Some Demystified Psychology: Attribution

by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

In his work with learning differences in children, Mel Levine is popularizing the idea of "demystification." The notion is that the more you tell someone about their disability, the better they will cope with it. It is not enough for professionals to decide how they will help, based only on their expertise. It makes more sense to empower the person who is in the front lines, struggling with their challenges, so that they can make their own appropriate choices.

In this spirit, I want to offer some theory about how people interact, which you may be able to put to immediate use for yourself and the people around you. This is "demystifying" some of the social dynamics that occur around ADHD.

The general category of this theory is called attribution theory, but you only have to know the following basic rules:

First, we don't usually know why someone else did something and we are unlikely to ask. Because of this, we guess. Second, our guesses, about others' motivations and so on, are predictably distorted. Specifically, we explain the motivations of others differently than we do our own.

As a tendency, we attribute our own failures or mistakes to specific circumstances. But other people's failures and mistakes seem to us to be a product of permanent features about that person. In other words, we are less charitable with our fellow humans than with ourselves. As a third rule, we also tend to over-generalize the failings in others into being a broad pattern of "character." Our own mistakes were a one-time thing, but the other person's mistake is an indicator of "how they are" in all realms of their life.

I don't think that these distortions are just a result of the "evil in people's hearts." Part of it must be because we know less about that other person. We don't have as much access to their inner thoughts, which might more accurately explain why they did something. So we are stuck guessing about people, in a process that emphasizes character flaws and generalized incompetence rather than specific circumstances.

Those are the rules of social judgment. And knowing them can help you out! This theory is very applicable when anyone makes a judgment about a person who has ADHD. We just can't see from the outside whether or not someone is "trying as hard as they can" and so on. So we are inclined to make the common judgments that are made about people with ADHD: "He can do it sometimes, so I know he is able to…", "She just needs to focus and try harder…" and "Don't give in. He is just making excuses and you will encourage irresponsibility." In these phrases, we attribute behavior to the ADHD person's "general bad character."

What makes the situation even more difficult is that the person with ADHD may be at as much of a loss for an adequate explanation of himself or herself as the outside observer. They may not have a good theoretical understanding of exactly what the disability is, and may not even be a good observer of their own internal states, (a common symptom). ADHD people become essentially "outside observers" of themselves.

As a result, the ADHD person's guesses about their own behavior are also based on ideas of character flaws and a permanent, generalized incompetence. The person with ADHD will be just as inaccurate and unfair as the outside observer is. And their remedies may at times be as misguided and fruitless as those of the other people trying to help them "improve their character." An adult with ADHD is likely to tell themselves to "try harder" as ineffectively as a parent does an ADHD child.

What can you do with this theory? Ned Hallowell often says that we need to move from "moral" to "medical" diagnoses. We need to understand how a disability disconnects what someone knows they should do (in terms of having "good character") and what they can do, given having ADHD.

If you live with someone with ADHD, now you know that there may be more going on than you can guess at. You will acknowledge that you don't really know if someone is "not motivated." With understanding, it is more likely than you will think that the ADHD person is trying as hard as they can, and a real disability is getting their way. Even if you can't see that, you know that your guess is not as certain as it feels to you.

You may also notice that the ADHD person is equally at a loss to explain their own behavior to themselves. If they tell you that they are just lazy, you could remind them that they are only guessing too. Maybe you will see the evidence that their attribution is not true. Give them some alternate hypotheses to explain their behavior.

Unfortunately, the human heart is easily fooled into broad judgments of our fellow humans. More sadly, the heart can become addicted to self-righteous indignation over the moral failures of others. We are even too unforgiving of ourselves sometimes. Try to give yourself and others a chance to see alternative possibilities. Focus on strengths, keep it specific when looking at flaws, and don't jump to conclusions. You'll be surprised at what you can do with a little home-cooked, demystified psychological understanding.

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