Attributive styles and their link with emotions

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Robert Maurer
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Attributive styles and their link with emotions

Do you feel responsible for all the evil that happens to you? Do you think that luck usually accompanies you? Find out how these interpretations affect moods.

Last update: October 14, 2021

Have you ever thought that “we don't see the world as it is, but as we are”? This thought has a grain of truth, because the filters that each person uses to interpret events can be very different. In addition to this, the explanations or causes we attribute to events affect our emotions. For this reason, attributive styles are so important.



These thinking styles begin to form as soon as we come into the world. As we live, experience and relate to our surroundings, we begin to understand how this works, and we begin to generate cause and effect relationships.

Over time, each individual develops his own more or less stable explanatory style on which he bases all his interpretations.

What attributive styles exist?

A person's attributive style and the answer that gives the question "why did this situation occur?" Therefore, we need to analyze three dimensions:

  • The time. Does the person believe that this is a specific event, which happened in a certain way and time, but which has no reason to repeat itself in the future? (unstable). Or does he think this is a stable fact, which is repeated frequently and that he will continue to do so from here on out?

For example, when faced with a failure in an exam, one may think that it will never be possible to pass it; or on the contrary, that it is a sporadic fact and that next time it will be different.



  • The situation. Was what happened limited? (specific). Or is it attributable in general to other situations and contexts? (global). Therefore, the previous example of insufficiency could be interpreted as "I am doing badly" or as "on this particular matter I have to work harder".
  • The origin. It refers to the place where the person places the cause of what happened: in himself or outside. In the first case, its interpretation would be that it is not suitable for study, that it does not know how to learn and memorize (internal locus of control). In the second case, she may think that she was bad luck or that the exam was too difficult (external locus of control).

How do they affect emotions?

The interpretations that can be made of the same fact are so different that the associated emotions can be totally opposite.

However, there is no single appropriate attributive style, because its benefits depend on the concrete situation. For example, how do you explain your successes, achievements and positive events?

  • If we give them an internal, global and stable cause, we will believe that we are fortunate in many areas of life, that we will continue to be fortunate and that we play an important role in achieving those goals. Following that, we will strive to experience tranquility, happiness and optimism and we will enjoy good self-esteem.
  • If, on the other hand, we interpret the positive event as specific, unstable and due to external causes, we will believe that it was due to chance, that it will not happen again and that we will not be able to influence it so that pleasant events can continue to happen.

Internal, global and stable attributive styles lead the person to think that he is guilty of what happens; therefore in the case of a failure, which is wrong in everything it proposes and which will continue to fail.



On the other hand, unstable and specific attribution offers the opportunity to learn from what happened and to make changes; because it is thought that in other situations a different scenario may occur.


Can the attributive styles be changed?

These interpretations also affect emotions they are related to various disorders such as anxiety and depression. In the first case, the person feels that he is responsible for the positive and negative events in any circumstance; eventually he develops a strong need for control.

On the contrary, in depression, the individual tends to think that the fact that negative events occur is out of his control and that nothing he does will affect. So it tends to passivity, submission and despair.


To prevent these such ailments, it is useful to review and change the tendency to make attributions less functional. It is not simple, but possible, since it is a learning that can be relearned with will and perseverance.

If you feel that your way of interpreting the world is limiting you or causing you emotional harm, try to practice more flexible and realistic attributions.

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