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Attributional Style


Explanations > Preferences > Attributional Style

Locus of control | Generality | In combination | So what?


We all have a need to explain what happens in the world around us, with a tendency to attribute cause to events, giving reason for why things occur. We do this differently, depending on our preferences around locus of control and generality.

Locus of control

'Locus of Control' is the way we place authority, responsibility and blame for events. In particular it is about the extent to which we attribute this internally or externally.

Internal locus

People with a high internal locus of control believe that they have a significant ability to affect the world around them. While this can be empowering, it also means they must accept responsibility for failures.

External locus

People with a high external locus of control believe that they have little ability to affect what happens around them. They hence feel more helpless and fatalistic. This allows them to avoid responsibility for failure and blame others or the situation.


Generality is about how widely a person spreads their reasoning when seeking to attribute cause.


In a specific approach, the person sees each event as independent from other events. They likewise attribute cause individually and make little further assumption. Hence when a person does something, there is no assumption that the person will do it again or that other similar people will also do it.


In a general approach, the person sees events and people as sufficiently similar that a single occurrence can be generalized to allow attribution to others. In this way if one Californian man does something wrong we may generalize the failure to all Californians or to all men. Someone with a general outlook may say something like 'That's what men do.'

The attribution made here can be an assessment about competence or a moral judgement about whether the person is good or bad.

In combination

When locus of control and generalization are combined, the result is something like that in the table below, with four different attributional statements based on whether the locus of control is internal or external, and whether the generalization is specific or general.


Attributional Style
(for failure)

Locus of Control
Internal External



I made
a mistake


They got
it wrong





Attributions can also be positive, in which case a person may attribute success to themselves or the situation. Many people have different attribution depending on whether the event is successful or not. In a common pattern, they will be internally specific when something is a success (it was because I am clever) and externally general when it is a failure (they are always stupid).

So what?

The person attributing cause will believe their own attribution, assuming that it is true and are unlikely to consider that other attributions are also possible. This means that in persuasion you can either play to their blindness of other situations or illuminate them (though in contradicting beliefs so you should be prepared for resistance).

See also

Locus of Control, Attribution Theory, Blame vs. Explain preferences


Abramson, L.Y., Seligman, M.E.P., Teasdale, J.D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 87 (1): 49–74

Cohen, S., Rothbart, M. and Phillips, S, (1976). Locus of control and the generality of learned helplessness in humans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 34, 6, 1049-1056

Rotter, J.B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. NY: Prentice-Hall


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