Attribution in Action*
I want to share two illustrations from the classroom. Both examples are published research studies that were conducted with elementary school children in their classrooms with their teachers. Thus, these examples are not laboratory studies of influence, but rather are real-world events. This makes their outcomes useful and interesting for us. The first study concerns getting kids to clean up the classroom. The second involves improving math performance and self-esteem.
Littering. A constant battle with younger children is to get them to clean up after themselves. Especially in the classroom where there are twenty or thirty kids, neatness really makes a difference. How can you get kids to be neater?
Our first example made kids neater with Attribution Theory. They set the kids up such that the kids performed a desired behavior, then were provoked to think about why they did that behavior. And, of course, the situation was set up so that the children would make an internal attribution ("I did it because I'm that kind of kid"). Here's what happened.
First, the researchers established a baseline for littering. They visited the 5th grade class just before recess and handed out little candies wrapped in plastic. After the kids went to the playground, the researchers counted the number of candy wrappers that were on the floor or in the waste can. And there were many more wrappers on the floor than in the can, of course.
Now, the study. Its simplicity is going to surprise you. Over the next two weeks people visited this classroom. For example, the principal stopped in for a little chat and on her way out she said, "My, this is a neat classroom. You must be very neat students who care about how their room looks."
And one morning the class arrived to find a note on the blackboard from the custodian which said, "This is the neatest class in school. You must be very neat and clean students."
Finally, the teacher would make similar kinds of comments throughout the two week training period ("Neat room, neat kids"). That's all the researchers did.
Then they came back for a second visit again just before recess. And again they handed out little wrapped candies. This time when they counted whether the wrappers went on the floor or in the waste can, they found a lot more wrappers where they belonged: In the garbage. There was a very large change in the littering and cleaning up behavior of the kids.
Let's review this simple study and make sure we understand what happened. First, we use candy wrappers before and after as an objective measure of littering. Second, we have a variety of sources observing the classroom and offering explanations ("neat room, neat kids").
Also realize the things that were not going on. None of the sources modeled the correct behavior, so the kids were not copying a source with observational learning. None of the sources provided consequences of reinforcement, nor were rewards or punishments given for specific acts of behavior. None of the sources provided "arguments" about why kids should be clean and not litter. All the sources did was provide attributions.
(A little side note: The researchers also tried another treatment along with the attribution training. They called it the "Persuasion Treatment." With a different classroom, all the various sources essentially gave the typical adult lectures about cleanliness and neatness. They said all the things good teachers say about littering. It had no effect on the candy wrapper test. Kids, huh? Back to the main point.)
The analysis the researchers made is this. When the kids heard, "neat room, neat kids," they had to think about what had happened. In essence, they had to answer the question, "Explain why the room is neat?" And their answer was simple.
"The room is neat because we don't litter. We're the kind of people who pick up after ourselves."
In other words the children made internal attributions. And if you believe that you are the kind of person who is neat and does not litter, what happens when you have a candy wrapper? That's right, you throw it away in the waste can.
Math Achievement and Self-Esteem. Our second study goes much deeper, I think, in illustrating the impact of attribution. Littering behavior is an obvious thing. It is also a fairly simple behavior that does not depend on a lot of other factors. So, it should be easier to change. But what about something like math achievement or enhancing a child's self-esteem? These things are complex. They are related to other factors (ability, persistence, training with math and family, life experience, peer support with esteem). Can we change a child's math performance or self-esteem with attribution?
Here are the details on the second study. First, the researchers used before and after measures of math achievement and self-esteem with 2nd grade students. Second, the researchers developed simple, little scripts for each student. All the teacher had to do was read the folder provided for each student, then say or write the appropriate statement. Thus, this study was highly automated. Each teacher simply followed the instructions in a preplanned, scripted way. Third, the researchers had three different kinds of treatment. Kids either got the attribution training or they got the "persuasion" training or they got "reinforcement" training. The study lasted eight days.
Here's the attribution training. The teachers would say or write to the student:
- "You seem to know your arithmetic assignments very well."
- "You really work hard in math."
- "You're trying more, keep at it!"
Here's the persuasion training. The teachers would say or write to the student:
- "You should be good at math."
- "You should be getting better grades in math."
- "You should be doing well in math."
Here's the reinforcement training. The teachers would say or write to the student:
- "I'm proud of your work."
- "I'm pleased with your progress."
- "Excellent progress."
Before we look at the results, again let's analyze what is happening here. In the attribution training, the children are given explanations for their behavior. They are told that their math performance is due to internal factors ("You are a good math student, you try hard in math"). Thus, we would assume that these kids will make internal attributions. Now, even if this is true and the children do explain their behavior with internal attributions, will it translate into higher math scores? It is one thing to believe that you are good at something. It is another thing to be good.
First, consider the self-esteem results. After all the training was over, all the kids had higher self-esteem (on a self report scale). But interestingly, children in the attribution groups had the greatest increases in self-esteem.
Next, what about those math scores? That is the really important and interesting part of this second study. The children took two tests after training. One occurred immediately after the eight training days. The second was given two weeks later. Each test was composed of twenty math problems.
Kids with attribution training averaged 17.5 on the first test and 17.8 on the second test. (The baseline for everyone was 15). Kids with persuasion training averaged 15.5 and 15.0. The kids with reinforcement training averaged 16 and 16. Thus, the students with attribution training scored one to two points higher than other groups and maintained that advantage during the two weeks following the training. (The standard deviation was approximately 1.0 so these mean differences are quite large.)
Time for reflection . . . the training here was really quite simple. Each teacher followed a script of written or verbal statements. All the teacher did was provide the statement to each kid. So, the teacher would mosey over during seat work and say to a child, "You really work hard at math." Or the teacher would write on a homework assignment, "You are good at math." That's it. That's all that was done.
(*Ref: Internet sources)