‘Attribution style’ is a psychological theory about what you attribute your success and failure to. As a child, when you received a good mark you would either say: ‘Look at me, I did that! It was all me.’, or quite the opposite: ‘I could not help it, the teacher gave me an easy test.’ Similarly, when you got a bad mark you could either choose to whine about it: ‘It’s awful!’, or to place it outside yourself: ‘I could not help it, it was the teacher’s fault because the test was too difficult’. Combining these two situations and their possible answers leaves us with four ways of attributing our wins and losses:
1. If I get a high grade, it was not me – the test simply was too easy. But if I get a low grade, it surely was not my fault – the teacher just made the test be too tough. This option makes you a victim of your life, attributing the outcome to any situation to other people. Basically, you let your happiness depend on teachers making their tests easy or tough. Either way, you cannot help it; whatever happens, whichever grade you receive, there is nothing you could have done about it.
2. If I get a good mark, I’ll say it was all me! But if I get a bad mark, I’ll blame the teacher for giving a tough test and/or not explaining it well. To me, this way of handling the attribution of success or failure leans towards narcissism or even egocentric behaviour. Whenever something goes wrong, you ignore it, but whenever something goes right, you pat yourself on the back and make yourself even bigger.
3. If I score well, I ascribe it to the teacher’s simple test. But if I score badly, it’s awful and I did a very poor job. This way of attributing makes you a martyr, the very opposite of a narcissist.
4. Either way, whichever type of grade I receive, it is always me – the development space.
What you can see, roughly, is that boys tend to be narcissists and girls tend to be martyrs. There is an evolutionary explanation for that. The man had to create his space in a tribe by positioning himself well: focus on the good side and ignore the bad side. Women tend to strive for social acceptance – there actually is a larger area in their brain dedicated to that – making them attribute negative outcomes to themselves more heavily than positive ones.
This article has one very simple message: neither martyrdom, narcissism nor holding on to the victim role help you move forward. Whether you get a very high or a very low score, the focus needs to be on development.
Ask yourself: ‘What can I do to make it better?’ Always find the fault with yourself and stay away from victim behaviour.
We can make each other attributing success and failure in the victim-like style: we do so by talking for them. If all a child gets told is ‘you couldn’t help it, it was somebody else’s fault/success’, then that is exactly what the child will say and keep saying to itself. The voice a child hears in his head is merely a reflection of the voices he/she hears from you, as a parent or as a teacher. But by asking the question: ‘What can you do to make it (even) better next time?’ you help the child moving into the development space. This is an important thing I feel like we should all do in order to bring out the best in yourself and in each other.
Tijl Koenderink is the founder and master trainer of Novilo, a company that helps schools, teachers and parents create a place for gifted and talented children. You can find his Facebook page right here!