The way you explain an occurrence in your life is known as attributional style, which can affect your well-being.

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When something positive or negative happens in our lives, we often seek to explain its occurrence. We may ask: Why did this happen to me? Is it because of something I did? Do I just have bad luck?

These are attributional styles, which refer to the ways people explain the causes of specific events in their life.

Attributional types can say a lot about how we interact with the world. They can shape our view on how much control we have over what happens to us. The way you think about events in your life can also impact your mental health.

Attributional styles, also known as explanatory styles, are how we explain the causes of events in our lives and others’ lives.

Attributional styles are based on the historical work of:

  • Martin Seligman, PhD, and his theory of learned helplessness
  • Lyn Yvonne Abramson, PhD, and her hopelessness theory of depression
  • John D. Teasdale, PhD, and his shared paper with Abramson and Seligman, Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation

There are three domains of attributional styles:

  • internal-external
  • global-specific
  • stable-unstable


The internal-external domain is about who causes events.

For example, if you make a mistake at work and have an internal explanatory style, you might state: “I wasn’t careful enough and didn’t try hard enough.”

Those with an external explanatory style might state: “I didn’t receive clear enough instructions from my supervisor.”


The global-specific domain refers to whether you believe the event will have a consistent effect on your life compared to its impact only in that particular situation.

For example, a global attribution might look like: “All my relationships are unhealthy.”

And a specific attribution may be: “This relationship is unhealthy, but I can find a more healthy one.”


The stable-unstable domain refers to whether you believe an event will be long lasting or short term.

For example, the statement, “My financial problems are preventing me from buying a house at the moment,” may represent a stable attributional style.

On the other hand, the statement “My financial problems are only happening right now and can get better” may express a more unstable explanatory style.

The Attributional Style Questionnaire measures attributional styles. This is a self-report questionnaire in which people are asked to name the causes of events in hypothetical situations.

Optimistic and pessimistic attributional styles include general views of self and the world grouped from the three domains.

For example, research suggests that people with optimistic attributional types generally make internal, global, and stable explanations for successes in their lives. But it’s the opposite when failures occur.

People with more pessimistic explanatory styles tend to attribute failures to internal, global, and stable explanations and resort to the opposite with successes.

Optimistic explanatory styles have been linked with positive moods, perseverance, high levels of achievement, and overall well-being. Conversely, pessimistic explanatory styles have been linked with hopelessness, depressive symptoms, and lower levels of self-esteem.

Depressive attributional styles have been studied for decades. Research has found that people with depressive explanatory types often attribute unwanted or adverse events to their life as internal, global, and stable.

Seligman proposed that a person’s explanatory style could lead to depression.

The models of learned helplessness, the reformulated theory of learned helplessness, and the hopelessness theory of depression all provide the notion that depressed people view negative life events as:

  • “always my fault”
  • “always going to happen”
  • “affecting everything in my life.”

Depressive explanatory styles can also harm relationships.

For example, receiving feedback from your supervisor at work that you perceive as unfavorable and think, “I’m a terrible worker and a failure,” can lead to a lack of motivation in your work duties.

Your attributions may then affect your relationships with your co-workers, supervisors, and other people with whom you interact.

Attributional styles can change over time. They’re often first developed in adolescence but can shift in adulthood.

The first step to changing your attributional style is being aware of it. After awareness, cognitive therapy can help you transform your style from pessimistic to optimistic. This can also lead to a reduction of depressive symptoms.

Some other methods for shifting your explanatory style include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This method examines how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related. CBT may help change attributional styles that present harmful repetitive narratives. CBT treatment may help challenge those narratives.
  • Mindfulness techniques. This may also help you adopt new ways of thinking. Mindfulness techniques can help bring more awareness to your explanatory style and help you be mindful of your thoughts and emotions in the present moment.

Attributional styles help us explain the happenings in our world. While Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness was influential in determining a person’s explanatory style, it doesn’t mean that our styles are fixed.

Optimistic styles are linked with overall well-being and more positive effects on mood. Pessimistic or depressive styles are linked with more negative effects on mood and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

You can change pessimistic attributional styles through various forms of therapy.

Learning about how you think can have benefits for your mood. Becoming aware of your attributional style is the first step to creating positive and healthy changes in your thoughts.

If you’re looking for a therapist but unsure where to start, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.