Charitable Attributions

Tom Krieshok



This is a version of a talk I have given three times. The first was as part of the Annual Spring Symposium at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, in April 1989. It was entitled: Using psychology in your everyday life: The practical and spiritual implications of choosing 'foolish' interpersonal attributions. I delivered a version of it on July 16, 2006 as a sermon at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, entitled simply Charitable Attributions. And I delivered it in January 2009 as the keynote address at the University of Kansas Student Success Professional Development Day in Lawrence, Kansas, entitled Charitable Attributions in Student Success and Life Success. Below is the version delivered to the Student Success staff.


It's a pleasure to be here this morning, as was mentioned in the introduction, I spent my first eight years at KU in a joint appointment, so this is something of a homecoming for me to be able to address you on this most important professional development day. I'd like to thank the planning committee for having faith that I might be able to say something to you this morning that could invigorate your work for the spring semester.


I come to this challenge as a psychologist, so my frame of reference will be that of a social scientist who tries to make sense out of being human. At the same time I come to this challenge as a human being, most of the time, and as someone who has experienced the world as a man, a son, a father, a stepfather, a husband, a brother, a co-worker, a friend, and many other roles in which I find myself in relationships with others. And that's what I am going to talk about this morning.


And just what is my topic? I was pleased that no one on the committee asked me to give a title so many weeks ago when I agreed to be the speaker, because that way I could speak about something that I might become knowledgeable about in the ensuing weeks before actually giving the talk. In the end, I decided to start with a topic I first spoke about 20 years ago, but which I've never written about. The name that I have given to the construct is charitable attributions.


Picture this: You are Billy Ray Smith, 2nd semester freshman at the University of Kansas. You're on your way to meet with your advisor to talk about your first semester GPA of 1.75. In looking for reasons as to why you did so poorly, you remember taking too many hours, you remember the emotional distress you went through for six weeks while your parents decided, then changed their minds, about moving to Manhattan, Kansas, and you remember your confusion over life goals, which you have since, of course, resolved.


Picture this: You are Wilhelmina R. Smith, faculty member at the University of Kansas. You have been advising students here for 17 years, and you are now meeting with a freshman student of yours who last semester did poorly in several of his classes. While he goes on about course load, parents moving, being an undecided major, you nod appropriately and would really love to believe him, to believe his failure was due to temporary emotional distress, or to factors outside his control, but you find yourself blaming his failure on enduring qualities such as lack of ability, laziness, or emotional immaturity.


The reasons Billy Ray and Professor Smith give to Billy Ray's failure are what psychologists call attributions, because we couldn't just call them reasons. What either of them chooses to do next depends on those attributions.  If Billy Ray decides to drop out of school it will be in part because of what he blames that first semester on. If Professor Smith encourages Billy Ray to drop out of school, or is she encourages him to stay in school and get extra help, it will be in part based on the reasons that she gives for Billy Ray's failure.


The message I want to deliver this morning is not a simple one, nor is it common sense.  It is in fact, counterintuitive. In the course of our everyday lives, we make tiny errors in how we think about the world--errors in perception, errors in attributing causality. And contrary to what you might think, this is, in fact, a good thing. Psychologists call these positive illusions. I believe I'm smarter than I really am; I believe I have more control over my own life than I really have; and I have an unrealistic optimism about my own future.


We used to believe that the healthiest among us also had the most accurate view of the world and of themselves in that world. Now we know differently. In fact, people who are moderately depressed seem to have lost the ability to distort the world, ever so slightly, in their favor.


So, there are ways that we respond to people around us and to events around us that distort things in our favor, and this turns out to be very normal, and natural, and healthy. But, when we respond in those same ways in relationships, we do ourselves in. I am going to suggest that when we are in relationships with people like family members, friends, or partners, that we are called to a totally different kind of response than we can afford to make, and still be healthy, when we are on our own. In the end, I am going to talk about why in the world we would choose to make that kind of foolish, at least in the eyes of the world, that kind of foolish response, and how doing so in our work in Student Success might make a difference not only for the students we interact with, but for our co-workers, and most importantly for ourselves.


Psychologists believe that much of human behavior is controlled by our thoughts and beliefs, that we are constantly generating theories about the world, about ourselves in the world, and about how best to survive, not just survival in a physical sense, but survival in a social sense as well. This complex web of beliefs is a messy patchwork system, trying to keep us one step ahead of chaos, and for this reason, it looks for a world that is simple, simple and unchanging. The devil I know is more comfortable than the devil I don't know.  If survival is the name of the game, then predictability is a key ingredient.


