Several weeks ago I took my four-year-old son camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time. At home, when he sleeps, his body takes on the appearance of a wayward compass needle that rotates this way and that until his feet land on his pillow or he headbutts the wall. The first night in the tent was no different; in the wee hours of the morning he woke up, crumpled in a ball at the foot of the tent.
Being four, he is still unlikely to wake up in the middle of the night without sharing his insomnia with someone. That night, upon waking up in the pitch black, he declared with a note of rising panic, “My eyes aren’t working!” Clearly, he hasn’t spent much time in the wilderness at night.
I flipped on a flashlight and reassured him that his eyes were in fact likely working and that it was just really, really dark. He scrunched his sleeping bag back to the middle of the tent and dropped off, satisfied that all of his senses were intact.
After I shut off the flashlight, I stared out into the inky blackness and started thinking (therapists think a lot; or at least I do).
We are constantly making attributions about the events in our lives. Let’s say I find myself running the 100m dash in the Olympics. If (or more accurately, when) I come in last, I can attribute my performance to being a dreadful runner or to the fact that I’m competing with world-class athletes. Or, say I get a promotion at work. I can pin my success on my dedication to the job or to my boss’s incompetence in evaluating my performance.
We are also often making incorrect attributions about the events in our lives. When we were camping, my son mistakenly attributed not being able to see to his eyes not working, not to being in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Luckily, his fears were easily assuaged when I provided him the correct attribution. Psychologists call these incorrect attributions faulty attributions.
Many of the clients I work with struggle with faulty attributions that color their views of themselves, their environments, and the future. Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist in the positive psychology movement, has extensively researched what he calls attributional style. Individuals who are depressed exhibit a negative attributional style. They tend to consistently attribute negative events to sources that are internal, stable, and global. In other words, if something bad happens, a depressed person will typically think it’s their fault, it’s never going to change, and not only is this one event bad, but probably other similar events are going to be bad too.
On the flip side, individuals who exhibit a more positive explanatory style attribute their failures to causes that are external, unstable, and specific. Sure, something bad may have happened, but it was likely a one-time event that was strongly influenced by circumstances beyond the individual’s control.