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Daily Archives: January 19, 2010

Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Application in Training & Content Development (3 of 3)

Following are the two posts that precede this post.

  1. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Why People play down the Achievements of Others?
  2. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Stability & Controllability

This is the third and final post in this series. Through this post, let us discuss some applications of the Attribution Theory.

Recall how Sloth and Froth applied different causes to their own and other’s successes and failures. What we saw was something that we’ve all experienced intuitively – the primal human tendency to improve ones appearance. An interesting application of Attribution theory, which popped into my head just now, can be seen in the behavior of a young woman viewing a picture of another woman (someone that her spouse or sweetheart may have found attractive.) The reasons that this woman would attribute to the “success” (read: attractiveness) of the woman in picture would probably read as:

“A play of lights. Those photographers can make anyone look beautiful! And I wonder why you don’t see those spots on her face that I saw when the camera did a close-up in…what was that show – Oh…Koffee with Karan, I suppose. And that figure?! Hasn’t anyone heard of Photoshop! She’s got curves?! Hah!”

And upon viewing her own photograph…
“The photographer didn’t know his work! Look at the way he messed up the lighting! I don’t have those three rumbling chins – no way! And my skin is actually many shades lighter. What’s that spot on my cheek? Must be a speck on the camera lens!”

Funny…but true! And we all know that it is true:-)

What’s Lacey’s Viewpoint?

The question is how can we use this reality to make learning more effective?

Here are a few tips.

1. Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!
2. Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution
3. Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes
4. Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!

Remember that the audience attempts to view his/her success or failure in the best possible light. This of course means that for everything that happens during a learning experience, the audience’s mind is busy determining causes. By the time, you get around to explaining something, the audience has already booked a cause for it. So, Never tell the audience that his or her failure was due to an internal factor. (In all probability, the audience has already pinned the blame of failure on to something else, such as you, or the study material, the methodology, or even a visiting aunt.) If you differ, your explanation will be met with a cognitive dissonance.

Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution

Always review a learning issue within the context of the culture. For instance, as Indians, we make external attributions for a person’s undesirable actions more often than the westerners. This is so because as a society we are driven by external obligations, humility, and the demands of our social/familial roles.

Thus, if a person is caught taking bribe, a westerner would probably be more disposed towards attributing the action to that person’s trait of dishonesty, while we would most probably blame it on the system.

Here’s another example.
My personal experience of dealing with the topic of plagiarism in a training program taught me that this topic has to be handled very carefully, else it would hit a wall of resistance. Discussing plagiarism as a malady to be remedied results in more productive discussions that discussing it as an act of dishonesty (which results in drawn swords.)

Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes

This is an old one, and I am sure that you are already a master at doing this. Ascribe failures to unstable and controllable caused (for example, if a learner fails to perform according to expectations, ascribe it to “lack of directed effort” (something that can be controlled, and which isn’t stable – are you wondering whether all that is internal and unstable can be controlled? Reflect.) Don’t ascribe it to “lack of aptitude for science.”)

If you think that a learner has developed the tendency to ascribe failures to external, stable, uncontrollable factors, gear up to steer this learner away from this defeatist attitude.

Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

In societies such as ours, we grow up ascribing our successes to the hand of fate. When I was growing up, before and after my exams (until the results were declared,) I’d pray and hope that somehow my prayers would improve my results. Thankfully, my prayers were never answered and I learned to ascribe success to “internal and controllable” causes. I shudder to think what kind of person I would’ve become had I turned “lucky.”

We should attempt to help the learner view his/her successes as a result of her internal, stable, and controllable factors (such as the output of concentrated effort,) instead of external, unstable, and uncontrollable factors, such as luck.

I believe that such positive attributions can go a long way in bolstering the confidence of our children who would find themselves in control of their destiny instead of being controlled by it.


Photo by mikebaird

Of course, Attribution Theory has many other applications, and I don’t think that I can cover all of them, but I do feel that a conscious effort to keep the three parameters of Attribution Theory in mind could help all kinds of learning professionals – the trainers, the teachers, and the instructional designers. It could help us reach out to our audience, empathize with them, and become a positive influence in their lives.

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