A great deal of our daily mental activity is given over to causes. Not the charitable kind (“Give money to this walk-a-thon; it’s for a good cause!”), but the kind where we assume specific causes to all the events, actions, interactions, behaviors, and circumstances in our lives. Imagine you are in a meeting, and you see the person next to you lose their temper. Your mind will spring to action, to attribute a cause to their anger. The nature of the attributed cause often says a good deal more about ourselves (personality, history, psychology etc.) than it does about the event itself. So when this person gets angry you may attribute her behavior to:
- She’s been treated unjustly.
- She is over-worked.
- She’s having marital problems.
- I must have said something that made her angry.
- It’s her time of the month.
- She’s an angry person.
- She has a short fuse.
- She’s a fiery red-head.
- She’s on / off her medication.
- She was out late.
Of course this list can go on and on. This is an example of a causal attribution.
The theory of Causal Attribution first appeared in the work of Fritz Heider in a book entitled The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958). Other’s have developed this theory far more than I am going to do here, and it does get very complex (as well it should!). But for now, I want you to notice a few things about yourself.
First, you make causal inferences all the time. You have been taught or have come to believe in a series of cause and effect relationships and your mind makes these inferences constantly and usually instantly.
Second: Our assumption of causes gives us a sense of control over our environment. Things are less scary when we think we know why they happened. This control is largely I think, an illusion. But we all need to live with a sense of basic orderliness, and most of the time, this illusion works pretty well. When it doesn’t we have problems and we can be thrown into a psychological crisis: A topic for some future blog post. You will notice this control factor when you feel smug or superior or oddly comfortable when you think you know why something has happened and those around you do not.
Third: There are two basic types of causal inferences: Internal and External. Internal inferences are when we attribute the cause of an event to internal characteristics of the actor in an event. Using our example above, the statement “She has a short fuse” is an internal attribution. External inferences attribute causes to the environment or circumstances outside of the individual. So in our example above, “She is over-worked” is an external attribution. The curious thing here, is that when we are observing someone else, we tend to attribute the cause to something internal to the person, and when we are the actor, we tend to attribute the cause to something outside of ourselves. This is particularly true when it is a negative event. We are generally more benevolent to ourselves than we are to others.
Fourth: We almost never take into account enough factors in making our attributions. This is where this article ties into the simple and complex article. Interpersonal relationships are by nature complex. But we make simple attributions, and we make them quickly. It’s easier and more comfortable to us to do it this way. In marital conflicts, parenting conflicts, work conflicts, we rarely include ourselves as a contributing factor. As in the Simple and Complex article, the more variables, the more factors we can keep in mind at once, the more accurate our attributions will be.
Fifth: Because of number four above, our attributions are prone to error. They can, of course, be completely wrong, but more often, they are wrong by degrees, or inaccurate by degrees. Hopefully, the longer we live and the wiser we become the more accurate, or perhaps tentative, our attributions will be. When the bulk of our attributions, particularly interpersonal ones are inaccurate we are neurotic (distortion of reality). When the bulk of our attributions are just simple wrong, we are psychotic (out of touch with reality).
There are more points to be made here, but I’ll leave that to you to pursue through the above article links (isn’t the web Grand!?). But now that you have a general concept of Causal Attribution theory consider the following.
The Media spend a great deal of time speculating on causal attributions. We are fascinated with this stuff. It happens every day and in every genre of talk show: Sports, Politics, Celebrity Press, “Reality” shows, Environmental awareness, Science, Business etc. There are vast amounts of money being exchanged in our media saturated economy making causal attributions, and most of them are way too simplistic to be of much use. But they make for great entertainment, and the more outrageous the attributions are, the more attention they’ll garner (and the larger the audience share). We are addicted to this stuff and wear it like a badge (“I listen only to Fox”, “I watch CNN”, “I’m a Ditto head”, “I saw on Oprah . . .”, “Did you hear what they said on Sports Center?”). The danger here, is when we consume this stuff without discrimination. This stuff is primarily entertainment and is driven by advertising revenue and building market share (yes, that is a causal attribution). But it has a Huge impact on the American psyche by helping us to form causal attributions, that are never really examined for accuracy. By the way, almost all American media make one fundamental causal attribution error: They leave out God as a causal agent.
The trend in science (a huge source of American causal attributions) is towards biological or naturalistic reductionism. The science press (which is largely how we consume scientific investigations) love to make pronouncements about how what we once believed to be true is now all wrong, and that some new discovery has really set us straight. Just peruse the science headlines and you’ll see what I mean. In health (medicine) and behavior science (psychology) the trend for the last 20 years has been towards biological reductionism: To reduce all causes of human behavior to biological causes such as genetics or brain chemistry. Depression, is no longer viewed as the complex condition that it truly is, but simply a factor of low serotonin levels, so all you need to do is take a pill. ADHD is viewed as an inherited genetic trait, and we have a pill for that too (I'm being intentionally sarcastic here). There is a huge monetary incentive to push biological reductionism and our psyche’s are ripe for it: We love simple explanations that relieve us of the burden of responsibility.
Much of therapy involves helping people examine and hopefully modify their causal attributions. There is also much resistance to it. Couples want to see “the other” as the cause of the difficulties and don’t want to examine their own contributions. Parents want their children “fixed” but don’t want to make the life-style changes necessary, because they are invested in locating the sole cause of the child’s behavior in the child. Individual’s will over or under value their own contributions to their life choices. People with medical problems don’t want to own their own contributions to being sick. People want symptoms to go away but want to attribute those symptoms to someone else, and don’t want to make the link to their own life-styles or choices. But as I like to teach my counseling students, dealing with this resistance is the work of psychotherapy.
Jesus said it this way:
“Why do you ?look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? “?Or how ?can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (NAS Mathew 7:3-5).
One final observation. Do you include God in your own personal causal attribution theory? Many people do, and in fact most do if the survey’s are right. Are your causal attributions about God complex or simplistic? We can make errors in our attribution of causes by sweeping them all under the God rug: “I guess this was God’s will for me.” “Why did God make me lose my job?” “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” “He must have done something wrong and God is punishing him for it.” Be very, very careful with evoking God in your causal attributions. God has done a pretty good job in explaining Himself in His Word, and we have done a pretty good job of misunderstanding or misusing it. Theology is complex which is why there are so many with Ph.D’s in the subject. In the secular world, the most common error is to leave God out as a causal factor. In the Christian World, the most common error, is to over-attribute things to Him (particularly problems and suffering) that He has no part in. The best solution for this, like with any relationship, is to get to know Him well. Then it’s much easier to say things like, “That doesn’t sound like God at all” or “That really is a God-Thing.”
So, I challenge you, to observe your own process of how you assume causes for things. Take this background process, and bring it to the front, where you can watch and examine it. Be brave in throwing out attributions that are in error, or are too simple to be accurate. Be willing to tolerate the anxiety of “I don’t know why” in pursuit of greater accuracy (and sanity). Begin to think in terms of "contributing factors" rather than simple one to one, cause and effect equations.