How To Shift Your Perception And Explanatory Style

change your perception and how you see life

After confirming the detrimental impact of a pessimistic explanatory style on well-being, It is worth investigating how can we change the way we handle undesired outcomes and the stories we tell ourselves about our failures.

To see how we can adopt an optimistic explanatory style, we should first consider the origin of this personal characteristic.

Are We Predisposed To A Specific Explanatory Style?

This question can be further developed: Where does this way of explaining the events we face come from? Is the style stable or likely to change over time?

Potential factors that may influence the propensity to a specific style can be grouped into three broad categories:

1. Genetic factors

According to Buchanan and Seligman (1995), it is possible that there may be a genetic component in the genesis of the explanatory style.

A correlation in the order of 0.48 has been observed between the explanatory styles of monozygotic twins (derived from a single ovum, and so identical), while the relationship is not significant for dizygotic twins (derived from two separate ova).

However, it seems more likely that genetic factors have only an indirect influence on explanatory style (Peterson & Park, 1998), by predisposing the individual to certain positive or negative experiences. Physical, psychological, morphological qualities, determined by genetic factors, can lead individuals to have certain happy or unfortunate experiences, which in turn will influence their style.

2. Singular experiences

Studies show that singular experiences such as diseases, traumas, negligence or major failures in important areas can have a significant role on the genesis of a pessimistic explanatory style (e.g., Brewin & Furnham, 1986; Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus & Seligman, 1991).

3. Social factors

People that are important to an individual such as significant other, parents, best friends, teachers seem to contribute to forging a particular explanatory style.

According to Peterson and Park (1998), parents’ feedback on their children’s behavior would have a lasting impact on how they explain and interpret the events they face throughout their lives. Other studies highlight the role of teachers in stabilizing the child’s explanatory style.

So, what factor determines our tendency towards a specific style?

multiple factors determining choice
What forms an attributional style?

This question leads to multiple answers.

The style seems to be the result of biological, psychological and social factors, each of which probably contributes to crystallizing in the individual a way of perceiving the world around him, without it being possible at the present time to specify the role and nature of each of them.

On the other hand, it is likely that a complex process is engaged in which events influence the construction of style as much as the style influences events.

Like depression, explanatory style can therefore be both a cause and a consequence. Also, a pessimistic explanatory style maximizes the probability of negative events occurring, which in turn reinforces the pessimistic style of the individual.

This is good news. Because it means that we can break the cycle and shift our propensity towards a new way of perceiving.

Simplified Test: Am I An Optimistic Person?

Life orientation test
The Life Orientation Test (LOT) was created to gauge optimistic/pessimistic thinking

In order to assess the predisposition to optimism, Scheier and Carver (1985) created the Life Orientation Test (LOT). A few years later, this test was revised (LOT-R; Scheier et al., 1994) to remove two statements from the original version that referred more to coping styles than to positive expectations for the future.

The following is a version of the LOT test. Please note the numbers corresponding to the statements that fit your description.

  1. In times of uncertainty, I usually expect the best.
  2. I have an easy time relaxing.
  3. If there’s a chance that things will go wrong for me, they will.
  4. I am always optimistic about my future.
  5. I really appreciate my friends.
  6. It’s important for me to keep myself busy.
  7. I almost never expect things to go as I would like.
  8. I don’t get angry very easily.
  9. I rarely expect good things to happen to me.
  10. Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad things.

To interpret the results, please refer to the following indications.

  • Statements with a positive outcome: 1, 4, 10.
  • Statements with a negative outcome: 3, 7, 9.
  • Decoy statements: 2, 5, 6, 8.

If the statements you identified with have a more negative outcome, please continue reading the section below.

3 Ways to Adopt a More Optimistic Explanatory Style

1. The Reframing Technique

Imagine that you are facing a bad situation. It doesn’t matter what it is.

There are several ways to react. But here’s what happens quite often: you’re overwhelmed with negative emotions, you may be angry, sad, jealous, shocked, or disgusted. Maybe you’re resentful or afraid.

There is a whole range of negative emotions that can arise in your mind. And that’s normal. We can’t blame you. You are human after all, aren’t you?

