To what do you attribute your successes and failures? Think about it. Whatever answers you select are attributions. Attributions are perceived causes that individuals select or construct for events in their lives. In nineteen eighty-five, the American psychologist Bernard Weiner developed an attribution theory that focuses specifically on achievement. Weiner’s theory proposes that four important factors affect attributions. They are ability, effort, task difficulty and luck. Yes, luck is a real thing in our minds.
Bernard also outlined a three-stage process for how we assign causation to the success or failure of others and ourselves. The three stages include observations, determination of behavior and attributing to causes. There are two types of attributions; external and internal. External attribution relates causality to outside agents, whereas, internal attribution assigns the person himself for any behavior.
During an interview in 1996, Bernard Weiner was asked the following question: “How does attribution contribute to high ability, high achievement, and giftedness?” This was his answer:
There are two perspectives to consider: self-perception and the perception of others. Certain attributions are maladaptive in that they are likely to reduce achievement strivings. Among these are attributions of failure to lack of ability, which produce low expectancies of future success (tied to the stability dimension of causality), low self-esteem (linked with the locus dimension), and humiliation and shame (because these are perceived as uncontrollable). On the other hand, failure ascribed to insufficient effort results in maintenance of expectancy of success and guilt, both motivators. Continuing commerce with the task increases specific ability (which is unstable, as opposed to underlying “intelligence” which is perceived as stable). Thus, by influencing task persistence, attributions also influence actual task ability. The same is true from the perspective of others. If I ascribe your failure to low ability, then I (as teacher) offer sympathy, do not punish for failure, and give unsolicited help. All these are cues that you “cannot,” which starts the cycle indicated above. So other-perception and self-perception form a unity, together, which influence task persistence and, therefore, actual ability.
Dr. Weiner’s attribution theory explains our tendency to assign the failure of others to internal attributions like low ability or effort all while assigning our own failures to external attributions. This makes us feel superior to others and warm and fuzzy inside. Well, welcome to the reality that your lack of persistence is tied to the importance of your self-perception. “Maladaptive in that they are likely to reduce achievement strivings” is just a nice way of saying that to take personal responsibility for failing might damage your precious ego. And “failure ascribed to insufficient effort results in guilt” is just shrinky-talk for avoiding personal accountability.
We all suffer from the same biases. We feed into the idea that our failure is attributed to some external cause…i.e. something outside of our control. Perpetuating that attribution makes us feel better about ourselves, but it also limits our persistence. We foolishly begin to believe the lie we tell ourselves. As a result, we feel powerless over our own fate. Then finally, we stop trying.
Try not to take this revelation too personally. Instead, try focusing on the other three important factors that affect attributions. They are ability, effort, and task difficulty. Dr Weiner has already told us “by influencing task persistence, attributions also influence actual task ability”. That means that the longer our efforts persist the more proficient we become at a particular task. In short, practice makes perfect.
The good Doctor has also already told us that lack of ability produces low expectancies of future success. Tie these two together and you will see that persistence results in greater ability and greater ability results in higher expectations of future success and lower perception of task difficulty.
It boils down to this…success is always within your reach so long as you don’t quit. You have not truly failed until you stop trying.
 Siegel, Janna; Michael Shaughnessy (1996). “An interview with Bernard Weiner”
Tra Williams is a celebrated speaker, business consultant and author of the forthcoming book Feed Your Unicorn. He is a nationally recognized thought leader in small business, franchising, leadership and entrepreneurship. Tra works tirelessly with people, professionals, and organizations to help them define success on their own terms and build the framework required to sustain it. For more information, please visit: www.TraWilliams.com.