15 Dispositional Attribution Examples

dispositional attribution examples and definition, explained below

A dispositional attribution occurs when an individual’s behavior is attributed to factors internal to themselves.

Examples of dispositional factors include one’s personality, talent, or perseverance. Those are all internal and enduring characteristics of the person.

The opposite is situational attribution, which refers to attributing outcomes to situational or environmental factors rather than personal factors.

Distributional vs Situational Attribution

The study of how we explain behavior is referred to as attribution theory. Fritz Heider is considered the father of attribution theory and wrote one of psychology’s most influential books, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.

Heider stated that there are two main types of attributions: dispositional and situational.

When we observe a person engage in a behavior, we will explain their actions as being the result of either situational or dispositional factors.

  • Distributional attribution: When a person ascribes a dispositional attribution, it means they consider the individual as being responsible for their actions. They engaged in that behavior because that’s the kind of person they are.
  • Situational attribution: A situational attribution removes some of that responsibility. The person’s actions are seen as being the result of factors external to themselves.

Heider believed that attributions are part of the human psyche, stating:

“Attribution is part of our cognition of the environment. Whenever you cognize your environment you will find attribution occurring” (Heider, 1976, p. 18).

Dispositional Attribution Examples

  • The Bad Driver: When getting into a car accident with another person, we might have a tendency to blame them and say the person is a “bad driver.” This means that being bad at driving is a characteristic they carry with them wherever they go.
  • The Grumpy Boss: From the outside, we may observe our boss as someone that is always in a bad mood. We tend to label them as having that characteristic as an enduring part of their personality.  
  • The Talented Musician: When we see someone that can play a musical instrument exceptionally well, we might use the term “naturally talented” to describe them. It’s as if they were born that way, which is kind of the ultimate dispositional attribution.
  • Explaining a Job Well-Done: When a person does exceptionally well at something, if they claim it was due to their talent and work ethic, it feels good and give a nice boost to their self-image.
  • A Poor Job Performance Evaluation: Receiving a negative performance evaluation at work can be a real blow to one’s self-esteem. If we ascribe our poor performance to dispositional factors (i.e., I’m just not good at this job), the blow can be even more severe.  
  • Being Late for a Job Interview: While the applicant that is late for a job interview may offer a plausible explanations (i.e., traffic jam), the employer may be inclined to ascribe a dispositional attribution and infer the applicant is the kind of person that is always late.
  • The Great Project Manager: When a challenging project is completed on schedule, under budget, and to near perfection, the project manager may take all the credit. The project was successful because they have incredible leadership skills.
  • Cutting the Immigrant No Slack: When an immigrant makes several off-color remarks at a social function, other people might think it’s because “they are a rude person.” A more understanding explanation might be to consider that they don’t know the culture very well yet.
  • The Supportive Teacher: A teacher that provides dispositional attributions for a student’s good work is helping the child build a foundation of confidence and self-efficacy. That can put the youngster on a trajectory of academic success. 
  • The Homeless: When we see homeless people there is a strong tendency to ascribe dispositional characteristics for their plight such as “They are lazy.” This is an explanation of convenience that doesn’t consider the myriad of other possibilities.  
  • The Generous Friend: When we observe a friend who is consistently supporting their friends in need, we might attribute their kindness to their inherently altruistic and caring nature.
  • The Successful Entrepreneur: We often see serial entrepreneurs who’ve seen a lot of success as having distributional factors like intellect, drive, and a competitive spirit. This may ignore that they were born into wealth that helped them get to where they are today.
  • The Anxious Public Speaker: When someone appears nervous or anxious while giving a public speech, we might label them as a person who’s inherently anxious, disregarding the fact that in other situations, they’re actually very confident.
  • The Pessimistic Colleague: We might attribute a colleague’s constant and drainking negative outlook to their being a naturally pessimistic person. This may ignore the situational factors that make them come across as negative, such as the fact they’re just in the wrong career.
  • The Perfectionist Student: We may observe a student who consistently studies hard to achieve high grades and attribute their success to their inherent need for perfection. This may disregard any situational factors or external pressures (such as parents or cultural expectations) that may contribute to their drive for excellence.

Case Studies and Research Basis

1. The Actor-Observer Bias (Nisbett et al., 1973)

The actor-observer bias refers to the tendency for people to see their behavior as being due to situational factors (we are the actor). Other people’s actions (we are the observer) are attributed to internal, or dispositional, factors.

Nisbett et al. (1973) conducted one of the first studies exploring this phenomenon.

There were a total of three different studies, but the procedures were very similar in each one. College students were presented with different hypothetical scenarios that described their behavior or someone else’s behavior.

They were then asked to explain the reasons for those actions, as either the actor, or the observer.

The results indicated that:

“All three studies provide evidence in support of the hypothesis that actors attribute causality to the situation while observers attribute causality to the dispositions of the actor” (p. 163).

2. The Self-Serving Bias (Heider, 1976)

The self-serving bias is the tendency for people to take credit for success and deny responsibility for failure. This helps people deal with life’s challenges. Because most people have a psychological need to maintain a positive self-image, individuals often engage in various distortions of reality to maintain that image.

It is well-documented that being too negative towards oneself is a symptom of depression and can become quite unhealthy.

Heider (1976) agrees, stating that:

“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).

The self-serving bias has been researched extensively, which allowed Mezulis et al. (2004) to conduct a meta-analysis of 266 studies.

