Closely aligned with the notion of “Problem Framing” is the notion of “Attribution.”
My dad was an electrical engineer. My mother was an English and Drama teacher. I’ve always enjoyed acting though I never pursued it as a career. My mother’s mother founded the “Akron Dramatic Club” and held meetings for many years at the house where my mom grew up. Typically, the group would read plays. I happened to have a very good memory at a young age and often I would “fill in” for anyone who was missing, even before I could read.
In high school, I had the lead in our Senior Class Play, One Foot in Heaven. In college, I continued to take acting classes as well as technical subjects. In one “Studio Production,” we presented a scene from Eugene O’Neil’s drama, Long Day’s Journey into Night. I played the part of Jamie, based on Eugene O’Neil’s older brother. In the particular scene in question, the father and his two sons sit around a table drinking Irish Whiskey and, as they get drunker, blaming themselves and each other for various things including their mother’s drug addiction.
In preparation, we rehearsed on a dozen occasions. At the time, my friends and I typically went out to bars several times a week and drank “3.2 beer.” In Ohio, at that time, the only alcoholic beverage one could legally drink from age 18 to 21 was beer with no more than 3.2% alcohol. I had gotten a “buzz” a few times, but had never been drunk.
I had, however, seen people drunk in real life a few times and seen them many times on TV and in movies. I pretty much knew how to “act drunk.” So, each time we rehearsed the scene, as I drank more and more tea, I pretended to get drunker and drunker. Some say, “in vino veritas.” I don’t totally agree, but it is true that people will say nastier things to each other sometimes under the influence. Jamie, O’Neil’s play blamed his mother’s addiction on Jamie having been born and, given enough Irish Whiskey, he told him so in no uncertain terms.
In our last dress rehearsal, for some reason, our director thought it would be a great idea if we ran through the scene three times using actual Irish Whiskey instead of weak tea. So, we did. As best I can recall, I had about a third of a bottle of wine before we began the rehearsal and each time through, I had a beer mug half filled with water and half with Irish Whiskey. It tasted pretty horrible, but I could down it. I simulated drunkenness pretty well, if I do say so myself. Each time I went through the scene, I would begin by acting “sober” and then gradually become drunker and drunker. Then, we would do the scene again. I still had a good memory, so I didn’t flub my lines. I don’t think the rest of the cast messed up either. Everything was fine.
Until the rehearsal was over.
During the rehearsal, I was repeating words and gestures that I had done many times. And in every rehearsal before this one, I had acted as though I was drunk even though I had been perfectly sober. Now that rehearsal was over and I found myself faced with the task of getting off the stage, remembering where my dorm was, and navigating myself home, I realized that I was not acting drunk. I was drunk. Very drunk. Walking was a problem.
While I had been rehearsing, I had attributed my behavior and the way I felt and my slurred speech to my superb acting.
Attribution can be tricky.
If feedback is delayed, trying to do the “right thing” can be completely counterproductive. You may attribute good outcomes to actions that are actually making things worse!!
(Here’s a post on how that might apply to controlling a pandemic). https://petersironwood.com/2020/04/29/essays-on-america-oops/
Dave Pelz has a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and is a former astronaut. More recently, he has become an expert in the “short game” part of golf. He applies his analytic and scientific skills to the game and has inventions to help the golfer make correct attributions; a foundation for improving your skill.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you line up to hit a putt (a short golf stroke) about ten feet from the hole. You strike the ball and it veers to a position about six inches left of the hole. It’s easy for you to see that you’ve ended up six inches left, but you probably have no idea why. Dave Pelz could tell you that you might have misread the slope; you might have misread the grain; you might have pulled the club a little left; you might have hit the ball slightly off center of the putter head causing it to twist ever so slightly and take energy away from the putt; you might, indeed, have done absolutely nothing wrong at all. Your ball might have hit a teeny unseen pebble or been blown off course by a puff of wind. Your golf ball might even possibly be a little off balance.
Dave Pelz has invented various devices to help you disambiguate these (and other) potential sources of error. For example, if your ball ended up 6 inches left because you hit the golf ball slightly off the center of your putter, this would be extremely hard to notice. Dave Pelz has a device however, that you can put on your putter blade. It has “prongs” on both sides of the center line. If you hit the middle of the back of a golf ball with the exact center of your putter blade, the golf ball will go straight ahead as it normally would. However, if you’re off center ever so slightly, the ball will careen off at a strange angle. You’ll know immediately that you haven’t hit the center of the putter blade.
I’ve played many rounds of golf. I’ve never observed someone miss a putt and then say, “Oh, shoot! I hit the back of the ball, not with the exact center of my putter blade, but with a spot an eighth of an inch away from the center point. Damn!”
In complex situations, it can be very tricky to discover attributions. And if you make the wrong attributions, you will almost certainly mis-frame the problem to be solved.
Framings exist at different levels. You might seek to improve your putting by discovering mistakes you make while putting and then correcting them. It helps if you have good feedback, whether from a coach or from mechanical devices or from your own nervous system.
At a higher level, you might also need to reframe your expectations. You see, missing a ten foot putt by six inches is actually a pretty good result! Pro Tour Golfers make less than half of their ten foot putts. What you see on TV coverage of Pro Tour putts is mostly of pros making 10, 20, or 30 foot putts. But that is not, on average, what happens.
Similarly, society is inundated with stories and images of people seeming to overcome impossible odds to become insanely successful. And quickly. At least, in the movies, it happens quickly, because otherwise, we would lose patience and not keep watching. Only, in real life, it doesn’t happen quickly. If you frame your “life problem” as: “How do I become a millionaire by age 25?” you may be setting yourself up for failure.
A different framing might be: “What can I do that I love that also contributes to society so much that society will provide me the things I need.”
Of course, some people may be born rich. In such cases, it is very easy to fall into the misapprehension that all your success is due to your hard work, judgement, intelligence, etc. when, basically, it’s mainly luck of the draw.
Consider. However brilliant you might be, or physically gifted, how do you think your life would look right now if you had been born 100,000 years ago? You wouldn’t be reading these words on a computer, clearly. You wouldn’t be reading at all. Your surroundings, your clothing, your diet, your tools — these are much more determined by the circumstances you were born into than you likely imagine.
It’s not crazy to focus on your own decisions. After all, no-one can determine the circumstances of their birth. You can change your decisions though. Usually, therefore, it makes sense to focus on your decisions, not on the circumstances of your birth.
But not if you use the sheer luck of your birth circumstances to argue that you should have more than your fair share. Making your success out to be the results only of your personal perspiration and perspicacity is petty.
Consider the gratitude you owe for what was granted. Your generosity grows correspondingly.
It’s a good antidote for a hangover. You might even call it an antedote.
Attributions are often made without your awareness. They can easily lead you astray. They can even lead you to becoming drunk without knowing it. You might be drunk on whiskey, as I was on that Long Day’s Journey, but people may also become drunk on power, money, or status.
An essay on mindfulness and gratitude: Corn on the Cob