External attribution is a psychological concept that explains how individuals interpret and attribute the causes of events or behaviors to external factors outside of themselves.
People with an external attribution blame and fixate on environmental or situational factors that are beyond their control, such as luck, chance, and societal norms.
For example, if an athlete runs a race and wins due to favorable weather conditions (external factor), observers may attribute the victory to such outside influence, not the innate ability or skill of the athlete.
Additionally, if a student fails at a test due to unforeseeable interference, like connectivity issues during an online quiz, it will be passed off as an unavoidable external factor and the student may cop less of the blame.
By focusing more on external attributions, people tend to view the world through an environmentalist perspective and realize different incidents usually occur due to unique outside reasons.
Definition of External Attribution
The concept of external attribution is a psychological concept from the attribution theory.
In simple terms, attribution theory attempts to explain outcome attribution as a psychological phenomenon, placing people’s attitudes on a spectrum from internal to external attributions.
According to Oshisanya (2022),
“External attribution, also called situational attribution, refers to interpreting someone’s behavior as being caused by the situation that the individual is in” (p. 2293).
Bernstein and colleagues (2018) provide a similar definition:
“…external attributions (i.e., situational attributions) are those in which something outside the person, such as the environment or another person, is perceived as the cause of behavior (e.g., the reason why a person volunteers for charity is because they are trying to build a stronger college resume)” (p. 2).
The external or situational approach arises when people evaluate situational aspects affecting actions out of one’s own power.
Such forces outside of oneself influencing an event involve experiences like luck, chance, natural disasters, governing bodies, etc.
External Attribution and the Fundamental Attribution Error
Scholars generally agree that excessive and unrealistic external attributions are common in human psychology, representing a self-serving cognitive fallacy known as the fundamental attribution error.
For example, Weiner (as cited in Maymon et al., 2018) argued that people use external attribution as a coping mechanism when they experience negative emotional reactions after encountering something inexplicable.
Furthermore, according to attribution theory, individuals are more likely to attribute successes to internal dispositional factors, which helps them to construct as self-serving inner dialogue.
For example, when expectations of positive outcomes or events exist/manifest, individuals often claim responsibility for them readily without hesitation or second thoughts, attributing them to personal successes (Maymon et al., 2018).
10 Examples of External Contribution
- Car breaking down: Imagine driving to work, and your car suddenly breaks down on the way. You might attribute this breakdown to factors outside of your control, such as poor maintenance or bad weather conditions (external attribution), but your boss may blame you: you are lazy and never get your car serviced! (internal attribution).
- Late submission of an assignment: Similarly, when it comes to submitting assignments late, we often blame external elements like family problems or internet outages (external attribution) instead of our own procrastination habits (internal attribution).
- Traffic jam: Traffic jams are an all-too-familiar experience that everyone finds themselves in from time to time. Yet rather than blaming ourselves for not leaving earlier, we tend to turn towards situational variables – attributing traffic issues elsewhere other than us individually!
- Delayed flight: Delayed flights can also be attributed externally due to bad weather conditions and sudden mechanical glitches caused by airline companies’ negligence – something passengers rarely consider before making their complaints heard!
- Group projects at school: Group projects at school provide a prime example of hostile attribution bias: students commonly pin failure onto lackadaisical teammates without realizing they may have been responsible for unsatisfactory contributions as well.
- Weather conditions: In terms of sportive events, where runners lose based on extreme sun exposure, rain, on other unforeseen conditions, these situations undermine individual skill and ability, with environmental criteria taking precedence over personal performance levels.
- Being late for work: The same goes for arriving late for work: many blame their lateness on traffic congestion and public transportation delays instead accepting any accountability within themselves!
- Customer service experience: When customers receive substandard service, there is a tendency to shift responsibility away from the customer service representative onto policies laid forth by corporate entities.
- Weight gain: Similarly, weight gain gets credited more readily toward genetics or medication side effects above lifestyle choices made which were seemingly unaware at first glance.
- Corporation layoffs: As businesses go through times of corporate layoffs, those who are unfortunately laid off may tend to attribute their situation to external forces like intense industry competition or a deep economic recession rather than taking into consideration any individual performance-related issues.
External Attributions vs. Internal Attributions
Generally speaking, the distinction between internal and external attributions revolves around where one believes the cause of something comes from – themselves or an external source (Martinko, 2018).
External attribution is the process by which individuals explain other people’s behaviors or actions based on situational factors (Oshisanya, 2022).