By applying an advanced statistical procedure, an effect size for each study was calculated, which is essentially an index of how powerful a factor is in explaining a specific behavior.

The results revealed that the self-serving bias is a quite robust phenomenon:

“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).

3. Weiner’s Locus of Causality (Weiner, 2010)

Bernard Weiner (1985; 2010) extended research on attribution theory by focusing on three specific dimensions of attributions: locus of causality (internal/external), stability (stable/unstable), and controllability (controllable/uncontrollable).

Each dimension has different effects on emotions.

  • Causality is connected to self-esteem. Internal attributions for success lead to pride, but decreased self-esteem after failure.
  • Stability is connected to expectancies regarding the future. When success is attributed to stable factors, success is expected. However, stable factors attributed to failure leads to the perception that future success is unlikely.
  • Controllability has an effect on emotions such as anger and shame. When success is blocked through the purposeful control of others, it can lead to anger. When failure is controllable due to the lack of effort, the resultant emotion is guilt for not trying hard enough. (see: types of locus of control)

To generate a theory with enhanced predictive value, Weiner believed it was important to conceptualize attributions as possessing a more dynamic structure.

That structure should include:

“…a full range of cognitions and emotions… This is one of the basic tasks that motivational theorists must solve” (p. 570).

4. A Cross-Cultural Study in Denmark (Pultz et al., 2020)

Attributing failure to dispositional factors can affect self-esteem and overall happiness, whereas blaming situational factors can help protect ourselves from these negative feelings.  

This can be particularly true when looking for employment after 4 years of university study.

To investigate attributions for being unemployed, Pultz et al. (2020) conducted a survey of approximately 350 unemployed university graduates in Denmark.

The survey assessed subjective well-being (Taken all in all, how happy would you say that you are?), as well as internal (It is primarily my own fault that I am still unemployed) and external attributions for being unemployed (I think the government could play a positive role in improving hiring procedures).

The researchers summarize the analyses:

“We consistently find that self-blame is strongly associated with a lower subjective well-being” (p. 11).

The study also involved conducting interviews of 33 unemployed university graduates, summarized as follows:

“…overall, the accounts of self-blame are more strongly associated with worries and a fundamental doubt of oneself than is the case with system blame” (p. 12).

However, the researchers point out that accepting some responsibility for being unemployed is not entirely negative. It can lead to efforts to enhances one’s qualifications or admitting mistakes that can be avoided in the future. 

5. The Fundamental Attribution Error (Ross, 1977)

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to ascribe dispositional reasons for a person’s behavior. The term has the word “error” in it because it is considered to be a faulty judgment. Most people’s behavior is the result of a combination of factors, some internal and dispositional, and some external and situational.

Ross (1977) defined the fundamental attribution error as:

“…the tendency for attributers to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role or dispositional factors in controlling behavior” (p. 183).

The fundamental attribution error has been studied for decades in Western cultures (Shaver, 2016).  

In an interesting cross-cultural study examining individualistic and collectivist cultures, Miller (1984) compared the attributions of Americans and Hindus.

As an illustrative example:

“Although both the Hindu and the American subject considered the driver’s emotional state as one determinant of his behavior, the Hindu adult cited additional contextual reasons for the driver’s behavior, whereas the American adult made references to dispositional causes” (p. 972).  

The authors suggest that people in individualistic cultures are more likely to ascribe dispositional attributions than those from collectivist cultures.     


Attributions of behavior are prevalent in everyday life. People are always trying to explain the reasons for their own behavior and the behavior of others.

Over several decades of research, there have been a number of theories that attempt to explain when certain attributions will be ascribed.

The fundamental attribution error, the self-serving bias, and the actor-observer effect each identify when dispositional or situational attributions will occur.

Weiner’s analysis adds additional factors to consider, which leads to even more complex predictions. He successfully makes the case that all theories of motivation should incorporate both cognitive and emotional dynamics. 

Although the research is abundant, it still has limitations. Cross-cultural comparisons could allow for a more nuanced understanding of attributions in broader cultural contexts.

In the era of globalization, this presents a challenge that is necessary to overcome. By expanding theoretical relevance to other cultures, the field can maintain relevance and enhance its value in explaining and predicting human behavior.


Fincham, F. D., Paleari, F. G., & Regalia, C. (2002). Forgiveness in marriage: The role of relationship quality, attributions, and empathy. Personal relationships, 9(1), 27-37. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6811.00002

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.

Mezulis, A., Abramson, L., Hyde, J., & Hankin, B. (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

Miller, J. G. (1984). Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(5), 961–978. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.46.5.961 

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. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0034779

Pultz, S., Teasdale, T. W., & Christensen, K. B. (2020). Contextualized attribution: How young unemployed people blame themselves and the system and the relationship between blame and subjective well-being. Nordic Psychology72(2), 146-167. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/19012276.2019.1667857

Pultz, S., Teasdale, T. W., & Christensen, K. B. (2020). Contextualized attribution: How young unemployed people blame themselves and the system and the relationship between blame and subjective well-being. Nordic Psychology, 72(2), 146-167. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/19012276.2019.1667857

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In Berkowitz, L. (Ed.). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 10, (pp. 173–220). New York: Academic Press.

Shaver, K. G. (2016). An introduction to attribution processes. New York: Routledge.

Weiner, B. (2010). The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: A history of ideas. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), 28-36.

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

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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