The influence of attributional retraining on career choices

Vol VI, No. 2, 2006 Comments (0)

Zsuzsanna SZABO
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, USA

Attributional style can have an influence on the way people think about their performances, the kind of tasks people choose to perform, and as a consequence the career path people choose. Attributional styles could be more or less adaptive for certain situations. If a person has maladaptive attributional style, through attributional retraining he or she can be trained to develop more adaptive causal attributions. Results from this study show that attributional retraining for high school students is effective with as few as five training sessions and that attributional retraining has an influence on the career choices listed by the students before and after the attributional retraining.

Keywords: attributional style, attributional retraining, career choices, gender differences

Pages: 89-103


Attributional patterns can have consequences for the kind of tasks people choose to perform, in students for the elective courses they register for, and in the end for the careers people choose to follow in their life path (Matlin, 1987; Nieva & Gutek, 1981; Zuckerman, 1980).

According to attributional theory (Weiner, 1986), it is only when an individual performs according to expectations that the outcome is attributed to skill. When the person performs inconsistent with expectations, the outcome is attributed to factors such as luck, situational factors that enable success, easiness of tasks, or effort. More than that, even when the performance outcome is successful, interpretations of that success differ when the one who performed it is a woman or a man. When equally successful, a woman is perceived as less skilled than a man (Deaux & Emswiller, 1974). Some researchers (Wigfield & Karpathian, 1991) have found that females are less likely than males to attribute success to ability and more likely to attribute failure to lack of ability. Sex differentiated attributions can impact males’ and females’ subsequent motivation in a certain domain of interest, and can influence cognitive outcomes such as achievement. From an attributional style point of view, it could be said that those females who “survived” in the “male” dominated fields had a more effective attributional style.

Attributions for success and failure are often related to achievement activities. Attributing success to one’s ability and effort and failure to lack of effort is seen as positive, whereas attributing success to luck and failure to lack of ability has negative connotations. In order to help students be more adaptive in their thinking about different situations in their life different models of attributional training were developed to help them (females especially, and low achievers) to make better causal attributions about their successes and failures. Attributional retraining might in the end change not only the way people make causal attributions about different situations in their life, but also the way they think about and choose careers.


Educational psychologists relate school achievement to motivation, and researchers in this domain attempt to determine what factors, other than ability, account for the differences found in the way students respond to academic success and academic failure. Failure may elicit intensified effort and persistence for some (adaptive pattern), while others may withdraw from the situation and resign to failure (maladaptive pattern). Academic success, on the other hand, may evoke responses ranging from surprise and relief to feelings of competence and confidence (adaptive patterns). Although such differential patterns do not necessarily indicate differing intellectual abilities, they do have a profound effect on one’s academic behavior (Weiner, 1986). Does the student persist or withdraw in the face of academic challenge? Attributional theory provides a plausible explanation for such discrepant motivational patterns.

Attributional theory emerged from Heider’s (1958) “lay” psychology and subsequent reformulations by Jones and Davis (1965), Kelley (1973), and Weiner (1986). In the ‘70s and ‘80s the field of social psychology was dominated by attributional theorists who tried to explain how people make causal explanations in the process of explaining events and the behavioral and emotional consequences of those explanations. Weiner (1974, 1985, 1986) contends that in achievement situations people tend to attribute their failure or success to one of four broad classes of causation: ability, effort, luck, or difficulty of task. These attributions in turn are thought to determine people’s feelings about their predictions of success, and the probability that they will apply more effort or less effort toward a task in the future. Weiner (1986) identified three dimensions of causality: locus, stability, and controllability (see Table 1).

Table 1. Attributional dimensions derived from Weiner’s model.




Stable Typical effort exerted / general ability Specific skills or aptitudes
Unstable Temporary effort exerted for this task Physical and mental conditions


Stable Physical constraints Task difficulty
Unstable Unusual help from others Luck (Chance)

Locus of causality (internal or external) is the dimension in which a cause is located within a person or outside the person. Stability (stable or unstable) is the dimension in which a cause can be expected to be present at the same level every time the situation arises, or is changing. Controllability (controllable or uncontrollable) is the dimension in which a cause is a factor over which a person has or does not have control.

