attribution

Depression and Mania: The Bipolar thinking style

PsyBlog has recently posted an article on Cognitive Therapy (CBT) and how it is useful in Depression treatment. this therapy has been shown to be equally effective in Depression as is medication, though this woks in a top-down fashion in the brain (revealed by brain scans), while anti-depressants work in a bottom-up fashion.

PsyBlog quotes the following irrational beliefs , as outlined by Beck, that are prominent in Depression.

* Over-generalization. Drawing general conclusions from a single (usually negative) event. E.g. thinking that failing to be promoted at work means a promotion will never come.
* Minimalization and Maximization. Getting things out of perspective: e.g. either grossly underestimating own performance or overestimating the importance of a negative event.
* Dichotomous thinking – Thinking that everything is either very good or very bad so that there are no gray areas. In reality, of course, life is one big gray area.

To me all of these beliefs are equally relevant for Manic thinking, although in the Manic case these beliefs would be about positive events and have a different spin.

  • Over-generalization: a single instance of success at some endeavor disposing one to think that one can achieve anything in unrelated fileds. Also more co-incidence detection and more correlation-is-causation type of thinking that may ultimately lead to the Magical Thinking of full-blown Psychosis.
  • Minimalizations and Maximizations: Here, again, things go out of perspective: Overestimating one’s own performance and underestimating the importance of external happenstances that might have led to success.
  • Dichotomous thinking: thinking that things are mostly good/bad and unfounded optimism/faith/trust – the opposite of the depressive feeling. Although the reverse thinking that things are mostly bad (external environment is bad, I am good) can also kick in. The point is seeing the world in Black/white but not in shades of gray.

PsyBlog also has an earlier post on depressive thinking style in which it elaborates on the internal-locus-of-control predisposition in depressive probands. Thus, the depressive style is marked by the following internal, global and stable attributions: :

* It is my fault that I didn’t get the job. Here I have made an internal attribution.

* I think I am worthless: a thought that is likely to affect all areas of my life. Now I am making this attribution global.

* I see no reason for the fact that I am worthless to ever change. Now the attribution is stable


It is clear that the Manic person too makes the similar attributions: His success (maybe a single, lucky success) is due to his genius(internal attribution). His genius is not limited to one field- he is generally the most valuable, productive and creative genius and is an all-rounder(global attribution). His genius is not a short-lived entity- he will continue to remain a productive genius no matter what external circumstances / reality (stable attribution). He may thus have no drive to learn about external reality as he suspects that the external reality is not relevant and he can predict outcomes (which are bound to be good) based on his skills, expertise, grandiosity alone. An extreme form of this thinking may lead to the loss of reality characteristic of a full blown Psychotic episode.

While the minimalisations and maximizations are explained by the internal locus of control, the over-generalization is explicable by a propensity of jumping-to-conclusions sort of thinking that leads to global, stable over-regularizations. Another feature important in my view would be the mixing of contexts, where things from one context are referenced in another, dissimilar context. One could call this mixing up of metaphorical thinking where wrong analogies are applied and thus wrong (positive or negative) conclusions are arrived at. The third factor of dichotomous thinking is also very important though hard to pin down. Why should everything appear black and white in depressive or manic thinking and why in one case(depressive ), black is the color of self, while in Manic white is the color of self, remains a mystery. Answering how and when the switch from a grayish-world to a black-me-world(I’m a piece of shit) or white-me-world(I’m the next Einstein) happens would go a long way in making the bipolar patient control his moods and if he has to be sick then enable him to go for a manic episode (where the price may be insanity- a psychotic episode) instead of a depressive one (where there is a real risk of life).

Although the other wrong attributions and thinking styles also need to be addressed, the mechanism of the switching of mood/ black-white world view would help the most and should be the first one targeted in CBT/ medications.

generic vs specific feedback and the fundamental attribution error

A recent study indicates that giving generic trait-based feedback to children ( in the form of “you are a good drawer”) increases feeling of helplessness on subsequent mistakes/failures and reduces their resilience in the face of failure in comparison to the condition in which they are given specific outcome-based feedback (of the form ” you drew a good drawing”). It is thus apparent that when generic praise is given, then this results in a stable inborn talent-like view of the self abilities, while a specific praise enforces more a concept of skill-based self ability that may be affected by circumstances and can be worked on and acquired.

Generic praise implies there is a stable ability that underlies performance; subsequent mistakes reflect on this ability and can therefore be demoralizing. When criticized, children who had been told they were “good drawers” were more likely to denigrate their skill, feel sad, avoid the unsuccessful drawings and even drawing in general, and fail to generate strategies to repair their mistake. When asked what he would do after the teacher’s criticism, one child said, “Cry. I would do it for both of them. Yeah, for the wheels and the ears.” In contrast, children who were told they had done “a good job drawing” had less extreme emotional reactions and better strategies for correcting their mistakes.

It is interesting to read this along with the fundamental attribution error, which was the theme of my blogger SAT challenge essay. As per this bias, people have an inherent bias to view their successes in terms of stable underlying talents/traits and failures as reflective of external circumstances. The reasoning reverses when applied to others. Others fare well due to luck (or external circumstances) and fare badly due to dispositional elements.

From the above study, it is clear that though the fundamental attribution error may serve us well (after all it has to serve a purpose for it to evolve), say by increasing our feelings of self-efficacy and thus leading to greater confidence/esteem, yet it has its downside. It makes learning from our mistakes harder and leads to feelings of helplessness or that of external locus of control, when faced with failures. This rationalization of failures due to our helplessness (despite perceived stable talent/trait) , and due to the external circumstances ( and not as due to some carelessness or lack of effort on our part on this specific circumstance) also leads to less resilience in the face of failures and less motivation to indulge in similar activity in the future.

It is apparent thus, that while giving positive feedback to children, it is framed in specific outcome based terms, so that they do not fall prey to the fundamental attribution bias and pay more emphasis on skill-based accounts rather than talent-based accounts. Conversely, it may be plausible to presume that while giving negative feedback it would be best to be direct and point any underlying issue that the child may have and not gloss them over by providing environmental explanations. The child would anyway make up environmental excuse for the failures!

While inspiring the child to undergo observational learning, one should presumably describe others and their success as resulting from stable traits/ skills and should explain their failures due to circumstance not in their control. This would go a long way in making the child overcome his inherent attribution bias and help in lead to a generally positive and compassionate view of others and a resilient and humble view of himself.

Go to Top