Attribution Theory and Learning

Adapted from Chapter 10 (Control) of Becoming Buoyant, now available.

Control, within an academic environment, refers to the belief that students are able to control their own academic outcomes. Control in this context doesn’t refer to students ability to dictate their own learning (such as choosing activities), but rather, to be the vehicles of their own progress, to accept that their successes are caused by their own actions and that they are equally responsible for their failures. But control also involves the belief that even if the goal is not reached, there is something concrete and tangible that can be done to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, our feelings of control can peak and trough and we are all prone to misattributing causes to erroneous factors (such as blaming others for our failures). How we attribute these causes represent the cornerstone of control.

Locus of control and attribution theory

Central to this notion is a concept known as locus of control, developed by psychologist Julian Rotter back in the 1960s (for example, Rotter, 1966). The basic idea is simple enough; if we feel that we can control events, we have the capacity to prevent bad things from happening. For example, if a student feels that they are the vehicle of their own achievement, they feel more confident, dedicated to their studies and display higher levels of motivation. They are also more likely to carefully evaluate setbacks in terms of what they could have done differently, rather than chastise their lack of intelligence or pass blame to others (often the teacher who they believe to be the main source of their failure). Locus of control is described as either internal (I have control over my own outcomes) or external (I am the victim of sources beyond my control). Certain environments have the capacity to strip people of this feeling of control, namely the workplace and the classroom. In school, young people are told what to wear and how to behave, they eat at specified times and move around the school at pre-determined points throughout the day. Most of these factors are necessary for the smooth running of any organisation, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they diminish feelings and beliefs about our ability to dictate our own actions. People don’t like to believe that they are being controlled or manipulated, and this fact remains the same regardless of age. An interesting aside is that we can actually use this phenomenon to nudge young people towards healthier lifestyles. Research into the effectiveness of campaigns aimed at teenage smokers have found that informing young people that they are being manipulated by big tobacco companies can have a greater chance of success than those emphasising the risk to health – we simply don’t like to feel that we are being controlled (Hersey et al., 2005).

The general locus of control concept goes further than just attributing our actions in internal or external ways; it also shapes our perceptions and how we attribute the causes of other peoples actions and how these behaviours relate directly to us. Actor Jennifer Lawrence has become a household name since starring in the successful Hunger Games films. Since then her success has gone from strength to strength, picking up an Oscar on the way. Lawrence is also famous for something slightly less positive – falling over at award ceremonies. By all accounts, it’s become quite a talking point in Hollywood with fellow actor Jared Leto even suggesting (perhaps not too seriously) that it’s all part of a plan to get on the front pages of tabloid newspapers across the globe. At the 2014 Oscar ceremony, Lawrence was making her way to the stage when she turned and looked into the audience and said ‘Why are you laughing? What, is this funny?’ She was directing her questions to Leto, who was seated in the front row with his brothers and comedian Ellen DeGeneres. Lawrence didn’t know why she appeared to be the target of their laughter and her questions were the first attempt at trying to make sense of the situation; she knew that they were laughing at her, but she didn’t know why.

We don’t know for sure what was going through Lawrence’s mind as she made her way to the stage, but we can assume that she felt uncomfortable at the thought that her friends and fellow actors were making fun of her. Leto later explained that it was DeGeneres who had caused the uncontrolled laughter by joking about the prospect of Lawrence, once again, falling as she mounted the stage. The joke was potentially funny because it related to previous behaviour (falling over). It’s unlikely that there was any malice intended, seeing as DeGeneres and Lawrence are close friends, but the behaviour did place Lawrence in a particularly difficult situation, one that led to her responding in a rather confused manner, in front of millions of people.

