Initial Reactions to Client Attributional Presentations: Content versus Belief Similarity Models

Article excerpt

Two models of attribution were compared in assessing counselors' reactions to clients' initial attributional presentations. Predictions derived from the content model of attribution suggested that certain attributional content in client presentations (e.g., internal and unstable explanations) would create more favorable counselor impressions. The belief similarity model predicted that counselor-client agreement on explanations for the client's problem was more critical. Results partially supported both models: Counselors reacted most positively when they disagreed with the client's internal attribution and the most negatively when they disagreed with the client's external attribution.

When clients present for counseling, they typically bring a problem to be solved and also often offer, either directly or indirectly, their perceptions about the source of the problem. These explanations (or attributions) have been found to influence the counselor's perceptions of the client (O'Brien & Murdock, 1993; Schwartz, Friedlander, & Tedeschi, 1986) and assignment to treatment modality (Murdock & Fremont, 1989). Thus, the early perceptions of counselors and clients may be influential in the formation of the therapeutic relationship as well as in later events in the counseling process. Using attribution theory as a framework, this study investigated one aspect of these early therapy processes--the counselor's responses to client problem presentations.

Two major theoretical structures attempt to categorize the attributional process. Weiner's (1979) approach locates attributional explanations along several basic dimensions: locus (whether the cause is internal vs. external to the perceiver), stability (whether the cause is temporally stable vs. unstable) and globality (whether the cause is present in many situations vs. few). This model is most prominent in the counseling literature in its applications to depression (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). Brickman et al. (1982) formulated a second approach, and unlike Weiner's model, this approach separates attributions for the causes of problems from those concerned with responsibility for the solutions to the same problems. The Brickman model categorizes problems and solutions according to whether or not they are perceived to be the responsibility of the individual with the problem.

In applying either of the major theories of attribution to counseling, a further distinction can be made on the basis of their operation within the dyadic context. Regardless of the attributional theory, two general approaches can be identified: the content and belief similarity models. In the content model, certain causal patterns (e.g., internal and unstable attributions for negative life events) are more predictive of positive client outcome than are others. In contrast, the belief similarity model of attribution is based on the assumption that the relationship of client and counselor beliefs about causality is more important than content (e.g., Brickman et al., 1982). Because much of the literature on attribution in counseling concentrates on the attributions offered to or held by clients, I was interested in testing the relative utility of these two approaches in predicting counselors' initial impressions of clients as a function of clients' attributional presentations. Following is a brief review of the literature on the content and belief similarity models regarding counselor impressions.

The content model of attribution assumes that the actual type, or content, of the attribution is the critical element in determining therapy outcomes. This model suggests that counselors might prefer some kinds of attributional content over other kinds. For example, Strong and his associates (Strong, 1970; Strong & Claiborn, 1982) argued that encouraging client problem attributions to unstable and internal causes would help to create client change. From this perspective, then, counselors would be expected to respond most favorably to clients who present with intrinsic attributional patterns. …