Explanatory style and helplessness

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Christopher Peterson
Dawn Colvin
Emily H. Lin
Cite this article:  Peterson, C., Colvin, D., & Lin, E. (1992). Explanatory style and helplessness. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 20(1), 1-14.


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Explanatory style refers to our habitual ways of explaining bad events. According to the reformulation of the learned helplessness model, stability and globality of explanatory style influence the extent of helplessness following bad events. However, most research involving explanatory style has been focused not on helpless behavior per se but rather on more distant consequences (like depression) ostensibly involving helplessness. In the present research, we explicitly investigated helplessness and its relationship to explanatory style. In Study One it was found that students (n = 40) who explained bad events with stable and global causes were less likely than their more optimistic counterparts to take active steps to improve their course performance following a poor grade. In contrast, internality of explanatory style was positively correlated with active coping attempts. In Study Two it was found that young adults (n = 72) who explained bad events with stable and global causes were less likely to take active steps to feel better when they experienced symptoms of illness. Internality of explanatory style was not significantly correlated with attempts to feel better.


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