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The relationship of attributional beliefs to self-esteem.

The primary purpose of this investigation was to determine if the scores on a multidimensional instrument measuring attributional beliefs - the Students' Perception of Control Questionnaire (SPOCQ) - are related to self-esteem and grade point average (GPA). Additional objectives were to (1) determine if there are gender differences on subscales of the SPOCQ, (2) determine if there are gender differences in the correlations of the subscales with self-esteem, and (3) determine the adequacy of the internal consistency of the SPOCQ subscales in a sample of adolescents and adults.

The measurement of attributional beliefs in adolescents and adults is an important issue because a substantial amount of research indicates that these beliefs about the causes of events are related to achievement-oriented behavior (Koestner, Zuckerman, & Olsson, 1990; Ames, 1984; Butler, 1987; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Jagacinski & Nicholls, 1984) and self-esteem (Jagacinski & Nicholls, 1984). Persons who believe that their behavior has no impact on outcomes are likely to develop learned helplessness, avoid challenging situations, and fail to persist (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). This can result in a "cycle of failure" in which negative beliefs result in a lack of persistence, which leads to failure and potentially lowered self-esteem. Failure and low self-esteem confirm the negative beliefs, and the cycle continues.

Weiner (1985) has indicated that beliefs about the causes of success and failure vary along three dimensions: locus (internal or external), stability (stable or unstable), and control (controllable or uncontrollable). He has suggested that persons who attribute failure to ability view failure as an internal, stable, uncontrollable event. Failure is seen as beyond their control and they have little incentive to persist in similar tasks in the future.

Skinner (1995) suggests that there may be important individual differences in the perceived importance of causes (e.g., effort and ability) and in one's perceived capacity to access these causes. Although previous attribution scales have assessed individual differences in perceived importance of effort and ability for a given outcome (e.g., Nowicki & Strickland, 1973), Skinner argues that it is necessary to determine not only the importance of the cause, but also the person's perceived access to that cause. Skinner suggests that action is related to beliefs about what strategies are successful and one's perceived capacity to access those strategies. She contends that individuals are likely to behave effortfully when they believe effort is an effective strategy, and when they believe they can behave effortfully.

Based on Skinner's theoretical conceptualization, Wellborn, Connell, and Skinner (1989) developed the Students' Perception of Control Questionnaire (SPOCQ) to measure children's beliefs about specific strategies and the extent to which they believe they have control over those strategies. The SPOCQ provides a more complete description of attributional beliefs than do other scales available for use with adolescents and adults. If this scale can be used effectively with adolescents and adults, it will provide a new perspective and an attractive option to investigators working in the area of attributional beliefs.



One hundred forty-seven college students were recruited from introductory psychology classes. (Students participated in research as an option for course credit.) Eighty-five females and 62 males, with a mean age of 22 years (range = 17 to 52), participated.

Materials and Procedure

Students participated in a group session which lasted approximately 30 minutes. Group size ranged from 10 to 25 participants. The students completed the SPOCQ (Wellborn et al., 1989) and the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) in counterbalanced order. After completing both questionnaires, students provided demographic information, including age, gender, race, and GPA.

The SPOCQ was originally developed for use with school-age children and adolescents. In the present study, it was adapted for use with college students by making minor wording changes, such as changing the term "homework" to "course work," while keeping the meaning of each statement intact. Three constructs are addressed in the 60-item questionnaire: general control beliefs, strategy beliefs, and capacity beliefs. Control refers to beliefs about one's ability to reach a desired goal (e.g., I can do well; I can learn hard things).These control beliefs are similar to self-efficacy (Bandura, 1989). Strategy beliefs refer to the means deemed necessary to reach a goal. Five strategies are measured by the SPOCQ: effort, ability, luck, powerful others, and unknown factors. Finally, capacity reflects beliefs about the capacity to access the strategies of effort, ability, luck, and powerful others. For example, a student may indicate that effort is important for success (strategy effort) but that he or she cannot try hard (capacity effort). Assessing these three constructs - control, strategy, and capacity - can provide a relatively complete picture of attributional beliefs.

The Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale is a ten-item summated scale designed to assess positive and negative evaluations of the self in a global sense. It is not domain specific and does not pertain primarily to school success, as does the SPOCQ.


There are 10 subscales of the SPOCQ (each consisting of 6 items): control, strategy effort, strategy ability, strategy luck, strategy powerful others, strategy unknown, capacity effort, capacity ability, capacity luck, and capacity powerful others. Internal consistency for each subscale was computed using Cronbach's alpha (see Table 1), and ranged from .54 (capacity luck) to .85 (strategy luck). The average internal consistency over the 10 subscales was .75.