When external attribution is used, the cause of someone’s action is believed to be due to factors outside of that person’s control.
For example, when someone loses their job because their company goes bankrupt, we might make an external attribution and attribute the cause of their job loss to a factor beyond their control, such as economic conditions.
In contrast, internal attribution pertains to explaining behavior by attributing it to something about the person themselves, such as personality traits, beliefs, or abilities.
Individuals tend to use internal attribution when they believe someone had control over his/her behavior or action was voluntary instead of situational (Martinko, 2018).
For example, if you got good grades in school as a result of studying hard and putting in effort throughout the semester, then your abilities and diligence are contributing factors to your success.
Overall, the main difference between internal and external attributions lies in where an individual believes the source of causation originates from: within themselves or beyond themselves (Bernstein et al., 2018).
Internal attributions concern how characteristics associated with a person influence behavior, while external attributions reflect how situational circumstances constrain or enable certain types of actions.
Benefits of External Attribution
External attribution theory helps individuals understand how situational factors affect behavior while reducing blame towards individuals rather than blaming them for events outside of their control.
Below are some of the key benefits:
- Reduced blame: External attribution helps to reduce blame that would otherwise be put on an individual for negative outcomes, situations, and experiences. This is an important thing to consider, especially before we flippantly assign blame upon others unfairly.
- Encourages empathy: When people make external attributions towards others, they usually shift their focus from the person’s character and dispositions to situational circumstances beyond their control. As such, this attitude tends to encourage empathy and promotes a more compassionate way of dealing with others.
- Reduces prejudice: External attribution reduces stereotyping or prejudice against individuals based on group characteristics (race, gender) by considering instead situational variables or environmental influences that might explain differences in behavior.
- Provides opportunities for personal growth: Understanding external attributions provide opportunities for personal growth since it offers another perspective that considers context into an individual’s decision-making process leading to a better understanding of oneself.
- Improves judgment: Making external attributions tend to promote a more rational idea about the social world compared to making internal attributions based on limited information alone, thus, providing a better foundation for making sound decisions when interacting with individuals.
Critique of External Attribution
External attribution has its limitations or critiques, especially in terms of over-reliance on social cues rather than reflecting personal dispositions, which limit our understanding of individual thinking processes.
Some of the critiques or limitations of external attribution theory are as follows:
- Overemphasis on situational factors: External attribution theory tends to overemphasize situational factors at the expense of individual effort and disposition. This can lead to a failure to recognize the value of personal responsibility and accountability for actions.
- Ignoring individual differences: External attribution can ignore individual differences between people and overlook how people’s dispositions may also impact their behavior and actions beyond situational circumstances.
- Limited perspective: External attribution does not account for all possible causes of behavior and action but only focus on observable outcome focusing mainly on situational constraints that affect an outcome.
- Not always causal explanation: The explanatory power attributed to ‘external’ factors within external attributions is a type of heuristic that explains outcomes rather than establishing actual causal explanations.
- Cultural differences: Finally, some studies (Martinko, 2018) suggest that there may be cultural differences in whether individuals use internal or external attributions, limiting their universality across different cultures.
- Developing an external locus of control: When external attribution is used illogically or excessively, it has the capacity to decrease people’s persistence, resilience, and determination, given that they may develop a strong external locus of control, meaning they believe success or failure is not in their own hands, but in the hands of external factors (see: Rotter, 1990, as a seminal author).
Acknowledging the part played by environmental elements is essential in creating fair judgements of causal error. However, excessive external attribution can fail to acknowledge individuals’ capacity to exercise agency in their environments. To accurately attribute attribution, we need to avoid jumping to conclusions, gather data, and be careful before applying attributions to any one factor.
Bernstein, M. J., Chen, Z., Poon, K.-T., Benfield, J. A., & Ng, H. K. S. (2018). Ostracized but why? Effects of attributions and empathy on connecting with the socially excluded. PLOS ONE, 13(8), e0201183. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201183
Martinko, M. J. (2018). Attribution theory: An organizational perspective. St. Lucie.
Maymon, R., Hall, N. C., Goetz, T., Chiarella, A., & Rahimi, S. (2018). Technology, attributions, and emotions in post-secondary education: An application of Weiner’s attribution theory to academic computing problems. PLOS ONE, 13(3), e0193443. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193443
Oshisanya, lai O. (2022). An almanac of contemporary and continuum of jurisprudential restatements. Almanac Foundation.