Our species is one characterized by storytelling and herd behavior. Our brains crave stories that unfold in a captivating order, tying together events with their causes and outcomes. Being able to string together causes and outcomes is essential to our mental wellbeing: ample research of victims of horrifying events (such as surviving concentration camps, going through the death of one’s child) shows that the individuals who are retrospectively able to construct such stories of the events that showed their meaningfulness to some beneficial outcomes (such as becoming stronger, finding their true purpose) coped better in the long run after the calamities.
We are hardwired to trying to uncover the why of everything. Coupled with our nature as herd animals, that is most often also linked to who. Sometimes we actually go about trying to figure these out in a systematic and logical manner, which is something we scholars profess to do for a living. But considering the supreme cognitive effort saving mechanism that is our brain, we also do it intuitively, without actually reflecting the why of coming up with the why and the who.
Even when we haven’t come up with the causes through witting reflection and analysis – and maybe especially then – they have an impact on our subsequent actions. This phenomenon has been widely studied under the label of attribution theory, which first tries to understand the psychological mechanisms of attributing the ‘blame’, and secondarily scrutinizes the impacts of those attribution types on the subsequent behavior of the individuals. Its kin theory, named locus of control, takes another view to the same theme: attribution theory uncovers the way we assign causality regarding events past, whereas locus of control theory explores how and by whom we believe that the events of the future will unfold.
In a disruption, like the one we are now living through, both of these mechanisms are at play. The way we assign blame and control has an impact on our everyday actions which in the long run define the new normal we are entering. Therefore, both of the theories merit some looking into.
Initiated in 1950’s by Heider, who characterized people as amateur psychologists interested in understanding the reasons behind success and failure, the contemporary form of attribution theory is often linked to Weiner’s work in the 1980’s. Weiner distilled his findings into a two-by-two matrix familiar to all students of pedagogy. It consists of two key dimensions, internal vs external and stable vs unstable.
The division between internal and external refers to whether we believe that a success or a failure is due to intrinsic features of the individual succeeding or failing (ourselves or others), or more a result of external circumstances. A stable attribution refers to something present at all times, whereas an unstable attribution is event-specific.
For example, if I believe that you succeeded in something because you are intelligent, that attribution is internal (the reason for your success comes from within you), and stable (your intelligence is your enduring feature). If I believe that you succeeded because you were lucky, that attribution is external (your intrinsic features have no bearing on your luck), and unstable (luck just happens). I could also believe that you succeeded because you made a specific effort, in which case the attribution is internal and unstable (thanks to you, but not because of anything given in you, but because of a specific thing you did). Or I could believe that you succeeded because your parents are rich and powerful (your parents are external to you, and their existence is stable).
Regarding our current circumstances we have probably already made a lot of attributions without acknowledging them. Did the virus break out because the Chinese are stupid (internal & stable), or because viruses happen (external & unstable)? Is it difficult for me to do remote work because I’m incapable (internal & stable), I haven’t practiced this enough (internal & unstable), the stupid bosses and government make me do this (external & stable) or the boss has not given me good enough tools (external & unstable)?
Locus of control
While the attribution theory delves the mechanisms of why we believe something happens or has happened, the locus of control theory explores who do we think can do something about it. Also this approach has its roots in the 1950’s, in the seminal work of Rotter.
Rotter found out we humans differ notably in whether we innately believe that we are in control of our lives, or not. While subsequent research has found occasions where individuals can shift the perception of locus of control between internal and external allocations, those cases are somewhat rare: we humans are quite firmly divided into people who believe that “I’m responsible for my life” (internal locus of control), or “life just happens to me” (external locus of control).
As this was found out already in the 1950’s and through subsequent research confirmed, the focus of the research in the stream has been on the antecedents and implications of either internal or external locus of control. In addition to innate personality, the parenting style, socioeconomic background and environmental factors have an impact on whether individuals develop internal or external locus of control. There is strong evidence suggesting that internals tend to do better in work and their lives in general – they are more motivated and committed. We also know that the sources of stress are different for internals and externals: environmental uncertainty is more unbearable for the externals, whereas internals face burn-out as a result of shouldering the responsibility of potential failures, and may shirk from engaging in effort for fear of losing self-image as a result of potential failure.
The current pandemic and the actions taken to mitigate its toll on human lives is met differently by externals and internals. The externals may feel overwhelmed by the environmental events, further strengthening their worldview of being the victims of the capriciousness of fate. The internals may suffer from a contradiction between the expectations they have for themselves and the restrictions posed by the circumstances.
Relevance to current disruption
While the causes, nature of actual events, the roles of diverse actors, and the future outcomes regarding the whole corona shebang are being explored, approached with research, analyzed with and without the sophisticated technological tools available and discussed from myriad perspectives, it will take quite some time before we will have a set of such narratives about this time that will have a semblance of well-founded credibility. We are still too close to see the big picture clearly. And because we don’t have a clear picture but a set of individual dots, we all fill the missing lines with such psychological mechanisms that come most readily to us, both in terms of why things are happening and who should or could do something.
As briefly outlined in the context of both theory nutshells above, depending on our tendencies in regards to attribution or control, we see different things and feel differently about the events now unfolding. These have a strong link to how we go about our lives this spring. As it is utterly futile to try to change the way another individual sees or feels about anything, the following table should be viewed as examples of the other possible ways of perceiving the events than the one you are currently holding on to, not as a list of better or worse ways of viewing things.
There are a number of ways of attributing the current disruption as internal and stable, but ultimately they all boil down to a worldview of the hopelessness of the human kind. It can span the whole of it, or just a part, but it breeds cynicism in regards to whether or not it is possible to change the very fundaments of human nature. In turn, if we internalize the attribution, but view it as something unstable, we hold on to the possibility of making a change. We can put in an effort to improve ourselves (as humanity or as smaller subgroup of it), and reform.
If we view that the blame lies purely on the fact that there are viruses (external and stable), we go to war, equipped and armed with all the medical technological acumen we now possess. Or we can just stick the blame to incidents, instances, in this case the issues with the estimated site of origin of the epidemic, and attempt to try fixing the isolated problem.
When we have an internal locus of control, this spring is all about figuring out what can I do to make a difference in either my life with all the newness I’m now encountering, or more widely, in the collective I’m a part of, or even more extensively in the way the future unfolds from here. The benefits need not be stated, but the downside is the increased risk of personal burnout. The events are too vast for any singular individual, be they prime ministers, school teachers or parents to shoulder alone.
This spring also enforces the view of external locus of control: “See, just as I got a new job then this Chinese virus comes and shatters my life”. The immeadiate response is to hunker down and just try to survive the time that needs this time being survived, which when translated to social distancing actually aids more widely the surviving. However, as another building block to the viewpoint of being the victim, the risk is the increase in personal level hopelessness.
As I’ve stated a couple of times, these perceptions are intrinsic to each one of us, and we adopt them because of our personal psychological makeup. But maybe understanding this could somehow help us in seeing the world from also other possible perspectives – after all, none of us can yet profess to being in possession of the Ultimate Truth in terms of neither the past nor the future.