One part of that web of beliefs would be attributions. Fritz Heider was the pioneer in attribution research and one of the grand forbears of psychology. He was a major player here at the University of Kansas in the psychology department for many years, and he defined attributions as the reasons we give why somebody does something (a totally non-psychologist type of definition). That somebody can be myself or someone else; that behavior can be good, or bad, or neutral.


When we describe the different facets of attributions, we can say that the reason we give for a particular thing happening is that it rests within the individual, it is internally located. So if we look at Billy Ray, we might identify lack of the ability, which is pretty internal. His taking too large a course load would be a more of an external attribution, as might be the environmental stress of his parents moving or threatening to move.


We can also say that a reason is stable or variable. We may believe that Billy Ray failed because he is not very smart, and that's pretty stable. It's not going to change much in the course of a semester. On the other hand, if we say Billy Ray failed because he experienced a lot of emotional distress related to his parent's potential move, there is no reason to expect that he is going to experience that in subsequent semesters. So that is an attribution that is more variable.


Finally we can say that attributions are global or specific. If we say that Billy Ray is not smart, that is pretty global. If we say that Billy Ray is not very good at mathematics that is more specific. The attributions we make about his behavior, remember, are going to have some consequences for what he does later on, whether he is making those about himself, or whether it is somebody else making those about him.


We could look at the way those three different categories or facets of attributions combine in various ways, but for expediency I'm going to lump them together and say that things fall into one of two camps. On one side are attributions that are internal, stable, and global, those reasons that reside in the person, are long-standing almost like traits, and global. I'm going to call those dispositional attributions. And on the other side are attributions that are external, variable, and specific, and I'm going to call those situational attributions.


When you have success or failure experiences, you yourself attribute them to dispositional or situational causes. Let's say a group of students goes in for a chemistry test and half do well. Afterwards we ask, "Why did you do well on this test?" There would be some who would say, "I did well because I'm smart". Others would say, "I did well because it was an easy test" or "because she graded on a curve" or even, "because I studied hard."


When we ask those who did poorly why they did so, some would say, "Because I'm not very smart". Others would say, "I did poorly because it was a ridiculously hard test", or "I didn't get to study much for it." The "not very smart" reason would be dispositional, while the other two are more situational.


What we know about people who go on and achieve great things is that they tend to give dispositional causes for successes and they tend to give situational causes for failures. People who do this on a regular basis engage in what we call the self-serving bias, that combination of going dispositional about successes, and situational about failures. People who have that self-serving bias are different from people who do not have it in some pretty amazing ways. They have better functioning immune systems. If they are diagnosed with cancer and they are treated they have a lower incidence of recurrence. They sell more, and they perform better as athletes.


There was a study where researchers went into newspaper archives and picked out quotes of baseball players about their own performance. They looked at what baseball players said when they had a successful performances and looked at what the said when they had poor performances. They rated their comments as dispositional or situational and they found correlations of .40 between dispositional attributions about success longevity. Not longevity in baseball, but in life. These were men who had played in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s who had subsequently died. Similarly the correlation between the percentage of situational attributions about failure and longevity was just around .35, so people who have that self-serving bias even live longer.


Some of the most instructive research comes from looking at people who are moderately depressed. Moderately depressed people are defined as those who have been depressed for a reasonably long time but are not suicidal, and would very often be seeking treatment for their depression. The researchers took a group of moderately depressed people and put them in a room with a one-way mirror and served them finger sandwiches and 7-Up and asked them to mingle, to act like they were at a party. So they did, they mingled and afterwards the researchers said to them, "How did you do?" and the depressed people would say, "I didn't do very well. I'm just not a social butterfly." And they asked the raters on the other side of the one-way mirror, How well did you think they did?" and they said "Not very well. They really weren't social butterflies."


Then they took a group of non-depressed people and put them in the same room by themselves and said, "Okay here's the finger sandwiches and the 7-Up, mingle" and they did. Afterward they asked them "How did you do?" and the non-depressed people said, "I was really pretty good. I was networking, I was meeting a lot of people, having a pretty good time." And they asked the raters, "How do you think they did?" and the raters said, "Not so well. They really weren't social butterflies."