The situation Lawrence found herself in is far from unique. I suspect we have all found ourselves in the position whereby we believe people are laughing at us or talking about us when we have very little context to formulate an explanation or support our assumption. Nevertheless, we invariably try to take in what we do know and formulate a hypothesis around a logical causal explanation. The less information we have, the higher the likelihood that we are wrong – we have misread the signals, so to speak. When things don’t go according to plan (or when something unexpected occurs) people look for reasons why. In our particular context we are going to concern ourselves with attributing causes to events preventing us from reaching our goals, but the same notion can be applied to any situation. The search for reasons why often leads to a behavioural adaptation that can then be used next time in the hope that outcomes will be more favourable. The problem is that the elements we attribute to the setback aren’t always the same and different people might look at their past failures and assume that the causes are both something about them (an internal handicap, so to speak) and are unchangeable (or stable). Lawrence attributes her falls to clumsiness or thinking too hard about what she needs to do to avoid falling which, paradoxically, leads to her falling. Of course, the more she falls, the more she’ll believe she will fall. These differences in how we attribute cause are known as our attributional style.

We are all naïve scientists

When an event occurs people instinctively attempt to find its cause, this is the same regardless of whether the behaviour is witnessed in others or in ourselves. In his book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, Fritz Heider described people as naïve scientists, in that they often attempt to apply stable causes to underlying behavioural events (Heider, 1958). Heider distinguished between personal causality (something internal that causes us to behave in a particular way) and situational causality (governed by external factors). The question is, therefore, how do people infer that one thing causes another? With reference to student behaviour, there will no doubt be a number of different inferences at play, such as the good (or otherwise) relationship the student has with the teacher, how the student feels about the subject in general, the social dynamic of the group, how well the lesson is planned and/or delivered… the list goes on.

We can try to explain how people could attribute the causes of behaviour by referring to models of causal inference, that is, models that try to explain  how we ascribe causality in social situations. The why questions, in other words. For example:

  • •    Why is he in such a bad mood with me?
  • •    Why is she being so kind to me?
  • •    Why is Tom in 9B such a nightmare in my lesson while everyone else thinks he’s a little angel?
  • •    Why do people commit crimes when they know that (if caught) they will be punished?
  • •    Why do some students continue to misbehave despite incurring multiple sanctions? 

Or they might be more personal:

  • •    Why did I fail that test?
  • •    Why do a get lower grades than everyone in the class even though I work twice as hard?
  • •    Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?

Models relating to our understanding of such causality are usually referred to as attribution theory (essentially, common sense methods for inferring causality), but in reality there are number of related yet distinct models.

Attributing cause in social interactions

How we approach a similar task or situation in the future is dependent upon three factors. The first is locus, that is, do we attribute failure to something internal (such as lack of intelligence or a personality flaw) or do we believe that it was caused by something external.

Second, people also attribute cause based on how stable they believe the outcome is. For example, if we fail our driving test twice, do we assume that we will also fail it a third time (based on past experience) or do we view our failure to pass as unstable (it will be different next time)?

Finally, we base outcomes on how far we believed we had control over the situation.

These three components combine to form what is describes as the overriding control mechanism, or the belief that we are able to control future outcomes, including academic ones. It also relates to more general life outcomes, as in the following example.

Billy asks Mandy out on a date, only to be told that Mandy really doesn’t want to go out on a date with him. Billy’s immediate response is one of unhappiness, but he also wants to know why – he searches for the causal attributes. Mandy has no desire to tell him that it’s because she finds him boring (an internal cause) so she tells Billy that she really needs to study for an important exam (an excuse or, more technically, a causal substitute). Mandy, therefore, attempts to replace an internal cause with an external cause in the hope that this will protect Billy’s feelings of self-worth. The problem is that this often happens to Billy and he can’t understand why his friends are always out on dates while he’s stuck at home binging on box sets. He concludes that he must be boring and that people will always refuse to go out on dates with him, that is, the outcome is stable. It’s easy to see where this might lead. Billy will, in all likelihood, simply stop asking people out on dates, having attributed passed failure to some flaw in his personality and the assumption that these passed failures are predictive of future failures.

Attributing the cause of our own outcomes

We can also see how this might be applied to academic settings. If a student fails an important test, they might simply attribute it to a one off, a low grade that will be improved upon next time because they’ll work harder and make sure they understand what is required. On the other hand, our student might attribute failure to lack of intelligence (something they view as internal and stable, that is, something about them they cannot change). If previous attempts to complete the task have also been unsuccessful, our student might assume that any future attempt will also lead to disappointment. These beliefs then impact behaviour – motivation and confidence fall.

