Sense-Making: How we understand events


Ever wonder how in the world our brains process so much information and make sense of it?  There are lots of explanations for this.  The human mind is complex and anything but easy to understand.  We use all sorts of heuristics (shortcuts) as we navigate the information about the events and people around us ever day.  Every healthy person has an unquenchable desire and an innate need to attribute events to causes.

I plan on spending some time writing about this “sense making”  process in future posts.  But to begin with, let’s take a look at a model that can help us understand how we process information about other people to determine (attribute) the “cause” for events.  We do this every day, all day, mostly unaware that the process is taking place in our minds.  Phycology has a lot to say about cognition (thought) in general, and sense making in particular.  But this simple model will go a long way in helping us understand the basic process of making attributions.

Kelley’s (1967) covariation model is a great place to ground our thinking.  It is perhaps the best known (of three) theory of attribution.  Kelley developed a logical model for judging whether a particular action should be attributed to some characteristic of the person (internal) or to some characteristic of the environment (external).  This distinction is important, and I’ll be following up with more on the importance at work soon.

(The term covariation simply means that a person has information from multiple observations, at different times and situations, and can perceive the variations of an effect and its causes.  He argues that in trying to discover the causes of behavior people act like scientists. More specifically they take into account three kinds of evidence.)

  • Consensus is high when: people behave in the same way in a similar situation. E.g.  David comes to work one particular day very late.  If three others on his team also arrive at the very same time, this behavior would likely be perceived as higher in consensus, and the manager would be more likely to (at least initially) attribute these late arrivals to some external event (perhaps a traffic jam).  If David came in late alone, consensus would be low and his manager would be more likely to (at least initially) assume that this is due to some internal reason (perhaps he failed to set his alarm clock).
  • Distinctiveness is high when: a person behaves in a different (distinctive) way in similar situations.  I often think of this as behaviors that are “unlike” or “uncharacteristic of” the person.  E.g. Jane is perfectionist in everything she does.  Her work is always exceptional, on time and of the highest quality.  She has been recognized with promotions for her success at work many times.  Yesterday, she forgot to send out an important announcement to her unit.  Given her track record of excellence, this is a highly distinctive occurrence and is likely viewed as the result of some external factor.  Her boss is more likely to assume that her computer was down or that something went wrong with her e-mail server (something outside of her control) or simply overlook the mistake as an unusual mistake that happens to everyone as busy as Jane is (hence, attributing the mistake to the external cause of having too much work to complete).
  • Consistency is high when: a person behaves in the same way every time this situation occurs.  E.g. If Rob turns in his report early every week, his consistency is more likely to be attributed to an internal cause.  Without any other information, a manager would probably think Rob is hard working, punctual, conscientious and motivated (all internal qualities).  The more consistent a behavior, the more likely (all other things being constant) a person is to make an internal attribution.  The same is true for negative events.  If David came into work late every day, his behavior would be perceived as highly consistent and his manager would be more likely to make an internal attribution for his tardiness.


Consensus  High=> external attribution  Low => internal attribution
Distinctiviness  High=> external attribution  Low internal attribution
Consistency  High => internal attribution Low => external attribution

So, in essence, people attribute causes of events on the basis of behaviors and outcomes correlate.  That is to say, we see that two things go together and we therefore assume that one causes the other.  One problem however is that we may not have enough information to make that kind of judgment. For example, if we don’t know David, Jane or Rob that well, we wouldn’t necessarily have the information to know how their behavior correlate over time.  What if we know a lot about David, but little about the behaviors/outcomes important comparisons (Jane and Rob)?  What do we do then?  Which dimension of the attribution process prevails when we have limited information about the person and/or relevant comparisons?

As an employee, your actions are constantly being evaluated by others.  It’s important that you are aware of this and that you present yourself in such a way that others make favorable attributions for what you do.  No amount of explaining can change a bad employee or leader into a good one.  But high Self-Monitoring is absolutely critical to navigating the attributional landscape we face in the world, and the stakes are particularly high at work!

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Volume 15, pp. 192-238). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


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