Attribution theory believes that people attempt to understand events and actions by attributing intentions, beliefs, and feelings to the events. It also holds that we tend to place causation into two categories: internal (dispositional) factors and external (situational) factors.
The book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships by Fritz Heider (1958) is usually considered the seminal work which sparked this area of study.
Heider suggested that people will explain the actions of both others and themselves in terms of either internal dispositional factors or external situational factors.
Since Heider’s work, other theorists have proposed models that attempt to explain how and why people explain the outcomes they experience directly and the behaviors of others they observe (Jones & Davis, 1965; Kelley, 1967; Weiner, 1985).
Why do we Attribute Causation to Behaviors?
It is believed that we attempt to attribute causation to events in order to feel a sense of control over the environment. It overcomes our cognitive dissonance.
Attributional behaviors can also help us to come up with a course of action that can either maintain or improve that environment.
Over the last 50+ years, attribution theory has played a prominent role in education, social psychology, clinical psychology, and management theory.
Attribution Theory Examples
- After losing 9 out of their last 10 games, the team is beginning to doubt the coach’s leadership skills.
- Stella believes her child is incredibly smart, but her teacher is not very good and is holding her back.
- Hakeem’s friend is late again. Rather than get upset, he just accepts the fact that punctuality is not one of his friend’s priorities in life.
- Jasmine walks by a homeless person and speculates that they probably grew up in a very dysfunctional household.
- The fans are really upset after losing a close match. They immediately blame the refs for bad officiating.
- Kumar earned the highest grade in class on the chemistry final, which he attributes to all the time he spent studying.
- Years after going through a messy divorce, both Beth and Andrew blame each other for their failed marriage.
- Evita won another gymnastics competition, which her parents attribute to her excellent genes and natural talent.
- Ben cannot understand why his “best friend” keeps talking bad about him behind his back.
- Mr. Jones drives by the local food bank and blames corrupt politicians and greedy corporations for moving all the jobs overseas.
Case Studies of Attribution Theory
1. The Self-Serving Attribution
People have a basic psychological need to view themselves in a positive light. In fact, being negative towards oneself is a depressive symptom and can be psychologically unhealthy.
Heider (1976) believed the self-serving attributional bias was pervasive. As he stated,
“One is inclined to attribute to oneself good things, but one suffers when one has to attribute to oneself something that is not so good…” (p. 16).
Mezulis et al. (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of 266 studies on self-serving attributions. The researchers were able to calculate an effect size for each study, which is essentially an index of how strongly one variable effects another variable.
For example, the magnitude of the effect of sunlight on plant growth is quite strong, whereas the effect of music is most likely quite low.
The results of the meta-analysis were robust:
“The overall effect size of the attributional bias was large (d = 0.96) and may represent one of the largest effect sizes demonstrated in psychological research on cognition to date” (p. 738).
2. Biased Attributions in the Courtroom
Presenting evidence regarding the character of the defendant can lead jurors to commit a fundamental attribution error. It makes jurors more likely to see the defendant as responsible.
According to Dominioni et al. (2920), the European legal system relies on judges to arrive at verdicts, while the American system puts the responsibility in the hands of jurors:
“Legal scholars debate on which of these two systems is better…” (p. 261).
The researchers conducted a study using vignettes that provided character evidence or no character evidence to university law students and judges-to-be.
To paraphrase: Results revealed that participants in the character evidence condition were more inclined to attribute the incident to the defendant’s conduct (or less inclined to attribute to the situation) than participants in the no character evidence condition.
This analysis also reveals that law students were more inclined to attribute the incident to the defendant’s conduct (or less inclined to attribute to the situation) than judges-to-be (p. 254).
3. The Actor-Observer Bias
The actor-observer bias is the tendency for people to attribute situational factors for their own behavior, but more trait-based attributions for others.
This tendency was demonstrated in a study by Nisbett et al. (1973). Researchers asked college students to think of their behavior and a person they knew, such as their mother or roommate.
They were then instructed to circle a term that best describes that person’s behavior. Those terms varied in regards to being trait-based or situation-based.
The results indicated that students were more likely to circle situation-based terms for their own behavior, but trait-based terms for others.
There are several possible explanations for the actor-observer bias. One centers on the availability of information.
For instance, we are far more aware of the various factors that affect our own decisions than that of other people and may simply be observing from a distance.
4. Kelly’s Covariation Model
Sometimes we have considerable information about another’s person behavior. This is where Kelly’s covariation model of attribution comes into play. It examines the influence of several factors that affect how we explain the behavior of others.
According to Kelly, we consider three main variables:
- Consensus: this has to do with how other people behave in the same way in a similar situation. If Raj acts upset about an exam and other students are also upset, then Ray’s behavior is high in consensus.
- Distinctiveness: this refers to how the person acts in other situations. If Jim gets upset in other situations, this distinctiveness is low.
- Consistency: this has to do with how the person acts at other times in response to the same situation. If Raj gets upset after every exam, then consistency is high.
For example, if Raj always laughs when watching a particular show (high consistency), doesn’t laugh that much at other shows (high distinctiveness), and other people also laugh at that show (high consensus), then we will attribute Raj’s behavior to external factors (the show is funny).
However, if most people don’t laugh at that show (low consensus), Raj laughs at a lot of shows (low distinctiveness), and Raj frequently laughs at that show (high consistency), then we might attribute Raj’s behavior to internal factors (Raj likes to laugh).
5. Weiner’s Locus of Causality
Bernard Weiner (1985) focused his theory of attribution on how people explain success and failure. According to his theory, explanations can be based on personal factors such as ability or effort, and situational factors such as luck or task difficulty.
This led to a 2 x 2 categorization scheme:
“Ability was described as internal and stable, effort as internal and unstable, task difficulty was thought to be external and stable, and luck was considered external and unstable” (p. 551).
However, because of the shortcomings of this scheme, a third dimension labeled controllability was added.
Although ability was previously considered internal and stable, that may not be entirely true. For example, in the case of sports, it is possible to improve one’s ability with practice.
Similarly, while initially Weiner considered effort to be internal and unstable, this is not always so; as in the case of a person that is lazy or generally unmotivated.
Only by taking into account all three dimensions of causality is it possible to develop a conceptual framework with true explanatory power.
See the related concept: Locus of Control Theory
Attribution theory attempts to explain how and why people explain the behavior of others, and themselves. Several prominent theories have been developed and consistent results obtained over several decades of research.
One of the most robust findings is that people engage in self-serving attributions which give them credit for success, but deny responsibility for failure.
While we generally explain our behavior in terms of situational factors, we tend to see the actions of others as stemming from dispositional factors such as their personality.
Although seemingly harmless in everyday life, attributional biases can have substantial ramifications in the legal system. Jurors may be more inclined to see a defendant as being responsible for their actions and apply less credibility to situational factors.
Dominioni, G., Desmet, P., & Visscher, L. (2020). Judges versus jurors: Biased attributions in the courtroom. Cornell International Law Journal, 52, 235- 265.
Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.
Heider, F. (1976). A conversation with Fritz Heider. In J. H. Harvey, W. J. Ickes, & R. F. Kidd (Eds.), New Directions in Attribution Research (Vol. 1, pp. 3-18). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965) From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in social psychology, in L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 219-266), New York: Academic Press.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Volume 15, pp. 192-238). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Mezulis, Amy & Abramson, Lyn & Hyde, Janet & Hankin, Benjamin. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 711-47. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711
Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., & Marecek, J. (1973). Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(2), 154–164.
Weiner, B. (2010). Attribution Theory. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0098
Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92, 548-73. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.92.4.548