The danger of false attributions

The Cancer Council NSW released the results of a study last week that found that cancer patients were more likely to blame external factors such as stress or genetics for their disease than internal factors such as smoking or a lack of exercise. It was reported that 70% of lung cancers and 20% of all cancers are linked to smoking, yet only 40% of the lung cancer patients surveyed considered smoking to be linked to their disease.

Obviously, there are many cases of non-smokers battling lung cancer, but why are people more comfortable blaming factors beyond their control for a disease? Probably because it’s hard enough coping with a cancer diagnosis without feeling regret for poor lifestyle choices. The tendency to blame external factors for things that go wrong is part of what we call attribution theory. The other part is attributing success to internal factors that may in part be due to luck.

False or questionable attributions are made by most of us at different times in our lives. If our babies are good sleepers, we are happy to take the credit for getting them into a good routine from day 1. If they are bad sleepers, we are unlucky – it’s not our fault. But if someone else’s baby is a poor sleeper, we consider the possibility that the parents are to blame.

False attribution plays a big role in anxiety. Having a panic attack can lead to avoidance if a person falsely attributes the anxiety to the situation in which the panic attack occurred eg the supermarket or a bridge or an elevator. Continued avoidance of situations can lead to agoraphobia, which is a fear of having a panic attack in a situation that is perceived to be dangerous.

False attributions can cause people to not take responsibility for their own actions. Instead of apologising or accepting some of the blame for an argument or a relationship breakdown, they go through life criticising others and feeling hard done by and resentful. At the very least, false attributions can cause a failure to support friends and family who are going through a tough time. This happens when we prefer to blame a friend for their partner’s infidelity, rather than entertaining the thought that it could happen to us. In fact it happens nearly every time we judge others.

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