What is an Explanatory Style?

Donn Saylor

Explanatory style is the psychological attribute that involves how individuals explain to themselves the events that happen in their lives. The explanations can be either positive or negative and end up having a profound effect on an individual's personality. The mind states of cynicism, pessimism, and optimism are also greatly impacted by one's explanatory style.

Cognitive therapy helps patients change a pessimistic explanatory style to a more positive style.
Cognitive therapy helps patients change a pessimistic explanatory style to a more positive style.

Modern psychology has pinpointed three key aspects of this attribute: personal, permanent, and pervasive. The personal element involves how an individual views the cause of a given event; he may see the event as something completely of his own doing, or as something caused by external stimuli, totally outside of himself. In the permanent aspect of explanatory style, the individual explains to himself the extent of the cause; he could view it as fixed and permanent or as transient and a product of happenstance. The pervasive component entails the extent to which an individual explains to himself the effects of the situation; he may see it as an issue that permeates all issues in his life, or he may see it as a fleeting result of a coincidental cause.

Pessimists might engage in destructive behaviors as a way to cope.
Pessimists might engage in destructive behaviors as a way to cope.

Everyday conversational language contains countless examples of explanatory style. Statements such as "It was all my fault" and "Nothing ever goes my way" are prime examples of pessimistic explanatory style. Phrases like "This too shall pass" and "Easy come, easy go" are illustrations of optimistic explanatory style.

Evidence suggests that pessimistic explanatory style plays a major role in the development of stress, mental illness, and even physical illness. The practice of cognitive therapy seeks to remedy mental issues by changing a patient's negative ways of thinking, often addressing head-on a patient's pessimistic explanatory style. If gone unchecked, pessimism can lead to learned helplessness, a psychological theory in which an individual feels they have no control whatsoever over the outcome of a situation, resulting in depression or other mental illnesses. Conversely, an individual with an optimistic explanatory style can cultivate learned optimism, which entails an individual challenging any negative explanations he gives himself.

Explanatory style is largely a product of an individual's locus of control, a social psychological term meaning how thoroughly an individual believes he controls events that impact him. People who have a high locus of control view the events in their lives as products of their own thinking or behavior. Those with a lower locus of control believe they have no power in the events of their lives and are victims of circumstance.

Everyday conversational language contains countless examples of explanatory style.
Everyday conversational language contains countless examples of explanatory style.

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