These three dimensions would give eight possibilities (8 cells) but studies of the past 20 years show that people do not always use the empiricist notion of causality, and from the eight possibilities of causal attributions psychologists were more concerned with those cells which represent attributions for success and failure especially related to intellectual abilities. Also Weiner (1986) showed that attributions differ when people explain self or other person’s abilities. Here I will focus more on attributions for self because they are involved when people make career choices (Weiner, 1985).

Weiner (1974, 1985) stated that past academic history and social comparison are two cues which influence ability inferences. Repeated successes or failures in conjunction with social comparison allow one to infer one’s level of ability. Therefore if a person was always successful in the past and is successful again, the perceived cause is the ease of task and/or the ability of the person. Conversely, discrepancies between the past and present performances lead one to ascribe causation to luck and/or effort. Causes such as effort are likely to be perceived as controllable, whereas ability or the difficulty of the task are not subject to one’s control.

Attributional theorists claim that attributions affect individuals’ persistence at achievement-related tasks. Weiner (1974) discussed that behavior is mediated by both expectancies of success and the anticipated emotional reactions to these outcomes. Expectancies are influenced by attributions to stable factors. Any causal ascription for failure to unstable causes (i.e., insufficient effort or bad luck) will boost intensity and persistence more than the attribution of failure to low ability or task difficulty, which are stable factors.

Frieze (1980) suggests that once expectancy for success has been developed for a particular task, the expectancy is difficult to change. This relates to the notion that expectancy is attributed to stable factors and may be situational. If an unexpected outcome could occur, an attribution to an unstable factor would be made and this particular outcome would not be expected to continue. Therefore those who expect to do well will continue to have high expectations, and those who expect low achievement will maintain their low expectations regardless of how they actually perform. Both feelings and expectations then influence academic behavior.

Attributional Retraining

Theoretical Concepts

There has been interest in attributional retraining in the field of behavior and cognitive behavior therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapists emphasize the role of dysfunctional attributions, negative self-statements, and unrealistic expectations in inhibiting effective behavior. McFall (1982) uses an information-processing model to emphasize the importance of (a) decoding skills, which are in fact the reception, perception, and interpretation of stimuli in different situations; (b) decision-making skills, used to generate and select the appropriate response; and (c) enacting skills, execution of the chosen alternative. A number of factors may negatively influence the first stage, decoding, including distractions, misinterpretations, unrealistic expectations, and faulty attributions which may increase or decrease effective behavior (Poppen, 1989). From the perspective of Weiner’s model, different attributions are desirable for success and failure. After success it would be especially important to make internal attributions such as ability and effort, whereas in cases of failure most desirable would be to make causal attributions related to bad luck, or lack of effort. If people would make more adaptive causal attributions for situations of failure, recurrent situations would be better handled and might be turned into successes. Cognitive patterns such as negative causal attributions in case of failure (as was mentioned in the section about attributional theory) might maintain a specific behavioral response in particular situations, which leads to repeated maladaptive thinking and behavioral processes. Cognitive therapists propose that altering such cognitive dysfunctions provide powerful changes in the cognition and behavior of a person.

Attributional retraining usually consists of a variety of components including instruction, cognitive modification, model presentation, cognitive and behavior rehearsal, feedback, programming of change, and homework assignments. Attributional retraining using cognitive therapy techniques was applied in children, adolescents, depressed participants, gifted and talented students, learning disabled and at-risk students (Borowski, 1988; Chan, 1996; Fulk & Mastopieri, 1990; Heller, 1999; Landau, Milich, & Diener, 1998; Licht, 1983; Menec & Perry, 1995; Perry & Penner, 1990). With undergraduates instruction and guided practice have been sufficient in order to bring expected changes (McFall & Twentyman, 1973). Schools or clinical settings were not the only areas of attributional retraining; researchers mention other situations such as marital distress, social phobia, panic disorder, organizational behavior, and career decision-making (Forsterling, 1985; Freeman, Simon, Beutler & Arkowitz, 1989; Ingram, 1986; Luzzo & Funk, 1996; Luzzo, James, & Luna, 1996).

