March 27, 2010

Solution-Focused Attributional Interventions

In order to make sense of what happens in their lives, people attribute explanations to events in their lives. Psychologists call this process 'attribution'. Martin Seligman (in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life) described the following three dimensions of people's attributional styles:
  1. Permanence: is the cause of the event permanent or temporary?
  2. Pervasiveness: will the cause of event affect every aspect of life (permanent) or only this context (specific)?
  3. Personalization: is the cause of the event internal (caused by self) or external (cause by others)?
Seligman explained that the difference between optimism and pessimism can be described with these three dimensions. When we are thinking pessimistically, we tend to believe that negative events 1) are permanent, 2) pervasive, and 3) internally caused. We tend to believe that positive events are 1) temporary, 2) non-pervasive, and 3) externally causes. The opposite is the case when we are thinking optimistically. In that state of mind we interpret negative events as 1) temporary, 2) non-pervasive, and 3) externally and we interpret positive events as 1) are permanent, 2) pervasive, and 3) internally caused.

In his book, Seligman explains that in many circumstances in life an optimistic thinking style as defined above has many advantages and leads to many positive outcomes. Also he demonstrates that an optimistic thinking style can be learned by training. Traditionally, psychologists have mainly used directive interventions to influence their clients' attributions styles. For instance, in cognitive behavioral therapy, dysfunctional attribution styles have usually been challenged directly.

The solution-focused approach uses non-directive, non-confrontational interventions that subtly affect the attributional styles of clients. These interventions contain implicit assumptions that slowly and subtly influence the pessimistic thinking style of a client into a more positive thinking style. The advantage of a more implicit intervention is that it prevents a defensive response from the client and that is supports the client's perceived autonomy and, indeed, internal attribution.

The table below contrasts a more directive and a more implicit intervention style.

Aim of the intervention is to shift attribution from:
Some random examples of directive interventions
Some random examples of subtle, implicit interventions
Negative events
Permanent → Temporary
“Believe me, things will get better. You’ll see!”
“How will you know things will have improved again?”
Pervasive → Specific
“This does not have to affect other areas of your life!”
“What things in your life don’t have to change because they are going well?”
Internal → External
“Don’t blame yourself, it wasn’t your fault!”
“How do you manage to cope in such difficult circumstances?”
Positive events
Temporary → Permanent
“You must try to sustain this improvement!”
“What small signs are there that you’ll be able to sustain this improvement?”
Specific → Pervasive
“I think you will see that other things in your life will now start get better, too.”
“What things in other areas of your life are also getting better?”
External→ Internal
“Well done! This was all your accomplishment!”
“Wow, how did you do accomplish that?”

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