Monday, January 23, 2012

The Awesomeness of Attributions

Human beings are such amazing, complex creatures. We process huge amounts of information quickly--and half the time, we are not even fully aware of exactly how we get from point A to point B, cognitively speaking. Awhile back, I did a post about information processing, in response to a question about how two different people might end up reacting completely differently to the same situation. It was more of a broad overview, so today I'm going to talk a little about something more specific: ATTRIBUTIONS OF INTENT.

Oh yeah. Sounds like a sexy topic, doesn't it?

It should be, for any writer. Or any student of human behavior in general. Here's a very basic model:
Here, something happens to a person. And that person then has to decide WHY it happened. That decision is completely critical to how the person ends up feeling--and responding--to the event.

Now, sometimes, another person does something TO us. When that happens, we have to make an ATTRIBUTION OF INTENT. In other words, we have to make a guess about the other person's intention when he/she did something to us.

Sometimes, the person's intent is obvious, either because he tells us why he's doing something, or because the emotional and situational cues are really clear. But this is the delicious part: so often, the information about the other person's intentions is incomplete. The cues are ambigious. And so we have to guess.

Here's an example of a potentially ambigious situation, and how attributions of intent come into play:

Assume that, in this situation, it's really not clear from the guy's facial expression or body language whether he did it on purpose or not, at least, if you were watching from the outside. She has to rely on her own conclusions about what's happened. Depending on the girl's attribution of the guy's intent, she might feel and respond very differently. And with this single situation, I can think of at least a few more attributions that would lead to even more varied responses (like, the girl decides it was actually all her fault for running into the boy, and feels ashamed of herself and sad). 

Individuals end up with what we call an "attributional style," meaning that each person tends to make similar kinds of attributions across situations. There's one style in particular, hostile attributional style, in which the person assumes the other individual's intentions are hostile, even in the face of ambiguous or neutral information. You've probably met people like this, right? Hostile attributional style is associated with higher levels of aggression in children and paranoia in adults. Another attributional style, one in which a person attributes the causes of bad events to herself, is associated with depression. Attributions matter.

There are several factors that predict what type of attributions a person makes. Individual temperament and level of emotional reactivity in conflict situations, high levels of hostile interactions in parent-child relationships, attachment security with parents, and experiences of acceptance or rejection from peers have all been shown to predict attributional style. In the moment, past experiences with the specific person, availability of contextual information (an event that took place right before, the other person's facial expression and emotional cues, etc.), and the individual's mood would also influence the type of attribution that results.

Now, personally, it's good to be aware of the attributions you're making--and it's sometimes good to challenge them a little instead of accepting them as objective truth. And for writing, well. Making your character's attributions clear to the reader can help you keep a character sympathetic, even when the person is responding in a way the reader might not.

So, that's attributions in a nutshell. How do you handle this in your writing? Have you ever thought about it like this before? And what about in real life? Have your attributions of someone's intent ever been wrong?

And of course, because it's Monday, go visit Lydia for her Medical Monday post, and Laura for her Mental Health Monday post!

34 comments:

  1. Huh. It seems like "hostile attribution style" is the norm these days for drivers. Try to communicate with another driver in any way -- flash your lights, make a blinking gesture to signal blinkers on -- and you are more likely to get the finger than anything else. :(

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  2. Wow, I've never consciously thought about this before, but it makes sense. I do this in my writing, but have never given it thought in the real world. I will now. People watching just got even more interesting. :D

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  3. This is a fantastic point and goes along with how we develop our characters as a story moves forward. Your fabulous diagrams go to show all the variables writers have to consider when adding in plot points. *ooh, I'm dizzy now*

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  4. This is an important aspect of the space between.

    I think about it all the time. Especially in writing. The way a character reacts to another character is based on many things, but one of the biggest ones is how they interpret the attribution of intent.

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  5. very true, and very interesting!
    i know in life i tend to give attributions to intent a positive spin, because i think the vast majority of people don't really do stuff to purposefully be jerkwads. i think that most people try to do what they view as right, or come up with a buncha excuses, which still legitimize their intent in a way. whereas, i believe it is impossible to truly, truly understand every aspect of intent for anyone (even within yourself) because there are so many layers to motivation, i believe that if we search for positive motives behind intent, we'll be happier and more compassionate people... although the truth would always be best to know- but really, i believe it is too complex to ever really be completely understood, only pieces of it achievable... does that make sense? i feel like i'm communicating as clear as mud today!

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  6. oh, brilliant statement there about making character's intents clear so they remain likable. Gah, in my editing of MSs now, I bump into this a lot. Unintentional unlikable characters. Good pointers here, Sarah! :o) <3

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  7. I do think about that a lot in my writing, and try to play with how characters are perceived based on how certain characters see them, and then tell others.