Control (our ability to employ adaptive attributions) can be seen as a link between academic buoyancy and academic achievement. Academically buoyant students are more likely to hold an adaptive attributional style, in that they feel able to change their behaviour and elicit success even after a setback. This is often referred to an optimistic attributional style but it is probably closer to a realistic attributional approach. Rather than attributing failure to lack of intelligence (an internal attribution) they would be more likely to attribute it to lack of effort (which is external and unstable, that is, it can be changed). On the other hand, a person with a pessimistic attributional style would attribute failure to a factor such as intelligence, but in the event of success, they would be more likely to attribute it to luck.

Success is, therefore, related to how in control we feel and the ability to associate the cause of our behaviour to factors that we can change. If a student failed a test and attributed failure to a lack of effort, they can alter their behaviour (work harder) and influence future outcomes. If they attribute failure to a lack of intelligence, they are less likely to believe that any kind of behaviour change is worth pursuing. In a similar way, a student might attribute success (such as a good grade on an exam) to hard work and the execution of effective learning strategies, while another student might attribute success to luck, a fluke or a particularly easy task. The second student still believes that outcomes will continue to be negative, rejecting their effort and hard work in favour of something beyond their control (such as luck). Failure still remains internal, specific and global, despite success.

Control also has a predictive quality. Those who display previous adaptive attributional behaviour also display improved academic outcomes. Additionally, those students who have successfully negotiated setbacks in the past become more adept and confident in their ability to overcome them in the future. But this relationship is complex (Houston, 2016). A student might, therefore, suffer a low score on a test and attribute the cause of the low mark to not understanding the task correctly and, as a result of this attribution, ensure that they are fully able to rectify this next time. This feeling of control then impacts subsequent achievement through increased confidence and the use of adaptive strategies. This then impacts other factors such as academic self-concept.

Dimensions of causality

Attributions, whether applied in social or individual contexts, include three specific dimensions. These dimensions have been mentioned in the previous examples but it’s worth clarifying these terms.

Locus of Causality

Attributions are classified along a dimension known as the locus of causality from internal to external. If we attribute behaviour to an internal locus of causality we assume that outcomes resulted from something within us; if we attribute the outcomes to an external locus of causality we view the event as having been caused by something outside ourselves.

Global and Specific

We also attribute causes based on whether they apply to all situations (global) or to only one situation (specific). A student might attribute the cause of a bad mark on a maths test as specific to the subject and to that particular test. On the other hand, the student might decide that this one disappointing result is not only related to that specific maths test, but all maths tests and maths in general. This dimension can be extended even further to include all academic subjects and even life outside school.

Stable and Unstable

Stable causes are those that are difficult to change such as intelligence or personality traits; unstable causes can be changed. For example, a student might fail a test because they didn’t utilise effective revision strategies. Effective revision, therefore, is an unstable cause of the failure (it can be changed). Intelligence, however, is often thought of as stable (it doesn’t change). If our student attributes lack of intelligence to their failure they are more likely to believe that they cannot improve. Whether the student views their failure as either stable or unstable will then affect future expectations.

Where does control come from?

The ability to control personal future academic outcomes is bound up in a number of related components, all of which increase these feelings and beliefs. These include academic self-concept (see Chapter 11). Briefly, academic self-concept relates to how people view themselves as learners within multiple domains (or academic subjects). Like academic self-concept, previous academic performance predicts subsequent control. Confidence in our own ability to succeed, therefore, is a product of previous successes. These relationships can become tangled at times (for example, academic achievement predicts high self-esteem but high self-esteem doesn’t necessarily predict achievement).

Self-concept is also influenced by other people, particularly those seen as role models or influencers, such as parents and teachers. Early experiences of failure can cement later attributions and the way significant others respond to such setbacks is vital. If a young person is subject to criticism in terms of internal attributes, such as you’re so stupid or it’s because you’re not as clever as your sister/brother these comments are then internalised and nurture an attributional style based on innate factors.

Due to the predictive nature of control, it is therefore essential that students are able to constructively overcome any fear of failure, as this in itself can result in lower levels of control and a maladaptive attributional style. Indeed, the two are closely related in that failure becomes increasingly problematic if we don’t believe we have the resources to deal with and overcome it. If we attribute failure to lack of intelligence, for example, we not only lose faith in our ability to succeed, we also see the future as bleak and experience higher levels of negative deactivating emotions (see Smith, 2017 chapter 3). 