The Purpose and Techniques

The goal in attributional retraining is not to persuade participants to think in ways that would conform to the trainer’s expectations, but to teach them a set of durable skills that will help them think and behave more objectively and flexibly than being locked into a rigid pattern. Participants are taught to test their thoughts and see them as testable hypotheses. Most important is to help participants improve their cognitive processes. Using more adaptive attributions, participants will make fewer faulty inferences about themselves, their lives, and their future, and will help them think through different situations more methodically and not use shortcuts and heuristics that would lead to negative conclusions.

Testing participants’ cognitive theory and implementing cognitive changes requires valid means of assessing cognitions. Segal and Shaw (1988) mention three levels of analysis: (a) cognitive products, or contents, which refer to conscious thoughts or images; (b) cognitive processes, that refer to characteristic procedures for transforming input from the environment and drawing inferences about its meaning; and (c) cognitive structures, or “schemata” that refer to both the hypothesized structure of thought and the hypothesized content of latent core beliefs. The schemata are hypothesized to influence insidiously a person’s interpretation of incoming information so that it conforms to a cognitive pattern, and lead the person to act on the environment in such a way as to confirm the existent patterns, in other words, a so called self-fulfilling prophecy.

Different methods of measurement of cognitive processes are usually used in cognitive behavior therapy, such as paper-and-pencil measures, interview, role-play, and discussions. One of the paper-and-pencil measures used in assessing the cognitive content and especially the cognitive structures (schemata) is the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) developed by Seligman and colleagues (Peterson, Semmel, Abramson, Metalsky, & Seligman, 1982) with the purpose to test the reformulation of the learned helplessness hypothesis which predicts that depressed participants tend to attribute negative life events to internal, stable, and global factors. Paper-and-pencil methods are not sufficient to assess entirely participants’ attributional patterns. In the process of cognitive assessment of the attributional retraining, participants are asked to self-monitor their thoughts and behavior through keeping a log about situations and the ways they make causal attributions. Trainers then help them by role-playing both verbal and non-verbal relevant situations to consciously realize the type of attributions they make. Role-playing may reveal that a person has effective attributional style that might be forgotten or not used in real life situations. Role-play is a rehearsal modality in a safe environment where a person develops and practices the appropriate cognitions, and then changes in attributional style may occur in dire real life situations as well. Still in order to increase awareness and help attributional change in the training process of real life situations, observations are analyzed and then participants are asked to discuss how they would respond, how they would counsel other people to respond in a more adaptive way, and what would be changed if a different causal attribution would have been made.

As I already mentioned in the previous paragraph attributional retraining is used in order to help people reformulate their maladaptive attributional style and provide them with cognitive skills to make more adaptive causal attributions in situations of failure. Through attributional retraining participants learn to reflect actively on their own thoughts (in other words, they are taught metacognitive skills). They are taught to identify automatic thoughts and specific cognitive errors such as all-or-none thinking, overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, and disqualifying the positive, and reevaluate the process of thinking and making causal attributions. In the process of attributional retraining, when participants list automatic thoughts revealing negative expectations, it is possible to turn these into opportunities for naturalistic experimentation. Participants can actually test these automatic thoughts in the real world. Another important skill that participants are taught in attributional training is the use of preparatory rational responses. Often a person would have an excellent response in situation A but would completely forget about that line of thought in situation B. A long-run solution that participants would learn in the time of training is to think clearly even in dire situations.

