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The Need to Feel Good: Why I’m the Reason for my Success and You’re the Reason for my Failure

Rick Pitino and External Attributions

Humans have a need to feel good. This need leads us to engage in some fascinating and often delusional behavior. It can lead us to set goals, work hard, and be honest. However, when we have dug a small hole for ourselves, it can leads us to rationalize and justify all sorts of behavior.

This need to feel good also can lead us to skew reality so as to maintain the best image of ourselves. Recently at my basketball camp, a game was tied between two teams of 6th graders. As the clock counted defensive player collided with a player who was dribbling the ball. The ball went flying, the defensive player chased the ball down, and the whistle blew. A foul was called and the offensive player stepped to the line and knocked down the free throws to win the game, setting off a mini-celebration amongst his teammates.

Meanwhile, the player who fouled him walked over to a corner of the gym, with tears streaming down his face. A major reason kids attend summer camps is to learn valuable lessons about sports, so I walked over to this young player to make sure he was doing just that. As I asked him what he learned from the last play, he responded sharply, "I didn't foul him!" Now, his foul was so blatant that everyone in the gym had seen it, so I probed further to understand his perception of the play.

"I stole the ball! I had it in both hands. Then the other guy ran right into me! He practically knocked me over!" This youngster, as we all do, was trying to make sense of what had just happened. We make attributions whenever we make sense of the causes of behavior. In this case, the young player was making an external attribution for the foul ("The ref made the wrong call; the other player ran into me!") rather than an internal attribution ("I made a poor decision to be so aggressive at that point in the game"). Although inaccurate, the player's external attribution was made to help him to feel better.

This response is not uncommon among athletes. In fact, one study of professional athletes found that they made significantly more internal attributions for their successes than they did for their failures. In other words, they were more likely to blame a referee for a loss, but rarely would they credit a referee or some other external factor for their success. How often do you hear a player say, "That umpire gave us that game!"

Of course, the danger behind external attributions is that they enable us to escape from personal responsibility for our actions. Recently, Rick Pitino, head coach of the Louisville Cardinals Men's Basketball team testified against Karen Sypher. Pitino alleged that Sypher attempted to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from him after they had sex in a restaurant in 2003. Pitino, married with children, and one of the highest paid employees in the state of Louisville, made the following comments in his testimony:

1) "She opened up my pants."

2) "Some unfortunate things happened."

3) When questioned whether they had sex, Pitino responded, "Yes, very briefly".

Do you see the pattern here? The same coach who is held accountable for the actions of his 18-22 year old players, and paid millions of dollars based on their performance, appears unwilling to accept his responsibility. She unzipped his pants; some bad things "happened", and they only had sex "very briefly". It seems as if Pitino is making external attributions for his actions (blaming the Karen Sypher), and also trivializing the act when he maintains he only had sex very briefly.

This may have been Pitino's first affair. I doubt it. It seems unlikely he would choose a restaurant for his first extramarital encounter. In the end, it appears Pitino will keep his job. One can only hope that in the future he holds himself as accountable for his actions as he does his players. By making external attributions for his actions that night, he provides little evidence that he'll avoid such behavior in the future.