One-way analyses of variance (ANOVA) were conducted to determine possible gender differences on the SPOCQ subscales. Table 2 shows the mean and standard deviation for each subscale by gender. Significant differences were found between males and females on only two subscales: strategy powerful others, F(1, 146) = 5.7, p = .02, eta = .04, and strategy luck, F(1, 146) = 9.6, p = .002, eta = .06. Males scored higher than females on both of these subscales.
Table 1

Internal Consistency for SPOCQ Subscales

Scale Cronbach's Alpha

Control .63
Strategy Effort .74
Strategy Ability .75
Strategy Luck .85
Strategy Powerful Others .84
Strategy Unknown .81
Capacity Effort .82
Capacity Ability .80
Capacity Luck .54
Capacity Powerful Others .68

Correlations were computed to determine if scores on the SPOCQ were related to scores on the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale. These correlations were computed separately for males and females to determine possible gender differences in the relation of attributional beliefs to self-esteem (see Table 3). The pattern of relationships of beliefs to self-esteem was similar for males and females; however, there were differences in the strength of some of the relationships. For both genders, three subscales of the SPOCQ were significantly correlated with self-esteem in a positive direction (control beliefs, capacity ability, and capacity effort) and three subscales were significantly correlated with self-esteem in a negative direction (strategy luck, strategy powerful others, and strategy unknown). For females, strategy ability was also significantly correlated with self-esteem in a negative direction. The strength of the relation of the SPOCQ subscales to self-esteem appeared to be different for males and females only on the ability subscales. For females, reporting that ability was important for academic success was negatively correlated with self-esteem, r(85) = -.44, p [less than] .001. For males, this relationship was not statistically significant, r(62) = -.10, p = .42. This difference between the two correlations was statistically significant at the .05 level. For the capacity ability subscale, reporting that one was smart was more highly correlated with self-esteem for males, r(62) = .63, p [less than] .001, than for females, r(85) = .30, p = .005. This difference in the correlations was statistically significant at the .05 level.
Table 2

Means and Standard Deviations for SPOCQ Subscales by Gender

Scale Females Males


Control 3.59 .39 3.60 .41
Strategy Effort 3.58 .47 3.56 .43
Strategy Ability 2.27 .61 2.37 .47
Strategy Luck 1.36 .47 1.61 .48
Strategy Powerful Others 1.59 .55 1.80 .53
Strategy Unknown 1.45 .54 1.58 .53
Capacity Effort 3.12 .65 3.16 .48
Capacity Ability 3.20 .50 3.29 .50
Capacity Luck 2.68 .41 2.67 .38
Capacity Powerful Others 3.53 .49 3.49 .41
Table 3

Correlations of SPOCQ Subscales with Self-esteem by Gender

Scale Females (n = 85) Males (n = 62)

 r p r p

Control .33 .002(*) .40 .001(*)
Strategy Effort .03 .75 .15 .25
Strategy Ability -.44 .001(*) -.10 .42
Strategy Luck -.30 .005(*) -.36 .004(*)
Strategy Powerful Others -.28 .01(*) -.30 .02(*)
Strategy Unknown -.25 .02(*) -.33 .009(*)
Capacity Effort .36 .001(*) .35 .005(*)
Capacity Ability .30 .005(*) .63 .001(*)
Capacity Luck .04 .70 .22 .09
Capacity Powerful Others .04 .70 .16 .22

* Statistically significant using alpha = .05

Correlations were also computed to determine the relationships of the SPOCQ subscales to reported GPA. For males and females, the capacity ability subscale was correlated with GPA, r(62) = .29, p = .02, and r(83) = .36, p = .001, respectively. Additionally, for females, the capacity powerful others and control subscales were correlated with GPA, r(83) = .32, p = .004, and r(83) = .23, p = .04, respectively.


The present investigation indicates the potential usefulness of the Students' Perception of Control Questionnaire with an adolescent and adult sample. The SPOCQ is a unique and theoretically powerful attributional questionnaire in that it is not based on the assumption that some strategies are viewed by the student as inherently controllable. Instead, individual differences can be measured in beliefs about the importance of certain strategies and one's access to those strategies.

The usefulness of the SPOCQ is supported by the relationships of the subscales to self-esteem found for this sample. Students with higher self-esteem had higher control beliefs, and reported that they were smart and could try hard. In contrast, students who reported that luck was important for school success had lower self-esteem scores. This supports previous research (Zautra, Guenther, & Chartier, 1985) which indicated that internal attributions (such as effort and ability) for success are related to higher self-esteem. It is likely that an individual's beliefs about the causes of success and failure are intricately interwoven with self-esteem.

It is interesting to note that the relationship of attributional beliefs to self-esteem may differ for males and females. For females, reporting that ability was an important strategy (strategy ability subscale) for school success was negatively correlated with self-esteem. In contrast, the strategy ability subscale was not significantly related to self-esteem for males. When examining the intercorrelations of the subscales, strategy ability and capacity ability were found to be significantly related (negatively) for females, r(85) = -.25, p = .02, but not for males, r(62) = -.03, p = .84. Apparently, females who believed that they did not have the ability to do well in school also rated ability as an important strategy, thereby attributing school performance to a strategy that was outside of their control. This fits with a previous study with children and adolescents which indicated that females have a tendency to attribute failure to uncontrollable factors, such as ability (Stipek & Gralinski, 1991).

This investigation has added to our understanding of the relationships among capacity beliefs, strategy beliefs, control beliefs, GPA, and self-esteem. Also, the potential usefulness of the SPOCQ with an adolescent and adult sample was indicated by the internal consistencies and the theoretically reasonable correlations with other constructs. By considering the constructs of control, strategy, and capacity simultaneously, a more complete picture of attributional beliefs emerged. In addition, it appears that beliefs about ability may play different roles for males and females, an issue that deserves further research.


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Author:Turner, Lisa A.; Pickering, Shannon; Johnson, R. Burke
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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