It is obvious by now that attributional retraining requires cooperation from participants and hard work on their part, both in and out of training sessions. Newman and Haaga (1989) list some guidelines for maximizing compliance with homework in the training process: (a) regularly offering a rationale for assignments, (b) mentioning to the participants that research suggests a link between homework completion and successful training results, (c) asking for a verbal commitment to complete the homework, (d) writing down the assignment, (e) shaping compliance by starting with easier tasks as homework and slowly increasing the difficulty, (f) collaborating with the participants in setting the terms and details of the task, and (g) trouble-shooting in advance the potential problems. Homework assignments in the training process are beneficial because through task completion participants will not only learn to recognize maladaptive attributions and use cognitive processes to develop more adaptive causal attributions, but also by completing homework tasks they will develop new skills and practice them, giving them more chances to implement the new skills in their daily life. It is important to bear in mind that there still remains a difference between having the skills and using them.

Fulk and Mastropieri (1990) have found great success in schools using the following steps in attributional retraining and strategies for learning:

  1. Describe the purpose of the new strategy.
  2. Describe the important role of effort in attributing outcomes to controllable causes.
  3. Provide examples and nonexamples of how the strategy works.
  4. Provide models of positive attributions combined with strategy use (e.g., “I got this one right because I used the strategy and tried hard”).
  5. Have students practice combined strategy and attributions sequence with feedback (e.g., “That’s great! You worked hard and got the right answer”).
  6. Have students do independent practice of strategy with continued monitoring and corrective feedback as needed (e.g., “Remember to attribute your outcomes to your effort”).
  7. Conduct formative evaluation and role playing.

Role playing in using the correct attributions is of great help in attributional retraining sessions especially with children, adolescents, and the mentally disabled. What is important is that from the initial sessions instead of the instructor modeling the attribution, he or she should help students to emphasize the role of controllability of effort.

Even if attributional retraining is successful in the time of the training sessions, the most important aspect is to have a transfer of the learned skills into real-life situations. In other words, it is expected to have a positive transfer to daily life activities. When positive transfer occurs, participants are actually using in their daily life situations what they have learned in the training. The idea is that the training should induce some type of long-term change in the individual. The essential components of positive transfer include: (a) a presumption of learning in the training; (b) the application of the trained knowledge in daily life; and (c) some assessment of the knowledge and skills as effective and maintained over a reasonable time period (Burke & Robinson, 2001). Homework assignments are especially used for the purpose of practice and maintenance of skills acquired at the time of training.


The purpose of this study was twofold: first, to determine if attributional style for high school students in Romania can be changed through attributional retraining; and second, if the attributional retraining would bring a significant change in the career choices listed by participants in the attributional retraining compared to participants that do not have attributional retraining.

The hypotheses were as follows:

– Students who participate in the attributional retraining (T) report a significant change in scores of attributional style as compared to control group (C).

– Students who participate in the attributional retraining (T) report a significant change in career choices as compared to control group (C).



The study was conducted in the three Romanian high schools. The following design (Table 2) was used. There were four classes in condition 1 and six classes in condition 2. The number of participants in each group is listed in Table 3.

Table 2. Attributional retraining design.

Condition Time 1 Retraining Time 2 Method




School guidance

(no attributional retraining)





Attributional retraining

Table 3. Participants from 3 Romanian High Schools.





Age median

Age range

1 (Control )






2 (Retraining)






School counselors provided the attributional retraining following the same outline for each retraining session (outline available upon request from the author). Students in the retraining group had five 1-hour sessions of attributional retraining. Robertson (2000) reported that even as few as four to six sessions of attributional training are sufficient in order to bring positive results in the attributional style of students who participated in training. The attributional retraining sessions took place over an interval of 5 to 10 weeks. One week before the first session of attributional retraining students responded the demographic questions and the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) as a pre-test, and the same demographic questions, and ASQ were given between 1 and 4 weeks after the last session as post-test. Pre and post-test for the control classes were applied on comparable time frame with applications in the training groups.

Description of Measures

Participants in the study responded to the questionnaire package presented below.

