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Heroes, Victims, and Attributions

winner being announced in a boxing ring

Heroes, Victims, and Attributions

Attributions are the reasons you attribute your success or failure to. We don't always pay that much attention or think that much of them, but, in fact, your attributions can affect your self perception, and, in turn, your attitude towards future challenges. Paying attention to those attributions and being purposeful in making your attributions can change your perception of the world and your confidence and sense of control over your performance.

An easy way to think of attributions is in the form of a story we make up to explain various events and outcomes. Think about a recent situation of success or failure: if you were to write out that story would you be the hero or the victim? Was there an evil villain working against you or just plain luck and circumstances? Did you have a sidekick or were you the sidekick or the one being saved? Most stories can be written several different ways to get to the same outcome, and, often, the story we write is more important even than the outcome itself.

what's your story

Now into the nitty-gritty. There are a few general classifications for attributions, which fall along three spectrums: Internal-External, Stable-Unstable, and Controllable-Uncontrollable. Internal attributions relate to the individual's skills and traits like intelligence, strength, time-management, work ethic, etc., whereas external attributions relate to situational factors like other individuals' skills and traits, weather, luck, technology, etc. Stable attributions involve factors that will remain consistent over time, while unstable attributions are situation or time specific. Finally, controllable attributions hinge on factors that are within an individual's control, for example, effort exerted, or resources utilized, versus factors that are not within an individual's control, which take the blame in uncontrollable attributions. Healthy attributions are those that allow for growth and promote self-worth no matter the situation or outcome: successes attributed to internal, controllable, and stable factors and failures attributed to unstable, internal and controllable factors. Healthy attributions can lead to positive emotions, increased motivation and confidence, and a sense of control over future outcomes. Unhealthy attributions can happen in either extreme: some people avoid taking ownership for failures and often take undue credit for successes while others self-criticize for failures and dismiss successes as unstable, uncontrollable, and external, in other words, luck and the mistakes of others. While completely different, both of these extremes prevent you from learning, growing, and building true confidence.

You might be wondering why this matters because we can't change what happened. The reality is that we are not very good at accurately assessing the factors involved in any given outcome, and, at the end of the day, what matters most (as with everything) is not the reality but our perception of the reality. Researchers have identified some common attributional biases that help us to understand the ways in which we tend to perceive situations. For example a self-serving attributional bias involves attributing more internal, stable, and controllable factors to positive outcomes than negative outcomes. This allows us to feel like the hero when things go well, and the guilt-free victim when they don't. Something called the fundamental attribution error says that we are more likely to attribute success or failure in others to internal factors, such as the individual's character or intent, and ignore or dismiss external and situational factors. This often leads to us building others up as heroes for their successes and can result in our blaming the victim in certain crimes. When attributing factors to our own successes and failures we are more likely to consider the situation or context. In other words, I might say that you succeeded because you're a natural at this, whereas I succeeded because I worked really hard. You failed because you're not very good at this, but I failed because it wasn't a fair competition. Other factors like mental health, confidence in a specific skill set, and experience with the context or situation can also affect the types of attributions we make.

Attributions are learned from the people and situations around us. While you may never have known the term attribution before today, you've definitely been making them every day from a very early age. We can help others to make healthy attributions by modelling that behaviour ourselves and by providing feedback and support that includes healthy attributions. There is a delicate balance between taking responsibility and ownership for our failures and belittling our efforts and abilities, just as there is between celebrating our successes and strengths and believing ourselves to be perfect or invincible.

blank notebook open with pencil

Most of us like to be sure. We like to have a reason, a cause, someone to blame or credit. And we like for this reason to be simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. The truth is, as I've said before, that's not always (or often) the case. It's unusual to find just one factor as the cause of an outcome - if we can even find a direct cause. Unfortunately, that leaves the door open for our minds to make up a story that fills in those blanks. Next time you find yourself secretly or otherwise dolling out credit or blame, take some time to think about all of the factors that could be at play and (evidence or not) pay attention to those that allow for you to learn and grow and move forward in a positive way from the experience, good or bad. This may involve seeking out help from a trusted friend or neutral party with whom you can be vulnerable. It may involve writing out a list of possible stories with varying villains and heroes. It may involve quiet reflection on your own or imagining yourself as a different character in the story and trying to see things from their perspective. Whatever form it takes, remember that our minds will create stories and assign blame and credit either way. It's up to us to intervene enough to oversee the writing process and edit as needed to ensure we're headed towards the ending we want.


Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is There a Universal Positivity Bias in Attributions? A Meta-Analytic Review of Individual, Developmental, and Cultural Differences in the Self-Serving Attributional Bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711-747. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711


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