*Cross-listed course: this article appears under Psychic Mind and Science of Self, with changes and additions to emphasize the ways these principles are used in the different subjects. Take a look at the different applications by clicking the links for each subject above.
You’ve heard over and over again the adage: “You get what you give” and the basis for this is rooted in science. We tend to see more positive aspects of the world when we are happy, versus seeing the ills and evils in the world when we are depressed. Mood and other social influences can shape our world view and our world view can perpetuate itself in a cycle of self-creation. In this section, we will explore attribution theory and its application in the world to promote positive self-identity and its power in influencing people.
As a species, we have such a desire to explain things that we can become overwhelmed. We tend to explain our behavior and the behavior of others by assigning attributes to these behaviors. Because of this constant need to explain or have things explained to us, it opens up some unusual and unexpected possibilities for persuasion.
Attribution theory is one of psychology’s most used theories for how people interpret behavior. Basically, there are two sources behaviors stem from: Situational (external) factors and Dispositional (internal) factors. On the one hand, you can explain the back-biting behavior of a popular girl as Situational: it’s because of social pressures that make her act this way. Or, you can look at Dispositionally as: man, that girl’s a total bitch. The statistics of it make sense: people are more likely to use the dispositional approach when judging someone else, and more likely to see external forces hindering themselves when a problem arises.
Two of the most common errors in interpreting behavioral causes are the Fundamental Attribution Error (or correspondence bias) andSelf-Serving Bias.
The Fundamental Attribution Error comes from over-valuing dispositional or situational explanations as causes for behavior. If psychology is anything it’s a convoluted gray area where explanations blend and mix with many other and sometimes differing reasons.
The Self-Serving Bias works off of the principle that we tend to equate success with internal explanations and failure with external attributes. Though this is true for most people, those who are depressed have a flipped notion of influencing factors. If something happens that is negative, they tend to blame themselves as having a failed dispositional aspect. Success might be seen as the work of external factors such as luck.
The Steve Booth-Butterfield over at Healthy Influence composes a great overview of research and real world applications of the attribution theory. Let’s take a look at some of these research stories and see how we can apply them to studies in psychic power.
Attribution In Action
I want to share [an] illustration from the classroom. This example is a published research study that was conducted with elementary school children in their classrooms with their teachers. Thus, this example is not a laboratory study of influence, but rather a real-world event. This makes its outcome useful and practical for us. This study concerns getting kids to clean up the classroom.
Littering. A constant battle with younger children is to get them to clean up after themselves. Especially in the classroom where there are twenty or thirty kids, neatness really makes a difference. How can you get kids to be neater?
Our first example made kids neater with Attribution Theory. They set the kids up such that the kids performed a desired behavior, then were provoked to think about why they did that behavior. And, of course, the situation was set up so that the children would make an internal attribution (“I did it because I’m that kind of kid”). Here’s what happened.
First, the researchers established a baseline for littering. They visited the 5th grade class just before recess and handed out little candies wrapped in plastic. After the kids went to the playground, the researchers counted the number of candy wrappers that were on the floor or in the waste can. And there were many more wrappers on the floor than in the can, of course.
Now, the study. Its simplicity is going to surprise you. Over the next two weeks people visited this classroom. For example, the principal stopped in for a little chat and on her way out she said, “My, this is a neat classroom. You must be very neat students who care about how their room looks.”
And one morning the class arrived to find a note on the blackboard from the custodian which said, “This is the neatest class in school. You must be very neat and clean students.”
Finally, the teacher would make similar kinds of comments throughout the two week training period (“Neat room, neat kids”). That’s all the researchers did.
Then they came back for a second visit again just before recess. And again they handed out little wrapped candies. This time when they counted whether the wrappers went on the floor or in the waste can, they found a lot more wrappers where they belonged: In the garbage. There was a very large change in the littering and cleaning up behavior of the kids.
Let’s review this simple study and make sure we understand what happened. First, we use candy wrappers before and after as an objective measure of littering. Second, we have a variety of sources observing the classroom and offering explanations (“neat room, neat kids”).
Also realize the things that were not going on. None of the sources modeled the correct behavior, so the kids were not copying a source with observational learning. None of the sources provided consequences of reinforcement, nor were rewards or punishments given for specific acts of behavior. None of the sources provided “arguments” about why kids should be clean and not litter. All the sources did was provide attributions.
(A little side note: The researchers also tried another treatment along with the attribution training. They called it the “Persuasion Treatment.” With a different classroom, all the various sources essentially gave the typical adult lectures about cleanliness and neatness. They said all the things good teachers say about littering. It had no effect on the candy wrapper test. Kids, huh?)
The analysis the researchers made is this. When the kids heard, “neat room, neat kids,” they had to think about what had happened. In essence, they had to answer the question, “Explain why the room is neat?” And their answer was simple.
“The room is neat because we don’t litter. We’re the kind of people who pick up after ourselves.”
In other words the children made internal attributions. And if you believe that you are the kind of person who is neat and does not litter, what happens when you have a candy wrapper? That’s right, you throw it away in the waste can.
Do you see the similarities from our article on self-identity labeling? Using the attribution theory, you can influence people to do good. It can also be used however, to persuade or influence people against their better judgement or values. Psychological manipulation can be a very powerful behavioral influencer. Different types of media exploit this principle for effective advertising and brainwashing.
Next we will look at at the psychology and neurobiology of media and advertising tactics.