The important point of the study is that the people who were depressed were more accurate in their perceptions of how they performed. This is just one study of many that arrive at the same conclusion, but it's one of my favorites. I warned you that this was counterintuitive. The people who were depressed were more accurate. And the people who were not depressed were operating under an illusion. They were distorting reality. They thought they were doing well, but in fact they were doing exactly the same as the depressed people.


This flies in the face of one of Freud's earliest formulations, the reality principle, which says that people who are psychologically healthy have a better grip on reality. But research suggests that is not the case, indeed people who are more healthy have a self-serving bias, and people who are depressed are either unable or unwilling to utilize a self-serving bias as a way of keeping themselves out of what is often not a very pretty reality.


So the picture that I have painted of the psychologically healthy person is someone who is distorting reality. We want the world to be simple and consistent, and if the facts don't fit that view, we just ignore the facts, or we squeeze them in. We polish things up. And that's the picture of the healthy human being. So those of you in the crowd who think of yourselves as healthy, you distort. And more power to you, because that's normal, and that's what you have to do.


But what happens when we look at this on an inter-personal level? When I do something a little questionable, I usually believe I have a good reason for it. When you do the very same thing, you don't, or at least I believe you don't. A good example of this is my own driving. Robert Fulghum wrote a little book called "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten." I am thinking I might write a book called, "All I ever failed to learn I demonstrate in my driving." It's not that I'm not a good driver; I think I am, in part because I take driving so seriously. I am constantly engaging other drivers, coaching them, coaxing them, urging them on much like a coach on the bench shouting out plays, clearly exasperated when the players don't execute appropriately.


Anyway, when I'm on my way to work, there is one spot that if I don't make the turn right away, because of the way the traffic is flowing, I'll have to wait for ten or fifteen cars, so I take some chances, and I turn sometimes when I probably shouldn't. I turn in front of people and I say to myself, "He's going a little too slow," and zoom, I'm gone.


Now, when I'm coming from the other direction, and somebody turns in front of me at the exact same point, I honk. When I'm the actor, I have good reasons for doing this. "Don't honk at me. My kid's waiting for me. I have to get to school." But when somebody else does it, "You so and so. What are you doing? You're endangering my life." The same, exact behavior, when I do it it's fine, because I know that I had good reasons for doing it. But when you do it, you're just a bad driver.


So when it's me doing the questionable behavior, I give situational reasons, like I'm in a hurry this time, or you were too slow; but when it's YOU, I give dispositional reasons, like you're a bad driver.  So, when I refer to myself I use the self-serving bias, but when I look at the same behavior in others, I make what is known as the fundamental attributional error (for those of you who are taking notes, that's FAE). The fundamental attribution error says when we are looking at other people's behaviors we almost always overestimate the extent to which dispositional variables are responsible, and underestimate the importance of situational variables.


You might think it would just flip-flop from how we do this on ourselves. But we are not trying to put other people down; we're just trying to make order out of chaos. We find ourselves in a world where we're just one step ahead of chaos. We want the world to be simple, so we impose simplicity on the world even when it isn't simple. We make it as simple as we can get away with. If someone is in an accident, we assume it's because they're a bad driver, even if it's our best friend who we know has never been in an accident. We know that they're just not a good driver.


And if somebody does well on an exam, we want to believe it's because they're a good student, not because the test was easy, or because they were lucky enough to study the right material. If we had to find situational reasons for why people behave, can you imagine how difficult that would be? It takes a lot of work to try to understand the reasons for somebody's behavior in this particular situation. So the natural, normal tendency is to always look for dispositional reasons in other people's behavior.


Now this next part might work better if you think about a relationship you're currently in, the closer the better. When you put people together in a close relationship, there's going be conflict. There's always conflict in close relationships. If you respect your heritage and the things you bring to the relationship, and I do the same, we're going to disagree on many issues, and that's conflict. So, the issue is not whether conflict, but how we deal with the conflict.


But remember, what's the normal reaction for people around figuring out reasons about conflict? "I had a good reason for doing what I did, and you didn't. "You left these clothes laying around because you're lazy" or "You came home late last night because you're irresponsible". Those dispositional attributions are hard to work with in terms of trying to negotiate the conflict. Because if I believe that the reason you did this is for some long-standing flaw, I don't have much hope that you're going to be able to change.


So in close relationships we're more successful if we can look for situational reasons for conflict. "I'm going to assume that you behaved the way you did for good reasons. I don't know what those reasons are yet, but I'm going to assume that you have good reasons. Actually, I may never know those reasons, but I am going to assume that you had good ones and I'm going to work on this as though you had good reasons."


