Causal attribution of success and failure of the sexes

  • girls tend to attribute success to external circumstances and failure to themselves
  • → females took care of others and had to learn fast from mistakes
  • boys tend to attribute success to themselves and failure to external circumstances
  • → males who were easily irritated by failure lost reproductive chances
Topics overview:
Internal and external causal attribution
Gender differences in causal attribution
Consequences of the different attributions
Evolutionary perspective
Causal attribution as cause of gender stereotypes
Ideal causal attribution for leader

Internal & external causal attribution

For each event, we try to determine what caused it. Understanding such causal relationships is important to be able to predict or even influence events. First of all, it is important to clarify whether I myself was responsible for an event or not.

Type of causal attributionAssumed reason for event
internalone’s own actions
externalexternal circumstances

Gender differences in causal attribution

Nicholls 1975¹ tested ten-year-olds with regard to their handling of success and failure. In fact, they found that girls and boys rated their own successes and failures differently.

Boys attributed success to their own abilities (internal attribution), while they denied failure or blamed the circumstances; „That was just bad luck“, „The teacher was bad“ (external attribution). For girls, the whole thing is now reversed. They react more affected to reprimand and attribute failures to their own shortcomings. Success, on the other hand, they call „luck“ and attribute it to external circumstances.









Consequences of the different attributions

The different attribution of success and failure of genders has far-reaching consequences. An internal attribution of success leads to the feeling of being able to control it. At the same time, failures do not end up on my own list and therefore have no effect on my self-esteem. An overestimation of one’s own self is only underpinned, not corrected.

The external attribution of success, on the other hand, leads to a feeling of powerlessness, as if nothing could be achieved. The internal attribution of failure makes it an extremely unpleasant experience and even causes a fear of failure. In order not to get themselves into these kind of situations in the first place, girls take back expectations of themselves. But not only that, they also correct others and, for example, play downwards their achievements in job interviews. Worse still, she doesn’t even try out many things out of fear to fail. In the end, because she missed out on opportunities to develop skills, she might actually lack abilities.

circle internal attribution of failure
circle of internal attribution of failure

We do not want to educate or recruit egomaniacs or unhappy cowards. Our children, employees and acquaintances should have the opportunity to develop a realistic self-assessment and a healthy self-esteem. Appreciation is just as important as constructive feedback and correction for overestimation. Praise to children should for both genders include and invitation for internal attribution („Great, you did this all by yourself, you are very strong“).

Evolutionary perspective

Evolutionarily, the gender differences in causal attribution could be explained as follows: Predominantly females fulfilled the function of brood care. If something went wrong, such as feeding a poisonous fruit, the offspring´s probability to survive sank immediately. She had to quickly recognize her feeding behavior as the cause of the symptoms and learn from it (internal attribution of failure). Success, on the other hand, is more abstract in brood care. If offspring has grown up and been able to reproduce themselves you might call that a success. But which behaviour caused it? It is such a long period of time and one probably does not think „My awesome care performance was successful“, but rather „How fortunate was I that there was enough food and no natural disasters all the time“ (external attribution of success).

For males with low parental investment, the act of reproduction might already have counted as a success. This way, he could attribute the mating to his advertising strategy (internal attribution of success). By contrast, for males failure was an unsuccessful advertising attempt. If he got discouraged by failing easily and gave up, he would miss other opportunities to reproduce. Only those who did not let themselves be impressed by such a misfire and tried it immediately again had a chance to multiply genes. Of course, moving on is easier if he does not start to question his attractiveness and abilities. Instead he attributes the misstep to external circumstances (external attribution of failure). „Maybe the situation wasn’t safe enough for the female“ or „Maybe it wasn’t the right time“ are reasons just as likely.

Causal attribution as cause of gender stereotypes

The discussed tendencies of the genders in causal attribution as well as self-assessment affect not only the self-esteem in different ways, but also the general pictures of the genders. The resulting stereotypes in turn additionally influence the self-image of boys and girls.

Surveys show that both sexes rate women’s abilities lower. In an experiment, participants watched videos of men and women successfully performing „typically male“ or „typically female“ activities. Test subjects were then asked to give their assessment of whether someone was lucky (external attribution) or able to demonstrate competency (internal attribution). These were the results:

Gender modelStereotype of activityAttribution

Men were always credited for their success, whereas women´s success was only seen in their ability if the activity was „typically female“. If women were successful in „typically male“ activities the participants assumed that they just got lucky.

Ideal causal attribution for leaders

Jim Collins and his research team published a book called „Good to Great“ (2001, p. 35), which contained results from five years of research into the most successful companies. All „Great Companies“ with a clear difference to the „Good Companies“ had what they named „Level 5 Leaders“. These leaders stood out clearly from others because they justified success with luck or the work of their team (external attribution of success). For failure, by contrast, they took responsibility themselves (internal attribution of failure).

In order to build great companies the female approach seems to be the better one. Great managers attribute successes externally and failures internally. They motivate their employees by crediting them with success and learn from mistakes they take seriously and to heart.

» read on:

Empathy and feeling of guilt

The combination of high empathy and internal attribution of failure promote guilt. Learn more »

sources: 1. Bischof-Köhler „Von Natur aus anders“ 2006, p. 250

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