Distorted thinking

Our attributions, that is, the way we attribute the cause of our own behaviour, can lead to a distortion in our thinking – our mind begins to convince us that something is true when it isn’t. These thoughts then reinforce our negative thinking and our emotions. A student who fails a test, for example, makes an internal, stable and global attribution. Failure is, therefore, the result of not being clever enough – failure will happen all the time and continue into the future. This can lead to polarised thinking, dealing only in absolutes of failure and success. By ruminating on the failure (every time I sit an exam I fail) the assumption becomes that the student will also fail the next test. This can then lead to overgeneralisation, culminating in the belief that I am such a failure. What the student has done is to take failure on one specific test and then generalised it within their self-concept – failure becomes I am a failure and this belief is pretty difficult to shift.

Such cognitive distortions take several forms. Some people will filter out the positive aspects of a situation and magnify the negative ones. For example, a student might berate him or herself for answering a question incorrectly in class and filter out all the times they had been correct. Others might catastrophise, always expecting the worst from any situation. They might also exaggerate the importance of insignificant things (such as a small mistake) but shrink the importance of other factors, such as personal qualities and strengths. Some might obsess over should’s must’s and ought’s, constantly believing that they should be able to complete this task, must get full marks on the next test or ought to have known the answer to the question. The inability to accept that we, like all humans, are fallible often leads us to chastise ourselves when our ability is called into question (usually by ourselves).

The role of cognitive bias

Control is, therefore, very much about how we frame success and failure. Often, these perceptions include errors in thinking such as the belief that we are a failure despite evidence to the contrary. However, other errors occur when we are attempting to process and interpret information from the world around us; these errors are known as cognitive biases. People often reach conclusions based on short-cuts that are formed over time and constitute rules of thumb, sometimes these can be useful but at other times they can be harmful, such as in the case of stereotyping. They are also necessary because the human brain simply isn’t equipped to deal effectively with the amount of information that is thrown at it every day. However, these short-cuts (biases) can also lead to us making poor decisions and bad judgments as well as leave us open to manipulation by others.

 A good example is a particular bias known as confirmation bias. This bias leads to us favouring information that confirms our existing beliefs but discounting information that does not. We often see this used effectively in the media, especially when the media source is attempting to support a particular narrative. For example, a media outlet that has an anti-immigrant editorial policy will highlight all the negative aspects of immigration while discounting many positives; they may even actively seek out such evidence by only focussing on crimes committed by particular groups, while making no attempt to compare these figures with other groups. Individuals might also behave in similar ways, such as, for example, placing greater importance on studies that link conditions such as autism to vaccination programs and less importance on studies that do not find this link. Similarly, if a student has built up a self-image around their perceptions of failure, they are more likely to seek out or place greater weight on those instances when they have failed and ignore the times when they have succeeded.  

 Another cognitive bias, the self-serving bias, might sound more familiar. The self-serving bias states that we tend to blame external sources when bad things happen and give ourselves credit when things go well. This is very similar to what was discussed previously about the way in which people attribute the causes of events. Other cognitive biases (there are far too many to mention here) include the halo effect, where our impression of person is based on only one aspect of them, such as equating being smartly dressed with high intelligence, and the availability heuristic where we place greater emphasis on information that comes quickly to mind.

On the surface, cognitive biases might appear wholly negative, yet they also serve an important adaptive purpose by allowing us to reach decisions quickly with little cognitive effort. The self-serving bias, for example, can help safeguard self-esteem while confirmation of our beliefs can encourage us to stick to our guns. From an academic buoyancy point of view, they can encourage us to keep going when things get difficult or adapt when we encounter new situations.

In Action

Those students who are more successful view failure differently to the those who employ failure avoidant strategies. Successful students are also much less likely to employ self handicapping strategies and don’t seem to worry that much about what others think of them, especially their peers. Neither do they engage in extensive social comparisons, being more concerned with mastering skills and reaching self-referenced goals (i.e. goals they either set themselves or set in conjunction with teachers). As a consequence of their thinking style, they are better able to cope when beset by challenges or unexpected setbacks.