There's another notion called an interactional set, which says whenever we have conflict, I can assume that I contributed to it in some way. I may not have a clue yet as to what that is, but any conflict is an interaction, and it's a safe bet that I'm contributing to it in some way.


Combined, we might call these charitable attributions, assuming you had good reasons (though for the life of me I cannot yet imagine what those might be); and assuming I'm playing a part in this conflict (though for the life of me I can't yet imagine what that might be).


Maybe an example will help. Several years ago I had a family that came in for counseling. They were experiencing their first case of adolescence, and there was a lot of anger between the father and the son. The thing that brought them in that particular week was that the son had been given at 11 o'clock curfew over the weekend. The son was 17 years old, and had violated the curfew several times before, usually by about a half an hour. The father had given him an ultimatum and, of course, he had to step over that line, and he came in at 11:30 again. It was a very big fight and they were blaming each other and calling each other names, the family got scared so they came in. In the beginning, everyone was assuming negative dispositional reasons for the other's behavior, the son seeing the father as rigid and punitive, the father seeing the son as irresponsible and rebellious.


But another way of thinking about their behavior was situational. It's possible the son really did lose track of time as he reported, or that he really was too embarrassed to tell his friends that his dad wanted him home by 11. And as for the father, it's possible he really did have a bad day at work and was overly sensitive, or that he really was upset because he wanted to share some news of the day with his son, who not only didn't come home at a reasonable hour, but was mean to dad when he did get home.


But to go even farther would be to look for positive dispositional reasons behind their behavior, seeing the son's motivation as his healthy drive for independence; and seeing the father's as his concern for his son's safety and his growing up to be a responsible citizen and family member. Therapists call this a reframe. Identifying reasons behind a person's behavior that they may not even be aware of, may at times get you off the hook and move toward some kind of resolution of the conflict. By saying about the son's behavior, that part of what the son was doing was trying to exert his independence, which is a very normal, healthy drive in a 17-year-old. And part of the father's behavior we could say is that he was very concerned about his son, which indeed he was, and that he was trying to shape the son's behavior so that he would grow up to be a responsible citizen.


Neither one of them would have initially argued that their behavior came from such healthy motivations as a father's care for his son, or a son's normal inclination to independence. But we worked to try to understand each other's behavior in that light, and at least we were able to start laughing, at some point, about how absurd some of these things were.


It's important to note at this point that it's possible and often desirable to separate the responsibility for one's behavior from the reasons for that behavior. The father might say to the son, "I understand your behavior now in terms of your need to establish some autonomy, to be independent and throw off the rules. I see that as a pretty natural, healthy drive. You're still grounded for the rest of the month."


And I don't think that's unreasonable. He's saying, "You're still responsible for the behavior. And we're still going to try to set up the household so that I can have my concern addressed, which is to have you be responsible. But, I believe you did this for some good reason, not because you're an irresponsible kid, so I don't have to think of you as less than the son that I would like you to be. I don't have to be mad at you; I don't have to not like you."


Some have difficulty with this point, arguing that to frame the son's behavior in a positive way is to make an objective error. But most situations are fuzzy enough that we can't make clear, objective judgments about motives. There's an enormous amount of evidence that we ourselves often don't know the real reasons for our own behaviors. Most complex human behaviors lend themselves to multiple interpretations of the data. We provide the attributions; we choose how we will interpret the facts.              


This choice, this decision, is critical in relationships. Couples in distress go out of their way to find situational reasons even for positive behaviors: "He only brought me flowers because I was mad at him." Compare that with successful relationships, where partners not only consistently interpret the data in the most "objectively" generous way, but they also choose to ignore some of the data that is clearly negative. They overlook evidence, allowing them to see situational and even positive dispositional reasons instead.


Much like with moderately depressed persons, who have lost the ability to distort in their favor, successful partners are able or willing to mildly distort in favor of each other, to avoid returning negative for negative. Earlier, I said reasons are given as a way of protecting the self from chaos. I think that in these relationships the partners have come to define self as going beyond the boundaries of their own skin, that they now see themselves as part of something bigger, that indeed they have chosen to protect self-in-relationship.


Being in an intimate relationship requires of us something beyond the contractual position of "If you do this for me, I will do that for you". There are many times in close relationships when we can only get through conflict if we have taken a covenant stance, that is, a willingness to unilaterally move toward reconciliation, even though the other may not agree to do so. The commitment required in such a close relationship might be seen as absurd in our culture: to assume that people have good reasons for acting the way that they do, even when the data may not support that; to distort in favor of the relationship as a way of protecting and nurturing the relationship.


