Sunday, January 22, 2012

Anton Chekhov and Attribution Theory

The famed Russian author Anton Chekhov had his writings influenced by science as captured by one memorable quote:
When one longs for a drink, it seems as though one could drink a whole ocean—that is faith; but when one begins to drink, one can only drink altogether two glasses—that is science.
Both art and science are lenses to look through to understand the human condition.

Another of Chekhov's observations is turning out to be germane to the study of our psychology:
Man will become better when you show him what he is like.
The article 'The Effort Effect', in the Standford Magazine, reviews the research of psychologist Carol Dweck in the area of attribution theory - the cognitive dynamic associated with how we attribute causes of events and the motivation/de-motivation it engenders (emphasis added):
...Through more than three decades of systematic research, she [Ms Dweck] has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed...

...Dweck and her assistants ran an experiment on elementary school children whom school personnel had identified as helpless. These kids fit the definition perfectly: if they came across a few math problems they couldn’t solve, for example, they no longer could do problems they had solved before—and some didn’t recover that ability for days.

Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failure—and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, “really supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.” Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.

Attribution theory, concerned with people’s judgments about the causes of events and behavior, already was an active area of psychological research. But the focus at the time was on how we make attributions, explains Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, who coined the term “fundamental attribution error” for our tendency to explain other people’s actions by their character traits, overlooking the power of circumstances. Dweck, he says, helped “shift the emphasis from attributional errors and biases to the consequences of attributions—why it matters what attributions people make.” Dweck had put attribution theory to practical use...
It's interesting, that science is now empirically reaffirming an observation on human nature that Checkhov made more than 100 years ago.


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