Monday, July 11, 2011

You’re the Judge: Are You Making Bad Attributions?

Your romantic partner surprises you with flowers. What are the first thoughts that cross your mind? Do you think “how sweet and thoughtful!” or do your thoughts tend toward the dark side, such as “That’s a look of guilt… what did he do this time?” How we interpret the behaviors of those closest to us says a lot about our relationships. If your friend is late for lunch, do you think she can’t manage her time well, or do you assume she got stuck in traffic? People who tend to interpret their partner’s behaviors in a more positive light have happier, more trusting relationships. So what exactly does it mean to interpret someone’s behavior in a “more positive light”?

Causal Attributions
In general social psych terminology, people’s explanations about the causes of events and behaviors, such as flowers from a partner or a friend’s late arrive, are called causal attributions. In research on close relationships, attributions are often broken up into two categories: “relationship-enhancing” attributions and “distress-maintaining” attributions (Bradbury & Fincham, 1990).

Relationship-enhancing attributions occur when people place more responsibility on their partners for their positive behaviors and less responsibility on their partners for their negative behaviors. So when your partner brings you flowers – it's because he’s sweet and thoughtful. But when he’s late for a date, it's because he got caught in traffic (something he couldn’t control). 

Distress-maintaining attributions show just the opposite pattern. These types of attributions occur when people place responsibility on their partners for their bad behaviors, but interpret their partner’s positive behaviors in a more negative light. So when your partner brings you flowers, it must be a result of his guilt – not because he wanted to show he cared, and when he shows up late for a date, you assume it’s because he forgot he was supposed to meet you.

Are bad attributions a reflection, or the cause, of a distressed relationship?
Research has shown that people who don't trust their partners as much tend to make less relationship-enhancing attributions over time (Miller & Rempel, 2004) and its easy to see how viewing your partner has untrustworty, and not being satisfied with your relationship might lead you to assume the worst when your partner behaves badly. But there is also evidence that the types of attributions you make influence how your relationship turns out (Fincham & Bradbury, 1993). In one study, people who made worse attributions for their spouse’s negative behaviors at the beginning of one year became less satisfied with their marriages over the course of that year. So blaming your partner for his negative behaviors instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt (as I suggested you do in my first post) may just be your downfall.

Down the rabbit hole
The attributions that you make for your partner’s behavior influence not just how you feel about your relationship, but also how you behave. If you think your partner showed up late to your date because she forgot about it, you are likely to find yourself responding with your own negative behaviors. This kind of thinking, and subsequent behavior, perpetuates a negative downward spiral (your partner arrives late, you get pissy, your partner gets defensive, cue awkward scene in nice restaurant). However, if you assume she was late because of something outside of her control, like traffic, you are more likely to be in a positive mood, thereby lifting her sprits and preventing you both from falling down the rabbit hole. And hopefully, the next time you are the one who is late (you know its gonna happen sometime!) – your partner will respond in kind. 

A few final words:
First, I’ve provided some very discrete examples to distinguish between relationship-enhancing and distress-maintaining attributions (such as forgot about a date versus stuck in traffic) and you may be thinking… it is all well and good to make these types of attributions when you haven’t talked to your partner yet, but what happens when they show up and confess they forgot about the date? In this case, their behavior is no longer up for interpretation, they admit they did it! Not true – there’s always room for interpretation. Even if you find out your partner forgot about the date, you can still choose to think she forgot about it because she doesn’t care, or you could assume she forgot about it not because she didn't care, but because she was stressed at work and hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night.

Finally, although painting your partner’s behaviors in a positive light may help you be happier in your relationship, there may be times when relationship-enhancing attributions are not beneficial. The research I've described today looks at attributions for relatively mild behaviors in relatively healthy relationships. If your partner is engaging in extreme negative behaviors (such as violence), or you are in a really unhappy relationship, trying to but the best spin on things is probably not the way to go.

The causal attribution literature goes into detail about what types of information we use to make attributions, though I haven't gone into it here. I'm curious to know what info about the situation you utilize when you make attributions... let us know in the comments!