When couples in conflict are in therapy, we sometimes meet with them separately and ask each one independently, "Identify one thing you could do this week that would show that your heart is in the right place. Is there something that you could do, something with some sign value that you could do regardless of your partner's response.... in spite of their response."? That is the kind of commitment intimate relationships require of us, to be able to make that kind of absurd response, because a lot of times the only way to get out of conflict, is to bite the bullet and to look for some excuse to let this person off the hook, so you can quit being mad at them and start to work with them again.


While our natural tendency is to protect the self-in-isolation, one mark of emotional and spiritual maturity is the ability to choose to protect self-in-relationship with others. While there is good science to support that this is what happens in successful marriages and partnered relationships, similar choices are made on a daily basis by members of communities, communities like Student Success, and such decisions are being made by some relative to the whole of humanity.


There is a danger in our not being willing to enlarge our circle of how we define the self in need of protection. We used to let ourselves see the Russians as the bad guys, but at some point we came to see that as unworkable. Now we've moved on to the Iranians, or the North Koreans, or the liberals, or the conservatives.


We must always be willing to see good reasons behind other's behavior, whether persons or countries. And we must recognize that conflict is inevitable, because both parties value their heritage. Research suggests that in intimate relationships, close to 70% of conflicts are not resolvable in any permanent way. So we must face those conflicts, recognizing there are no easy solutions, but our only option is to move toward dealing with them anyway. In our world, we really have no choice but to make those foolish attributions, and to move to reconciliation, always believing that the other is acting for good reasons, even if we can't imagine what those might be.


Suspending our natural inclination in the ways we think about the world sounds like a pretty absurd response, but it works. As I said earlier, we have good evidence that people in successful relationships behave toward each other in this way.


[The following paragraph was not in the talk to the Student Success staff, but it was in the sermon, and I like it a lot so I am including it here]

The second reason, is that I think we are called to that kind of response by our spiritual heritage. As a spiritual discipline, I open myself up to such a relationship in part because I have experienced it first hand from people in my life, and from people in this religious community. I have been loved by others and I am hooked. Once I've experienced unconditional acceptance--understood that I will be loved no matter what I do--once I have truly experienced this kind of love, been forgiven, then the best of me is called from within. I will become capable of loving as I have been loved.


I have put together a short list of things for us to consider which emanate from the charitable attributions argument.


1. Start by loosening the absoluteness of the bond between your thoughts and reality. Go into conflict trying to confirm the dual suspicions that the a) the other person has good reasons for doing what they are doing, and b) you are playing some role in the conflict.


2. Much of what drives even our own behavior is beyond our knowing, though it rarely feels that way. Estimates vary about how much of our behavior is controlled by conscious processes, but the estimates are consistently low (from one millionth to less than 5%). Again, just opening yourself up to the possibility that you are seeing the world in a simpler-than-it-really-is manner can be a good starting point.


3. Be aware of your own tendency to make the self-serving bias, the actor-observer bias, and the fundamental attribution error. Catch yourself making attributions over the next few hours. See if you can catch yourself making self-serving attributions for your own successes and failures, and what you do with successes and failures of other Student Success folks.


4. Start with the easy people you don't even know, in line, in traffic. Play the "just like me" game. Fix on someone you don't know, and imagine, "Just like me, he is trying to get to work on time" or "Just like me, he wants to get through the line as quickly as possible so he can enjoy his lunch."


5. See the dignity in everyone you meet. Imagine them to be wise, even that scoundrel in the Student Success office that seems to be surly all the time. See if you can make up a charitable reason for their being how they are. Decide to unilaterally behave in a way that treats them with dignity.


6. Learn to see everyone as having something to teach you.


7. Remember that forgiveness is the price you pay for freedom.


8. Quiet the second son within us, so we can be about the important business of forgiving and of returning home. (Marsha Sinetar)


9. How do we teach people to take on a charitable attributional style?

         See myself in others' shoes.

         Learn of similarities between me and others.

         Come to believe I will be interacting with others in the future.


Marsha Sinetar has written about the Prodigal son story. She says we carry within us all three of the main characters, the father, the prodigal son, and the second son-who says the father is a fool to be making such a charitable response to the first son. Sinetar writes that our task is to quiet the second son within us, so we can be about the important business of forgiving and of returning home.