The important thing is not to let yourself be fooled by these negative emotions that can completely distort your reality and quickly make you believe that there is nothing you can do. That it is the end of the world or that there is no positive component, at all, to the situation you’re facing.

We can easily get carried away by emotions. The classic process for most people is as follows:

Common reaction process to adverse situations
Common reaction process to adversity.

Steps 1 and 2 are very fast in the sense that as soon as you encounter a negative situation, you will quickly be caught up in emotions.

Step 3 represents your reaction to this negative situation. If you can react positively, well done! But most of the time, the reactions are negative, disproportionate, and quickly triggered.

On the other hand, I would suggest an alternative process to apply:

acceptance of the present
Accept and acknowledge the situation, and then react to it.

Did you see that? I added one intermediate step: acceptance.

Acceptance is the piece that will allow you to channel your negative thoughts and reframe your perception of the situation.

Please understand that acceptance is not about repressing negative emotions (because that will only make them grow more), neither it is about passively accepting a bad situation and do nothing about it.

Acceptance is about noticing and acknowledging what we feel and what problems we are facing.

So first, accept the moment as it is. And then and only then move on to step 4 where you would look for another positive angle to reframe the situation.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the hidden opportunity behind this situation?
  • What can I learn from this situation?
  • What is the one positive thing I can get out of this situation?

This technique is very effective in shifting your reactions to whatever life throws your way.

2. Immerse Yourself in a Positive Environment

surround yourself with positive people
Positivity is contagious

This is an essential factor but often forgotten. In fact, studies showed that our satisfaction is up to 90% NOT influenced by our surroundings, but the way we perceive them.

However, if you want to be able to remain positive and optimistic, you need to leverage your environment. And for that, you have two things to consider:

  • 1. Your physical environment.

Social relationships are vital for a fulfilling life. However, without realizing it, you may be surrounded by some toxic people who drain your energy.

You affect and are affected by the people you meet, in one way or another. This happens instinctively and at the subconscious level, through words, thoughts and feelings, and through body language.

Try to have an environment that encourages you, that pushes you forward. Surround yourself by people that will help you, people that will prove precious in times of hardship.

Be aware of the power that a positive environment can provide to help you be more optimistic. Having high self-esteem and keeping an optimistic mindset is more accessible with the right company.

After all, we are sometimes locked so deep in our pessimistic thoughts that we need someone to show us the positive side of life that we could not see otherwise.

  • 2. The information you consume every day.

The information you let into your inner world plays a crucial role in your perception about occurrences. It includes reading, watching videos, TV news, etc.

People who have an optimistic explanatory style tend to limit the negative stream of information that comes from outside.

A simple way to achieve this is to regularly feed yourself with positive content: books, podcasts, motivational videos, conferences, etc. You can also reduce your time spent watching television and news.

3. Practice Meditation

meditation for optimism
Meditation is an exercise for the mind.

Taittiriya Upanishad is an ancient Sanskrit text. It states that there is an innermost layer within each being, healthy and optimistic. However, this layer is often inaccessible because of it being obscured by a restless and negative mind.

Numerous scientific laboratory studies conducted on the brains of experienced meditators have shown that meditation reduces the activity of some regions of the brain responsible for negative emotions. For example, the brain tonsil, one of the critical areas in the production of emotions such as anxiety, fear, and stress.

The researchers were able to observe in the meditator the marked increase in his attention, the regulation of emotional unrest, the inhibition of automatic reactions, as well as the experience of positive emotions such as empathy and affection.

Other researchers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn have demonstrated in their studies the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of depressive states. If it is practiced on a sufficiently long and on a regular basis, meditation significantly and durably improves the symptoms of depression.

If you want to learn how to manage your negative thought flow, meditation can be an excellent way to do so. If you are clueless where to start, please read our article Meditation Techniques For beginners.


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.


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Related Articles


Jim Miller

Jim spent his twenties trying tounderstand how our primitive minds get in the way of self-growth. He has a lot of interesting ideas about human psychology that he doesn't hesitate to share when opportunity presents itself.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to receive the latest articles and exclusive offers on our products directly in your inbox

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