The articles:
  • Bradbury, T., & Fincham, F. (1990). Attributions in marriage: Review and critique. Psychological Bulletin, 107 (1), 3-33 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.107.1.3
  • Fincham, F., & Bradbury, T. (1993). Marital satisfaction, depression, and attributions: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64 (3), 442-452 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.64.3.442
  • Miller, P., & Rempel, J. (2004). Trust and Partner-Enhancing Attributions in Close Relationships Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30 (6), 695-705 DOI: 10.1177/0146167203262803


  1. Thanks. I forwarded this to my girlfriend!

    I wonder, are there personality traits associated with tendencies toward putting negative spin on the behaviors of others? It sometimes seems that certain people do this automatically in nearly all situations, even those involving complete strangers. Take for example when someone pulls into a gas station and sees the car parked at the first pump rather than pulling through to the next pump. There are certain people who will automatically assume the person is an inconsiderate ass for not pulling all the way to the last pump, leaving room for another car. However, I am someone who assumes that when that person pulled in, there was another car already there. To me these are two distinctly different personality types; 1. jackass and, 2. super cool and nice. ((note my brilliant use of clinical terminology)).

    It seems to me that you can find this difference in broader areas besides just relationships. And that makes me wonder, as much as I appreciate your analysis of this, can some people really change the way they interpret the behaviors of others? Or is this just a part of their personality? I tend to lean toward the side of nurture, that we are all capable of overcoming our "hardwired" tendencies.

  2. Daniel – great questions! You really are getting at the heart of personality and social psychology here. We are constantly asking how much are our cognitions, attitudes and behaviors a result of who we are, how much are they influenced by the situations we are in, and how much control do we have over changing them? I think at this point most personality and social psychologists are in agreement that it’s a bit of both (referred to as “p x s” or “person by situation”). But to get back to your questions:

    There are certain people who tend to make more negative attributions. Benjamin Karney and his colleagues have shown that people who are higher in negative affectivity (think perpetual “sour mood”) are less likely to make relationship-enhancing attributions about their partners’ negative behaviors. Perhaps these are the “jack-asses” you were thinking of?

    But if we stop at that, we are forgetting to take into account the power of the situation. In general, someone who is a perpetual grump may be more likely to assume that the person parked at the rear pump is an inconsiderate ass, while you, in all your super cool niceness may be more likely to assume they had pulled in behind a car. But what conclusions might you draw if you were seriously sleep deprived and stressed over a big project? What about if you had gotten some really bad news just before pulling into the gas station, if the gas station was completely empty except for that car, or if you had dealt with several other drivers who were clearly inconsiderate asses on your way over to the station?

    Classic social psych research suggests that people will make more automatic judgments attributing people’s behavior to their personality (he’s an inconsiderate ass) when they have few cognitive resources (so sleep deprived, stressed). Current mood also plays a role – you may be more forgiving and make more positive attributions when you are in a good mood, the opposite if you are in a bad mood. As do your surroundings and recent experiences – if you’ve encountered a bunch of jerk drivers on your way to the gas station, you may be primed to view other drivers who do something annoying as being a jerk too.

    You also asked about whether people can change their attribution style. I don’t know off the top of my head of research looking at this question specifically, other research on interventions suggests people can change their attribution style. With conscious effort, people can effectively change their thinking patterns (for more on this, you could try looking up info on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, particularly in its application to depression).

    In sum, although there are certain people who tend to make more negative attributions – in their relationships and in general – the situation they are in will also heavily influence the attributions they make, and with conscious effort, they can teach themselves to make different attributions.

    Hope this helps and thanks for reading!

    The article about negative affecitivity:
    Karney, B. R., Bradbury, T. N., Fincham, F. D., & Sullivan, K. T. (1994). The role of negative affectivity in the association between attributions and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(2), 413.

  3. Amie,
    Thanks so much for responding in such detail. I'm a new fan of the blog you all put together here.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mention Cog-B Therapy as it relates to changing unwanted or unhealthy behaviors/thought patterns. I think that's the direction I will be moving in as grad school starts this fall.

    I do know one thing for certain, your post has me evaluating my own efforts toward making relationship enhancing attributions about my partner's negative behaviors.

    Thanks so much for the interesting post, thoughtful responses and discussion.


  4. the way, I have realized that I tend to end up in petty squabbles in my own relationships when I haven't eaten for a long time, or have not had enough sleep. I would have to agree with the research that suggests I may be making "more automatic judgments attributing people's behavior to their personality" when I'm not firing on all 8 cylinders. Thanks again for the insight.