Things only change when we take responsibility

Sunday February 14 2016

Conceptual computer artwork depicting a brain being build or being repaired. PHOTO | AFP

Conceptual computer artwork depicting a brain being build or being repaired. PHOTO | AFP 

More by this Author

This past week I had cause to examine how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact with each other, and how one can intervene at any point to effect change in any of these areas.

In psychology, we discuss thought distortions that result in abnormal feelings and drive abnormal behaviour, and interventions have been designed in order to break the cycle and people regain a level of normalcy.

An important distortion is our perception of the role we play in the things happening around us, and how this affects how we feel and eventually our likelihood to take action.

To illustrate the point, one should imagine watching as a child picks a glass from a table and walks away. A few steps later, he drops the glass on a concrete floor and it breaks. Now imagine what answer the child will give should he be required to explain what happened.

Depending on the common language structure for the child’s community, two scenarios might emerge.

In the first scenario, the child might tell you, “I accidentally dropped the glass on the floor and it broke.” In the second scenario, he might say, “The glass fell to the floor and broke.” In the first instance, the child takes responsibility for dropping the glass, albeit accidentally, and therefore links himself to the eventual outcome of the glass breaking. In the second, the child suggests that the glass, through some unclear process, fell to the floor and subsequently broke.

These two scenarios are a result of learnt behaviour.


Learning theory plays a huge role in the treatments that mental health workers provide to help people deal with disease and everyday challenges.

Researchers have studied the impact of causal attribution on the process of learning, with some arguing that learners tend to attribute their success and failure to either internal or external causes, and that this influences their perceptions of future performance, therefore determining how much effort they would put in improving themselves.

Obviously, our daily interactions only help us to become better people if we learn something positive from them. The model of causal attribution we adopt can facilitate this learning.

Bernard Weiner, an American social psychologist, proposed four sets of causal attribution: ability, effort, luck and perceived difficulty of the task. An individual’s perceived ability and the effort expended obviously have a lot more to do with eventual success than the last two sets.

The question to us as a society then becomes crystal clear: To what do we attribute our past successes or failures? Do we attribute them to our own abilities and efforts, or do we attribute them to luck or other external factors? How then does this affect our motivation to confront present and future challenges, and our probability of success?

The core of my argument is that as a country, we often attribute events around us to forces beyond or outside of our control. At the scene of a road crash you will hear the surviving driver accusing the other driver of “coming into his lane”, or making statements suggesting that the vehicle acquired a life of its own and rammed into another vehicle or a pedestrian. In everyday conversation one will hear a lot of “I had no choice …” or “I was left with no option but to …”


We have many other similar narratives, for instance: “Post-election violence happened.” “The election was stolen.” “The equipment malfunctioned.” “The money was stolen.”

In all these statements, the agent is missing, obviously because the agent is the speaker himself. The alternative narratives would place us squarely in the thick of things:

“We fought each other on ethnic and political lines after the 2007 election.” “We rigged the elections in our respective strongholds.” “We bought and deployed faulty equipment for the elections.” “We stole the money.”

Perhaps even these examples are not powerful enough to motivate change because, ultimately, the individual within a society is the key agent for change. We need to change these narratives to start with “I …” before we see lasting meaningful change in our country.

Atwoli is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, School of Medicine, Moi University; [email protected]