Exploring the Implications of Attribution With the Help of the Albatross

Humans attribute certain causes to everyday events⸺whether consciously or not⸺and try to justify circumstances based upon abstract beliefs. This can seem like a rather unimportant concept, but in a time where tensions continue to rise, the importance in realizing the real significance of these attributions is unprecedented.


Alexis LOURS via Wikimedia Commons

A carrion crow rests on a mossy branch, surveying the area for carcasses. While the albatross has quite the reputation, it’s infamy is dwarfed in the presence of any species of crow⸺they’re almost always depicted as omens of death, decay, and bad luck. Carrion crows, in comparison to other species, were particularly associated with death and sickness (as their name suggests), and their presence often foreshadowed catastrophic events.

Kaleb Ryans, Staff Writer

In psychology, particularly the work of Fritz Heider, attribution is an umbrella term relating to how humans perceive the causes of everyday experience. Our attributions affect our rationale and behavior, and in a time where societal stress and morale continue to fluctuate heavily, it’s imperative that we recognize the importance of how we choose to look at our circumstances. Superstitions and myths are great historical examples of how attributions can affect your behavior and reasoning, as without significant scientific evidence, humans were capable of conjuring up all sorts of mythical tales about ordinary creatures.

To start, let’s first establish what exactly the implications of attribution are and why they are important.  There are two main types of attributions: external attributions, where individuals interpret behaviors as being caused by the environment; and internal attributions, where individuals infer the cause of behaviors to be a result of  internal feelings and characteristics. Let’s say that you feel particularly bitter in the morning, and that feeling persists throughout the day. You could either rationalize this bitterness with an internal observation with a phrase such as “I am feeling bitter because of what I think of myself/other people;” or, you could attribute the bitterness to an external effect, such as a disorderly environment or poor night’s rest. 

Whether you attribute causes to events based upon your internal characteristics or external environment, it’s inarguable that a sustained proclivity of either can result in bad habits. For example, if you have a tendency toward doing the former, it leaves you vulnerable to destructive self-awareness and criticism, leading to low confidence levels and high agreeableness; however, if you invest yourself in the latter, you can become overly self-confident and absentminded. There are plenty of other facets to attribution theory, but these two types of attributions in particular are key in highlighting the importance of keeping ourselves aware of these concepts.

For  historical examples, let’s take a look at a common superstition: the notion that if a seaman were to slaughter an albatross, he would be cursed with bad luck, or even worse, doomed to perish while lost at sea. Fiction such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner were significant influences on the spread of this belief, as in the poem, the mariner of a ship shoots and kills an albatross with a crossbow⸺a bird that his crew originally believed to be a bringer of good fortune After a short period, harsh gusts send the sailors to uncharted waters, damning them at sea. Thus began the spread of the superstition, and while it serves as a fine example of how superstitious ideas come to be, the nature of the tale serves a separate purpose: regardless of what is thought to be true or untrue, if the evidence provided is deemed adequate, a proposed school of thought will be accepted within a society of individuals.

Now it is true that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is centuries old, and with the help of modern technological and scientific advancements, we can easily determine that albatrosses aren’t particularly “lucky.” However, the tale still shares similarities⸺if not direct parallels⸺to how we attribute meaning to certain happenings today. The crew of sailors trusted that the albatross brought good winds with its arrival, and that’s its presence (as well as its upkeep of welfare) secured this boon⸺in this they were fairly confident. However, in the chance that they were wrong, the mariner acted upon his own perspective, believing that the albatross brought only “fog and mist.” There was obviously no telling whether or not either perspectives were 100% true, as there is an equal probability that both perspectives were based upon irrational, internal attributions. The killing of the albatross led to nothing but misery for the inhabitants of the ship regardless, and his subsequent punishment can be interpreted like this: Those who are both steadfast in their truth, as well as eager in their pursuit to enforce it upon others, must be prepared for the consequences that may result from reckless devotion to their own ideas.

So, how does this relate to us modern individuals? These tales serve as reminders for the modern people to stay modest and skeptical⸺especially of themselves. If we were to hold complete certainty and confidence in our beliefs⸺which we often do⸺the conflicts that we desire to resolve would only increase in their divisiveness. Such has been the case politically, but we must also recognize that this happens at the interpersonal level as well. When talking to friends about generally menial things, we often fail to realize the danger of applying objective truths to our ideas, such as bandwagon or group hate against something. Such behavior is dangerously similar to that of repression, even if at a small scale, and the continual imposition of one’s morals upon others can have destructive consequences.

Now while the mariner had doomed both himself and his crew, we still mustn’t forget the positive influence of confidence. There is apparent importance in certainty in our beliefs and perspectives, as it holds our lives in relative balance. Sure, it’s very important to question yourself⸺however, doing so too frequently can cause immense self doubt and paranoia. Everyone wants their opinions to be validated, and it’s understandable to fear rejection, but I must ask: If we are too reluctant to share our ideas, how are we to improve them? It’s instrumental for individuals must be assured that they are equally able to achieve a conscientious mindset if anyone is to better the human condition. When it comes to predicaments such as this, it’s clear that we require a balance: in this case, in order to move forward in a relatively healthy manner, we must not only tame our egos, but also reserve some respect for our own ideas and opinions.