Buoyant students don’t necessarily see the prospect of failure as threatening and are therefore able to bounce back more easily. They also display lower levels of anxiety in general, and more specifically, anxiety associated with formal assessments (test anxiety). They also have a greater belief in their ability to complete individual tasks attached to learning goals (self-efficacy). In addition, they are better at planning, feel more in control and display higher levels of commitment (or conscientiousness) than their less buoyant peers (Martin & Marsh, 2008)

Fear of failure can, therefore, be partly remedied by increasing our levels of coordination (planning, goal setting & habit formation) because when we plan we have a better idea of projected outcomes and strategies to employ if those strategies fail, at which point we adapt the strategy – thinking that the outcome will change without adapting our strategies might be foolhardy, but it’s also remarkably common.

Core Beliefs and Automatic Thoughts   

Buoyant students are less likely to hold a maladaptive attribution style; they are more likely to view failure and setbacks as changeable and temporary as well as in some way under their own control. If they perform badly on a test, they will look for explanations, rather than simply think of themselves as incapable. These differences result in three broad attributional styles: optimistic, pessimistic and hostile (summarised in the table below). As can be seen, attributions aren’t as straightforward as one might think. A student may hold and internal attribution of success (I succeeded because I’m intelligent) and an external attribution of failure (I failed because my teacher is rubbish). What we therefore need to nurture is an adaptive attributional style, one that emphasises the notion that we ultimately have control over both success and failure – what we might call ownership.

Shifting a maladaptive attributional style, like changing any habit, is difficult, but can be achieved with some careful planning and a great deal of determination.

One way to shift our attributional style is to identify our core beliefs, deeply embedded and enduring ideas we hold about ourselves, others and the world. There is certainly a relationship here between core beliefs and the previously described attributional style, however, core beliefs are always global and absolute (although they can be both positive and negative), a specific core beliefs might include I am a bad person, I am unintelligent, I am a good/bad student. It is not that we think we are these things, it is that we know we are and these beliefs mean that, for example, we will never be successful, popular or loved or that we will always be successful, popular and loved.

Core beliefs give rise to rules and demands, these in turn produces automatic thoughts, usually in the form of musts and shoulds, such as I must succeed or I should be able to this; they are the demands we place upon ourselves and metaphorically beat ourselves up over if we fall short of these expectations. Other core beliefs are based on rules and demands, so we might believe that we can’t let people down or that we must avoid leaving ourselves open to any kind of criticism. These responses are often described as negative automatic thoughts because we tend to access them with little conscious effort. We might, therefore, hold the core belief that we are a bad employee (or student), a belief that is fuelled by automatic thoughts such as, I must always be efficient in everything I do or I must never ask for help because then people will think me incompetent. If we then fail to live up to these unrealistically high expectations we consider ourselves to be unworthy and any criticism directed towards us is justified, any outcome deserved. Core beliefs act like a filter or a lens through which we interpret the information from other people and the world. The three components of core beliefs are described in box 10.2. It’s worth noting that the core beliefs model is most often used for people struggling with moderate to severe psychological distress, such as anxiety disorders and depression. The low level day-to-day problems encountered within a school setting are unlikely to represent such extremes, yet the beliefs we might witness in students are often the same. In addition, such core beliefs needn’t have arisen through severe abuse or early trauma, but through early experiences of education and the complex web of childhood relationships. The model is included here as a way in which negative core beliefs can undermine the ability to bounce back from goal-related disappointment, rather than as an attempt to treat more serious underlying problems, for which professional advice should always be sought.

Detecting core beliefs in ourselves is hard enough, detecting them in others is even more difficult. Because core beliefs are deeply embedded, we are often unaware of their existence. However, our automatic thoughts can be used as a top-down processing model, that is, if we detect these automatic shoulds and musts we find that they lead us towards the core beliefs from which they arise. For example, a young person might decide not to apply to university because they believe they won’t be accepted. Their automatic thought might be along the lines of, I’ll never get into university. This negative automatic thought is rather superficial because we can’t identify why the young person feels this way. On closer interrogation this negative automatic thought is related to the potential disappointment that not getting into university might cause (to the young person themselves, their parents, wider family and teachers who have supported them). This disappointment is related to failure (or the fear of failure) and this fear of failure is rooted in a core belief, namely, I am a failure/disappointment. The core belief, therefore, is the belief that they are a failure (rather than they fail) and they will disappoint those closest to them. This core notion manifests itself in negative automatic thoughts.