1. Demographic questions: sex, age, race, GPA, college major/school type, and future career choice.

2. Attributional style questionnaire (ASQ) – developed by Petersen et al. (1982).

The ASQ is composed of 12 different hypothetical situations, consisting of 6 good events and 6 bad events. Each situation is followed by a series of 4 questions. The first question following each situation asks for a major cause of the situation. This first question is not used in scoring; its purpose is simply to help the subject better concentrate on the respective situation and following three questions. The remaining 3 questions for each situation are arranged in the same order for each situation and measure three different dimensions: internal vs. external, stable vs. unstable, and global vs. specific. For each response, participants answer in a range of 1 to 7. For good events, a score of 1 is the lowest or worst possible score, and a score of 7 is the highest or best possible score. For bad events, a score of 1 is the highest possible, and a score of 7 is the worse, or lowest possible. Scores of bad events are separated from scores for good events.

There can be computed the following different scores:

– Composite Negative Attributional Style (CoNeg): sum of the total of all bad event scores divided by 6 (total number of bad events). Best score that can be obtained is 3, worst score is 21. For example a score of 3 would mean that the respondent has a realistic and optimistic attributional style for negative situations (e.g., in case of failure the blame would be set on the lack of effort, the respondent would see it as a specific and temporary situation that can be solved through more effort, a better plan, or help from others). A score of 21 would mean that the respondent has a depressive attributional style for negative situations (e.g., blaming own self for failure, and the failure would be considered as stable over time and global across all situations of life).

– Composite Positive Attributional Style (CoPos): sum of the total of all good event scores and divide by 6 (total number of good events). Best score that can be obtained is 21, worst score is 3. For example a score of 21 would mean that the respondent has a very confident and optimistic attributional style for positive situations (e.g., in case of success the person is confident in his or her abilities, thinks that he or she can be successful in diverse situations and not only in the present situation, but in future situations as well). A score of 3 would mean that for positive situations the respondent has a pessimistic and unconfident attributional style (e.g., in case of a success the respondent would attribute the success only to a temporary luck, specific for that particular situation, also the respondent would think that in other situations of life he or she might not be as lucky, and perhaps would not have success at all).

There also can be computed scores for the three different dimensions (internal, stable, and global) separate for positive and separate for negative events. Petersen et al. (1982) recommend using the composite scores presented above because they are more reliable in the prediction of outcomes.

Career Field

Five Ph. D. graduates in the Educational Psychology field were asked to rate college major fields and choice of career fields listed by all participants in the study in four ordered categories, as a typical stereotype holding person would do: 1 for typical feminine field, 2 with more females in the field, 3 with more males in the field, and 4 for typical masculine field. There were 211 different fields listed by the participants in the study.

Statistical Analysis Methods

Results in each of the two conditions from high school student participants were compared. Chi-square test of change was used in order to determine changes in the categories of career field listed in the pre and posttest by the Romanian high school students in each of the two conditions. T test for paired samples was used to observe changes in the reported attributional style. Ordered logistic regression was conducted for each of the two conditions with the purpose to determine which of the independent variables (sex, age, GPA, ASQ-, and ASQ+) has a predictive influence on the dependent variable (choice of career field). An alpha level of .05 was used for each statistical test.


Results of paired sample t tests presented in Table 4 show that there was a statistically significant change in attributional style for negative situations for students in the retraining condition. No other statistical significant changes were found.

Table 4. Results from Paired t Test for the Two Conditions.

Condition ASQ type df t test p
Condition 1 (Control) ASQ negative 78 -.51 p>.05
ASQ positive 78 .36 p>.05
Condition 2 (Retraining) ASQ negative 128 -3.06 p<.05
ASQ positive 128 1.725 p>.05

The Chi-square test of change for the control condition was not statistically significant (χ² (4) = 2.33, p>.05) showing that the changes in the proportions of career choices for high school students in the control condition were not statistically significant.

The Chi-square test of change in the retraining condition was statistically significant (χ² (4) = 23.47, p<.05) showing that the changes in the proportions of career choices for high school students in the retraining condition were statistically significant.

In conclusion there were statistically significant changes in the career fields listed on the posttest by the participants in the retraining condition, but there were no statistically significant changes in the career fields listed on the posttest by the participants in the control condition.

