Understanding The ‘Why’ Of Behavior And Events

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

People who have a passion for learning are often motivated by a desire to understand the “why” of events or a person’s behavior. Why are these two countries at war? Why do people chant slogans that are virtual cliches that make a mockery of the complexity of situations. In regard to one’s own motivation and behavior, thoughtful people often engage in self-reflection, with an openness to question their own beliefs and actions.

Psychologists have long observed and studied the process of attribution, which is what someone does when they infer the cause of an event or a particular behavior. While psychologists study this process as an academic exercise, people in everyday life attribute causes to events and behaviors generally without giving it much thought. Attribution simply lets us makes sense of everything going on around us, from the mundane to the most serious. A simple example might be a parent who is frustrated by their teenager bringing home poor grades in math. To correct the problem, they decide to crack down on their child’s social activities, attributing the poor grade to not studying properly. But what if the math teacher is just a terrible teacher? The parent can’t know without objectively discussing the situation with an open mind.

Writing for verywellmind.com, Kendra Cherry dives into the topic of attribution with a look at the types we use in everyday life. Interpersonal attribution involves a person relating to friends or colleagues. If they are describing an event they were involved with, they probably position themselves in the story in a positive way.

A very practical train of thought is the predictive attribution. “If your car was vandalized,” Cherry writes, “you might attribute the crime to the fact that you parked in a particular parking garage. As a result, you may avoid that parking garage in the future.”

Making sense of the world at large involves explanatory attribution. This is also where a person’s personality influences their beliefs. Optimistic people can attribute the cause of an event to one thing, while pessimistic people may attribute the cause to exactly the opposite.

Psychologists have developed many theories to explain the many complexities of attribution. Describing the Correspondent Inference Theory, Cherry says, “When people see others acting in certain ways, they look for a correspondence between the person’s motives and their behaviors. The inferences people then make are based on the degree of choice, the expectedness of the behavior, and the effects of that behavior.”

Fritz Heider came up with a down-to-earth theory called the “Common Sense Theory,” which suggests that people generally just use their own common sense to judge motivation. Cherry points out that the theory distinguishes between internal and external motivations: “External attributions are those that are blamed on situational forces, while internal attributions are blamed on individual characteristics and traits.”

Thoughtful people will recognize that attributing the causes of an event to either external or internal factors opens the door to errors in judgment. Psychologists have identified common biases and errors. The Actor-Observer Bias refers to attribution involving our own motives. Often, we point to external forces as the cause of a negative event rather than our own character.

On the flip side, there is the Fundamental Attribution Error. With other people, Cherry writes, “We tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. This phenomenon tends to be very widespread, particularly among individualistic cultures.” A disturbing example of this error is the too-common tendency to blame the victim. Victims of domestic abuse or rape are not somehow to blame, although thoughtless people can twist the situation to come up with this bizarre notion.

A final error in judgment is the Self-Serving Bias. This is the common tendency for someone to give credit to themselves for positive outcomes and blame external forces for negative outcomes. Maybe you did deserve that promotion, or maybe external circumstances prevented you from getting it — but it’s worth a little introspection to honestly evaluate all influences.