Once we’ve managed to identify these core beliefs we need to go about interrogating them. We can think of this as a to and fro discussion, a search for the evidence that underpins the core belief. Perhaps a students thinks they aren’t intelligent enough to succeed. In this case we need to look for evidence that that suggests this core belief is false. By looking at previous successes the students begins to undermine the core belief and uncover a more realistic picture; there will still be failures, but hopefully they will have begun to develop a more adaptive relationship with setbacks and disappointments through some of the other methods described in this book. But they mustn’t restrict their search to specific incidences of success, rather, they should include other personal strengths and assets that can help to overturn this core belief: do they excel in a particular discipline? Do they possess particularly desirable character traits? In addition, consider the ways in which core beliefs are leading to avoidant behaviours (e.g. choosing less challenging tasks) or continually repeated ineffective or maladaptive ones. In students, avoidant or maladaptive habitual behaviours often manifest themselves in self- handicapping and procrastination.

The Three Components of Core Beliefs.
Beliefs about ourselves.
These are unhelpful negative core beliefs about ourselves that are often rooted in our early experiences. These experiences might include neglect, bullying or being ostracised by our schoolmates. They may also arise through harsh criticism levelled against us by significant others, such as parents, siblings and teachers. For example, a child who is continually being criticised for not being clever enough (or not as clever as others) would be more likely to develop the core belief I am stupid.
Beliefs about other people.
Negative core beliefs about other people often develop as a result of something that has been done to us, usually in the form or aggression and personal harm, or witnessing harm done to others. These early experiences lead to core beliefs about the danger of other people, perhaps that they are unpredictable and violent and wish to harm us. They can also develop through repeated negative experiences with other people, specifically, significant others such as parents and teachers, resulting in a belief that people are unkind and uncaring and always want to make us feel bad about ourselves.
Beliefs about the world.
If a person has experienced trauma, has lived with severe deprivation or survived harmful, insecure and  unpredictable environments, these experiences can lead to the formation of negative core beliefs about life and the world. They might, therefore, see the world as dangerous and harmful and full of bad things. These core beliefs can then manifest themselves in our behaviour, perhaps through anxiety or a proclivity towards aggression.

Main Points

  • The way we think about specific situations is deeply embedded in our past experience of similar situations. We then build up internal profiles (scripts or schemata) that impact future thoughts and behaviours, which can be both positive and negative.
  • People attribute causes based on these profiles; the extent to which they feel in control of circumstances is partly influenced by these attributions.
  • Attributions are often based on erroneous or exaggerated interpretations of past events that become muddled in our long-term autobiographical memory and cause all sorts of trouble later on.
  • Holding maladaptive attributional styles can make students feel that they are incapable of success and lack the skills to cope effectively with setbacks, leading them to give up or employ strategies that sabotage any future success. 
  • Bouncing back from the daily hassles we face is, in part, dependent on how our past is interpreted in the present, if we believe that we have the capacity to cope with setbacks then we are driven forward by these beliefs; if we remain the prisoners of our past failures we become more apprehensive and anxious about the future and simply stop trying.
  • Taking control of our attributional style and resisting the influence of wholly negative past experiences liberates students and opens up a host of alternative possibilities.


Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Hersey, J. C., Niederdeppe, J., Evans, W. D., Nonnemaker, J., Holden, D., Blahut, S., … Haviland, M. L. (2005). The theory of “truth”: How counterindustry media campaigns affect smoking behavior among teens. Health Psychology, 24(1), 22–31.

Houston, D. M. (2016). Revisiting the relationship between attributional style and academic performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46(3), 192–200.

Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2008). Academic buoyancy: Towards an understanding of students’ everyday academic resilience. Journal of School Psychology, 46(1), 53–83.

Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 80(1), 1–28.

Smith, M. (2017). The Emotional Learner: Understanding Emotions, Learners and Achievement. (First). Routledge.

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