Psychological Reports, 1975, 36,463-466. @ Psychological Reports 1975
ATTRIBUTION OF DEPRESSION T O INTERNAL-EXTERNAL AND STABLE-UNSTABLE CAUSES : PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION1 LAWRENCE G. CALHOUN,'
RICHARD E. JOHNSON:
A N D WILLIAM K. BOARDMAN University of Georgia Summary.-The present srudy invest~gated the effects of severity, consistency, and typicalness of information about 3. hypothetical case of depression on causal explanations for depression. 119 undergraduates responded to brief descriptions of a depressed individual by rating (1 to 6) the extent to which the depression was due to each of four types of causes: internal stable, internal unstable, external stable, and external unstable. Severity was associated wirh greater attribution to internal stable causes. The consistency of the depression tended to produce attribution to stable causes, and typicalness tended to produce attribution to external causes.
Attribution theory has been employed in a variety of situations, including the planning of treatment for behavioral disorders (4), in increasing the probability of help-seeking (8), and in reducing stigma for professional help-seeking ( 2 ) . Variables which differentially affect attribution to internal causes, e.g., dispositions, personality traits, and to external causes, e.g., environmental constraints and stresses, seem to be particularly relevant to the study of the perception of psychological problems. Three variables which seem especially important in influencing attributions by an observer about a psychologically troubled person are the severity of the psychological disturbance, the excent to which h i s discurbance is consistent over time, and the extent to which the person's psychological problem is atypical. Calhoun, Peirce, and Dawes ( 1) found reliable positive correlations berween outpatients' perceptions of h e severity of their own problems and attribution of their problems to internal causes, e.g., personalicy factors. In addition, research on attribution of responsibility (6, 9 ) suggests that observers tend to attribute causality to internal factors when the negative consequences of the person's behaviors increase in severity. Kelley ( 5 ) has suggested that respondent's attributions will be affected not only by the person's behavior but also by the behavior of similar persons. Where one person responds like others to a given stimulus, i.e., his behavior is typical, the individual's behavior will tend to be perceived as a function of the situation rather than of the characteristics of the individual. In a similar fashion, Strong 'Requests for reprints should be sent ro Dr. W. K. Boardman, Department of Psychology, University of Georgia. Athens. Ga. 30602. Wow at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. 'NOW at Catawba College.
L. G. CALHOUN, ET AL.
( 7 ) has suggested that whete one's response is perceived co be atypical, his responses w ~ l lbe attributed to internal causes. The third variable concerns the extenc to which a person's psychological problems have been evidenced in the past. Attribution theory suggests that internal attributions are more likely when the person responds consistently over time ( 5 ) . Calhoun, et al. ( 1) have reported that clients' self-ratings of length of symptom duration tend to correlate reliably with attribution of the problem to internal factors. It has been suggested that research on attribution has confounded the notions of locus of control and of stability (3, 10). While perceived causes may be internal or external, they may also be stable or unstable. These two dimensions suggest four combinations of specific types of causes, as follows: stable internal cause, stable external cause, unstable external cause, unstable internal cause. This may provide a useful index of attributions which can be made about the causes of psychological distress. In sum, the present study attempted to manipulate information about the severity of the dismrbance, the extent to which the disturbance had occurred in the past, and the typicalness of the disturbance in relation to other individuals. In addition, respondencs' attribucions were collected using four dependent measures suggested by the stability and locus of cause dimensions. METHOD Subjects were undergraduates (56 males, 63 females) enrolled in introductory psychology and psychology of adjustment classes in a large southeastern university. Brief descriptions of a student experiencing depression were varied systematically so that the student's depression was described as either mild or severe (severity). as having occurred before or never before (consistency), o r as being o r not being currently experienced by several other students in the same academic program (typicalness). A sample description is: "An undergraduate smdent recently told his advisor that he was mildly (severely) depressed. The student has (has never) reported that he was depressed to his advisor before. The advisor indicates that he knows of no other (several other) students in the same academic program who are depressed at this time." Students were asked to respond to only one description, so that no repeated measures occurred i n the 2 X 2 x 2 design (severity X consistency x typicalness). Subjects were randomly assigned to the different conditions. After reading the description of the student experiencing depression, each subject rated the student o n four dependent variables. Ratings were made o n 6-point scales anchored at the extremes ( 1 = not a t all . . . 6 = very m u c h ) , with higher ratings indicating a greater degree of attribution of the student's depression to that cause. The four dependent variables were as follows: internal stable ( T o what extent do you feel that the student's depression is due to the fact that he has consistently depressive personality traits?), internal unstable ( T o what exextenc do you feel that the student's depression is due to the fact that he happens to be currently in a depressive mood? ) , external stable ( T o what extent do you feel that the stud e n t s depression is due to the fact that he consistently lives in a depressive environment?), external unstable ( T o what extent do you feel that the student's depression is due to the fact that he happens to be currently in a depressive environment?).
ATTRIBUTION OF DEPRESSION
RESULTSAND DISCUSSION Results were analyzed with 2 (mild vs severe disturbance) X 2 (disturbed vs not disturbed in the past) X 2 (others are disturbed vs no others disturbed) analyses of variance. The first dependent measure was "To what extent do you feel that h e student's depression is due to the fact that he has consistent depressive personality traits?" Results indicated a significant F for severity of depression (F = 6.85, df = 1/104, p ,025) and for the consistency of the depression ( F = 21.88, df = 1/104, p < .001). Subjects were more likely to attribute the student's depression to internal stable causes when the srudent's depression was severe ( M = 3.07) than mild ( M = 2.48), and when the student was depressed in the past ( M = 3.30) than when he was not ( M = 2.25). The second dependent measure was "To what extent do you feel that the student's depression is due to the facr that he happens to be currently in a depressive mood?" Results indicated a main effect for typicalness (F = 9.03, d f = 1/104, p < .005). Subjects were more likely to attribute the student's depression to internal unstable causes when there were no other similar individuals suffering from depression ( M = 4.55) than when there were (M = 3.66). "To what extent do you feel that the student's depression is due to the fact chat he consistently lives in a depressive environment?" reflects the external stable type of cause. Significant main effects for consistency of depression ( F = 6.39, df = 1/104, p .025) and for typicalness ( F = 4.44, df = 1/104, p .05) were obtained. Subjects were more likely to attribute the student's depression to external stable causes when the srudent was depressed in the past ( M = 3.32) than when he was not ( M = 2 6 8 ) . Subjects were also more likely to attribute the student's depression to external stable causes when there were other similar individuals who were depressed ( M = 3.27) than where there were none ( M = 2.74). "To what extent do you feel the student's depression is due to the fact that he happens to be currently in a depressive environment?" reflects the external unstable type of cause. There was only a significant main effect for typicalness (F = 6.07, df = 1/64, p < .025). Subjects were more likely ro attribute the described depression to external unstable causes when there were other similar individuals ( M = 3.90) who were depressed than where there were none ( M = 3.18). Present data suggested that depression described as severe was likely to be attributed to stable personality characteristics. Depression described as having occurred before was likely to be attributed to stable factors. Information about the degree to which depression was typical of a peer group appeared to have an influence on several types of attributions. When depression was described as typical, environmental causal explanations predominated and when the depression was described as atypical, temporary personality factors tended to be used as explanations.