Results from the Ordered Logistic Regression Analysis

The full model of ordered logistic regression for high school students in the control condition included all independent variables (sex, age, GPA, attributional style for negative situations and attributional style for positive situations), regressed on the ordinal dependent variable (choice of career field). The likelihood ratio test is statistically significant (χ² (2) = 41.63, p<.01) which means that the model fits well. From the type 3 analysis of effects and analysis test of maximum likelihood estimates test results show that only sex has statistically significant influence on the dependent variable (choice of career field). The full model of OLR for high school students in the retraining condition included all independent variables regressed on the ordinal dependent variable (choice of career field). The likelihood ratio test is statistically significant (χ² (4) = 30.53, p<.01) which shows that the model fits well. From the type 3 analysis of effects test and analysis of maximum likelihood estimates test results show that sex and age have statistically significant influence on the dependent variable (choice of career field).

For analysis purposes in the comparison of participants in the control and retraining groups a dummy coded variable (group) was introduced in the model to differentiate between the two conditions. The likelihood ratio test is statistically significant (χ² (5) = 64.08, p<.01) which means that the model fits well. From the type 3 analysis of effects test and analysis of maximum likelihood estimates test results show that sex age and group have statistically significant influence on the dependent variable (choice of career field).


A statistically significant change in the attributional style after attributional retraining was found. Results from this study support results from other attributional retraining studies (Forsterling, 1985; Heller & Ziegler, 1996; Luzzo & Funk, 1996; Perry & Penner, 1990; William, 1997). Changes in attributional style are related and have an effect on the choice of career field.

Results from the ordered logistic regression show that in the control condition only sex has a predictive influence on choice of career but the influence is fairly weak. A female participant as opposed to a male participant has a decrease of .02 times the odds of choosing a masculine career field. For the retraining group, a female participant, compared to a male participant, has .22 times the odds of choosing a masculine career field. Also in the retraining condition an increase in age of one year as opposed to decrease in age would results in .58 times the odds of choosing a masculine career field. The results of this study support results of other studies that relate attributional retraining with choice of career (Luzzo & Funk, 1996; Luzzo, James, & Luna, 1996).

In conclusion attributional retraining is effective even when there are as few as five training sessions for normal high school students in Romania. Along with a change in attributional style, students report a change in career choices. Attributional retraining might be one of the factors that can help students in the career decision-making process.

When people are confronted with situations of success and failure they make causal attributions about the happenings and learn from the experience, thus developing a particular attributional style. In future situations they will use the developed attributional style and judge accordingly the probability of success or failure in that situation.

Attributional style retraining is not a new idea, and it has been used in diverse domains for different purposes such as helping students at-risk to modify their perceptions about failure, improving social skills, and improving decision-making processes. Results from this study show that students participating in attributional retraining present a more adaptive attribution style after the training, and this helped them in the career decision-making process.



Choice of career is not predicted by attributional style, but the development of more adaptive attributional style through attributional retraining helps in the process of career decision-making. This last finding implies that those students who have difficulties in career decision-making could be helped through attributional retraining.

Limitations and Future Research Directions

One of the limitations of the study is related to the measure used in attributional style assessment. Weiner’s theory of attributional style does not postulate a direct link between causal attributions and behaviors. Additional variables intervene in the process from thinking to behaving. Because there are multiple implications in the career choice decision-making processes, instead of using paper-and-pencil measure interview methods may prove to be more efficacious to assess attributional style. Because of the large number of participants in this study, the interview method would not be efficient from practical reasons. A future research direction should be the development of a new measure that would assess attributional style directly related to the process of career decision-making and would consider sex-stereotypical career-related situations as well.

Attributional retraining itself emphasizes the role of active involvement in the process, and the success in retraining is based on the premise that the person is motivated to gain causal understanding and improve attributional style. Attributional retraining might help only in the process of decision-making when a person explores the possibilities. In my study, the change in the career choices from pretest to posttest might imply active seeking and problem solving along with attributional retraining effects. More research is needed to determine what other cognitive and behavioral changes are helped through attributional retraining.


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