    It's one of those things that really irritates me when characters accurately *guess* why another character did something, or guesses their plan/etc, especially if a large part of the plot hinges on whether that guess is accurate.

    Great post!

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  8. Whoa. I think my head is still spinning. I didn't know there was reason behind this type of behavior (I should know better by now!). But this makes perfect sense (I really hate using the word perfect now, btw). Anyway, now I will never write a scene involving this without thinking back to if I'm doing it write. Excellent post!

    ~JD

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  9. Interiority is one of the last things writers get right, acording to Mary Kole. I think it's probably because we're transferring our own attributions - or repressing them. What say you?

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  10. Such excellent information, Sarah, thank you! We are who we are, by nurture and nature, but at least in some everyday life situations, we don't have to be slave to our 'automatic' responses if we pay attention and understand/anticipate them. And our characters in writing--this sort of insight is key to making them compelling as well as sympathetic (esp. since the good ones always seem to have have defining quirks :) ) Backstory needed!

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  11. Awesome! Yes, I love that you used the word "delicious" to describe the situation. :D It certainly can be. And it isn't easy to guess someone's motives.

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  12. After reading The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, I've learned not to take anything personal and not to judge. It sure helps, although I do slip sometimes.

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  13. Excellent post! It's why there are confllicts--sometimes, people just tend to jumo to conclusions based on how they perceive the situation without really knowing the offender's motive.

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  14. I love how you break down what is my normal reaction of "Well, it must be me but I think that..."

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  15. Oops, that was me commenting just now. Whoops.

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  16. Love this post! What a great refresher. Makes me a little nostalgic for all my psych classes (but I don't miss the exams, never the exams). :)

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  17. This is a very interesting post. When my kids were growing up, I was forever trying to make them consider happenings from the other person's point of view. (i.e. Why do you think so-and-so did that or said that to you? Don't judge too harshly; you don't know what's going on in that person's life. Etc.) Must have stuck, because now they're doing the same with their children. As an adult, my challenge with attribution is not allowing another person's bad behavior, no matter what that person "means" or the reasoning for it, to dictate my reaction to it. Responding to unkindness with unkindness gives more control to another person than I'm willing to cede.

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  18. Many of my attributions of intent have been wrong. I usually think people don't like me and that is the reason for their actions towards me. Sometimes I am right, sometimes wrong. I realize what I do, so I talk with myself about it and try to think realistically. We can't read people's minds so we can't always judge their intention.

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  19. Since I'd never even heard this term until about three seconds ago, I haven't really got a coherent answer to your questions. But I will mull.

    This is why I love your blog. New, exciting information about psychology that can be related to writing. Every time I read it, I feel like shouting "Eureka!"

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  20. I try to be careful with attributions in that every attribution that a character makes should be somewhat valid/possible.

    If not, the whole scene that springs out of it will feel contrived. :-)

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  21. I'm happy to say I have thought of attributions, though I had no clue that's what I was doing. LOL One of my themes is that things rarely are as they appear on the surface. Something can be accurate without being true. Many of my stories rely on the MC making an incorrect attribution based on how things seem to be, rather than how they are. Nice that I understand the whole process a little better now. Thanks!

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  22. That is some fascinating stuff! And you explain it all so well. Thanks for that!! :)

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  23. Ahh, I've definitely never really thought of it this way, so thank you! In reality, there are so many ways any person, teen or not, could react to any number of circumstances and so keeping the reaction or internal thoughts consistent with your character's history AND making it clear enough for the reader is definitely a challenge! Excellent Sarah!

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  24. This sounds like it might be a helpful topic to research for any novel where relationships are at the forefront. Sometimes I read passages and I just can't understand an MC's emotional or physical reaction to something that was done or said to them because how they take it is so far off from how I would have reacted. great post!

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  25. This was super awesome! I think it would be really helpful for possible pantser moments where you're not sure where you're headed

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  26. Great post! Definitely useful information! :)

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  27. I loved this so much I had to tweet. Great info on how we interpret emotion!

    Angela

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  28. Oh, good stuff here. I've got a lot of character stuff running around in my mind, and this helps me. Thanks!

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  29. Great post! It really got me thinking, especially about how to manipulate reader interpretation to keep the story a little umpredictable.

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  30. I really like this post. You always remind of how a psychogist has a unique perspective on character when writing fiction. A character's interpretation of events can be such a way to layer the person and the scenes. Even plot!

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  31. This is a GREAT explanation of attributions -- as a mediator I spend an inordinate amount of time helping parties question the attributions they're assigning to each others' actions (and just getting them to consider that they might be attributing at all). The books in the hallway example is a really practical one -- I might steal it, if you don't mind! (And since I'll be in the middle of a mediation, I admit (pun intended) I might not attribute it...).

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  32. Great point about attributions. I'll be on the lookout now!

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