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The Importance of Explanatory Style : Psychologist's Research Relates Attitude to Quality of Life

August 28, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The giant ballroom was packed. Indeed after all the seats had quickly been claimed, grown-up people thought nothing of scrunching up on the floor, the better to hear the thoughts of Martin E. P. Seligman on "Explanatory Style: Depression, Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Baseball Hall of Fame."

"The fraction of you in the audience," the University of Pennsylvania psychologist began, "--unfortunately it is a large fraction--who chronically believe that when things go wrong, you did it, it's your fault and it will last forever. . . ."

There was uncomfortable shifting and the kind of quick looking to the side that takes place when one wants to see how one's neighbor is reacting, but when one hopes that the neighbor is not at that moment doing the very same thing. Most of the people at this American Psychological Assn.-sponsored lecture were themselves psychologists, delegates to the group's recently concluded 94th annual conference here. For them Seligman was a kind of cult figure, a hero to mob after his talk.

Seligman, an expert in what he has called "explanatory styles," was describing a negative explanatory style: the not necessarily conscious belief that unpleasant events are self-induced, immutable and capable of undermining all other aspects of a person's life. Or, to use Seligman's terminology, the causes of bad situations are internal, stable and global.

A negative explanatory style, Seligman's long-term research suggests, may have an overriding impact on a person's life. Mental health, physical health and job performance may be profoundly affected. Through retrospective analyses of verbal explanations--such as presidential press conferences and post-game reports by professional athletes--Seligman has even linked negative explanatory styles to Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for the presidency in 1968 and the early deaths of some Hall of Fame baseball players.

"The way people explain events in their lives, their explanatory style, can affect the way they live--and die," Seligman contends. "And recent studies suggest that people with a negative explanatory style are at risk for later depression, failure at work and poor health."

Pacing in front of his audience, gesturing to huge slides and occasionally administering a well-hewn laugh line, Seligman explained how trained extractors can read through a written transcript and come up with "event explanation units" that help reveal a person's explanatory style.

For example, he offered the following statement, attributed to a woman whose lover had just ended their affair. "I guess I'm just no good at relationships," the woman said. "I've never been able to keep a man interested."

In Seligman's view, that remark was "highly internal," assuming the entire responsibility for the dissolution of the relationship. " 'I'm just no good at relationships,' " he repeated, and again, a fair share of familiar head-nodding was noted around the audience. The use of the word never, Seligman went on, reflected the stable quality of this woman's negative explanatory style: that is, she saw herself as unable, ever, to maintain a viable relationship.

Loosely translated as a kind of lifelong, all-pervasive optimism or pessimism, explanatory styles seem to date from childhood, Seligman said, "though it's very hard to take measures in very young kids." But having studied children as young as 6, and having assessed the explanatory styles of thousands of adults, Seligman believes the styles trace most readily to maternal influence. To date, he said his studies have shown no impact at all from a father's explanatory style.

"I think it's a matter of modeling," Seligman said in an interview after his lecture. "You hang around Mom when you're small, and you tend to model after her."

Girls, Seligman has found in his studies, tend to show a greater degree of "helplessness" than do boys in their assessments of their worlds; that is to say, "they have worse explanatory styles."

For Seligman, that finding poses ominous implications. "One of the most worrisome things is that there is more depression in women," he said. "And it looks like there is a worse explanatory style in girls."

Conversely, Seligman said in his lecture that studies of students diagnosed as depressed had shown unmistakably that they were "more internal, more stable and more global" than the non-depressed students.

"The more depressed you are," he said, "the worse your explanatory style."

In a study of 96 children ages 8 to 12, Seligman said he had found that the children who were depressed were the same ones who said of a particular negative event, "I did it, it's going to last and it's going to hurt me."

And a broad analysis of 104 separate studies involving 15,000 subjects that measured the relationship of depression to explanatory style pointed, Seligman said, to a "robust" relationship between the two.

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