A responsibility pie is an exercise that gets you to evaluate the factors you believe are contributing to a present situation you are facing.
More heavily-weighted factors occupy juicier slices of the pie.
This exercise is based on attribution theory (Weiner, 2010).
How do you perceive the causes behind your successes and failures (a.k.a. causal beliefs)?
And what are the consequences of your beliefs?
The way you perceive the causes for successes and failures can be evaluated on the touchstone of three dimensions:
- Is the cause within you? Or due to an external factor?
- Is the cause temporary? Or do you see it as here to stay?
- Can you influence any control over this factor? Or do you think it’s something you just have to accept?
- We discuss this further in our article on LANGUAGE & RECOVERY (Section on Flexible Optimism)
These dimensions of causal beliefs influence our:
- Emotions (i.e., anger, pride, gratitude, guilt, shame, and others)
- Expectations of future success
- Motivation for success
- Reactions to others
A high school student who had successfully completed rehabilitation and transitioned back to sport, school and work reached out to us several months later with the concern that she was still experiencing cognitive issues.
She cited that she was having problems performing on tests.
She tried the strategy of “working harder” and it didn’t work for her.
Then she tried another strategy: reading the text and then answering questions on what she just read, and that helped a bit more.
She tried appealing to her teacher for leniency to no avail.
She had a heavy semester: Biology, Chemistry, Physics and English. She had no spare period and she didn’t have any “bird courses”. She was disappointed in her marks: 63, 73, 73 and 83, respectively. Biology was her weakest mark, although historically it tended to be her highest mark. She was looking for marks in the 80s; specifically, her grade point average was normally 88%.
The patient was asked for reasons as to why she thought she was not performing at her usual standards…
She felt her situation was hopeless and the most logical explanation to her was that she had no control over this situation: it was due to her post-concussion syndrome.
We asked her with what degree of conviction she believed that, and she said that she assigned 100% of the blame on post-concussion syndrome.
We asked her to evaluate for other potential causes for her current level of performance. It wasn’t obvious to her, but through the conversation (using Socratic Dialogue), she started coming up with other factors that could be partially responsible:
- Trouble remembering lessons/grasping concepts (she gets headaches, which further exacerbated her learning challenges); And courses with screens were more challenging.
- Her study habits: uses TV/movies in the background; and she’ll shut it off when she really has to focus.
- She had a tough course load.
- She thought her lifestyle lacked balance. She said that she believed that she was working too long, and that maybe she had too many extracurricular activities. She said that the timing of her shifts wasn’t quite right as they interrupted prime study time; she worked Tuesday and Thursday nights for 3 hours. Also, she had hockey three times per week on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for 1.5 hours. And that she spent 90% of the rest of her time studying.
- Her teacher was “tricky”.
- There was added pressure as this was her final year, the year that “counts”.
She was left with the impression that she had a lot of challenges and that surrendering to the belief that post-concussion syndrome was derailing all her efforts may not be helpful or accurate.
We then asked her to further grade each factor on a scale from 0-100%, where 100% means the factor is 100% responsible for her situation (i.e., undesirable performance), and 0% is that it doesn’t factor in at all to her current situation. This exercise saw her at first assign scores that added up to over 100%; so, she had to “right-size” the relative “blame” of each factor by adjusting one factor’s score relative to another’s.
This is what she came up with:
- (16%) Trouble remembering lessons/grasping concepts (she gets headaches, which further exacerbated her learning challenges); And courses with screens were more challenging.
- (8%) Her study habits: uses TV/movies in the background; and she’ll shut it off when she really has to focus.
- (32%) She had a tough course load.
- (24%) She thought her lifestyle lacked balance. She said that she believed that she was working too long, and that maybe she had too many extracurricular activities. She said that the timing of her shifts wasn’t quite right as they interrupted prime study time; she worked Tuesday and Thursday nights for 3 hours. Also, she had hockey three times per week on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for 1.5 hours. And that she spent 90% of the rest of her time studying.
- (20%) Her teacher was “tricky”.
- (3%) There was added pressure as this was her final year, the year that “counts”.
Which all adds up to 103%, but close enough. But, the amount of blame she laid on post-concussion syndrome was whittled down to 16%.
At the end, she was left with the impression that she had a lot of challenges, but that there were many things that were within her purview to change.
She recalled a time when she did have a “bad” teacher and she studied longer to compensate for it. She pointed out that this approach probably won’t be effective in university given that workload is about five times what it is in high school.
She saw that she was 11% off the mark from getting the average she would like right now. She said that her courses end in 6 weeks and that it’s still possible to get the average she wanted. She said that she was going to take the information from the responsibility pie and make a strategy.
We saw this patient twice more before her exams, but this time she was focused on learning habits and lifestyle measures to improve her headaches. These were things she had already been told before, but this time, it seemed to stick😊.
The patient did finish the semester with an 85% average. She was able to maintain her job, her social life with her friends, and stick to an exercise routine. She developed comfort with dealing with stress and found that she was able to leverage two main strengths to weather challenges: her persistence and her organizational skills.
Weiner, Bernard. (2010). Attribution Theory. 10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0098.