Internal Attribution: 10 Examples and Definition

Internal Attribution: 10 Examples and DefinitionReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

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.

internal attribution examples and definition, explained below

Internal attribution refers to situations where a person attributes the causes of their behavior to something within themselves, such as attitude, disposition, or skills.

In attribution theory, we consider internal and external attributions to be two opposite ends of a spectrum:

  • Internal attribution: assigning the cause of a behavior to a person’s internal characteristics, such as personality traits, abilities, or emotions.
  • External attribution: assigning the cause of a behavior to external factors or circumstances, such as situational influences, social norms, or environmental conditions.

For example, in a performance appraisal, a person might claim that their performance was either due to their own hard work and effort, or, was due to an external factor such as luck or unforeseen circumstances.

Definition of Internal Attribution

Internal attribution is a cognitive process whereby people emphasize their inner qualities rather than external influences as the cause of their behaviors or the reason for an outcome (Baumeister & Bushman, 2017).

According to attribution theory, an internal attribution occurs when people perceive actions as being caused by stable traits within the person involved (Weiten et al., 2014).

As Gerace (2020) notes,

“…internal attributions are explanations that stress something about the person, such as their traits, abilities, and physical characteristics” (p. 2382).

For example, if someone does well academically, then a person with internal attribution would attribute their success to intelligence or natural talent.

Similarly, we may blame a person who failed to meet a deadline for internal factors, such as lack of effort, time management skills, or motivation levels. 

Understanding behaviors by attributing them to internal or external attribution plays a key role across various contexts, such as:

This enables us to make sense of the world around us better, but also reveals the degree to which we believe we have an internal locus of control.

Shin and Ki (2020) believe that

“…the internal attribution process may generate positive influences on the recipient’s perceptions about the received message and the organization because perceived intrinsic motivation may satisfy the desired ideal image of an organization.” (p. 581)

In other words, intrinsic motivation enables us to make sense of our world by explaining behaviors based on each individual’s internal factors.

Internal Attribution and Self-Serving Attribution Bias

The self-serving attribution bias is a cognitive bias that humans can fall into, wherein we tend to attribute our successes to internal factors (personal ability, traits, and skill) while attributing our failures to external factors (outsourcing blame).

The theory also holds that, when judging others, we inverse this: we blame others’ successes to external factors and their failures to internal factors.

Of course, this bias is not consistently held by everybody, but several studies, including a highly-influential meta-analysis by Mezulis et al. (2004), find that this bias tends to hold across cohort studies. Indeed, Mezulis et al. (2004) found that the self-serving attribution bias “may represent one of the largest effect sizes demonstrated in psychological research on cognition to date” (p. 738)

10 Examples of Internal Contribution

  • Aggression Attribution: When we act aggressively, we can reflect on it later and either attribute it to an internal feature (like our lack of self-control) or an external factor (like blaming others for making us angry).
  • Sports Performance: In sports events such as running races, if a runner performs poorly, they could attribute it to their own poor fitness levels rather than acknowledging external conditions such as unfavorable weather conditions or lack of practice sessions.
  • Memory Lapses: If someone forgets an important appointment, they might blame themselves for being forgetful rather than realizing that excessive stressors and multitasking can cause memory lapses.
  • Work Ethic Misjudgment: An employee who takes long days to complete assigned tasks could be attributed by colleagues to a lack of discipline or work ethic without realizing other responsibilities outside work burdening their productivity.
  • Financial Struggles: When someone experiences financial debt problems despite constantly working two jobs, they may attribute personal irresponsibility instead of considering government policy and living expenses, which make ends difficult to meet sometimes.
  • Artistic Self-Criticism: A student exposing their art projects to critique could self-criticize negative feedback focused on skill sets, and not think about the fact that judges’ criticisms are highly subjective.
  • Athlete Performance: In the context of sports, if an athlete performs poorly in game-winning moments, we might accuse them of “choking under pressure” rather than acknowledging that fatigue at that point in the game affected their performance.
  • Relationship Heartbreak: After experiencing heartbreak due to infidelity in the relationship context, a person may criticize themselves for their inadequacies instead of assigning blame to the unfaithful partner.
  • Weight Loss Bias: Hitting body weight goals, such as losing weight via diet and exercise routine, can often result in people praising internal attributes like discipline or motivation.Academic Performance: Students who receive low grades might attribute their poor performance to a lack of intelligence or effort, rather than considering external factors such as inadequate teaching methods or a challenging learning environment.

Internal Attribution vs. External Attribution

Attributional processes can be divided into two categories – internal attribution and external attribution – where the former analyzes personal traits and the latter external circumstances (Grace, 2020).

Internal attribution is when we attribute behavior to individuals’ personal traits or characteristics, such as intelligence, personality traits, and abilities.

These internal attributions tend to focus on features that are inherent to an individual rather than recognizing external factors that may have influenced behavior (Grace, 2020).

For instance, when a person succeeds at a sports game, they may attribute this to their hard work, practice, and talent rather than acknowledging factors such as a weak opponent or good luck.

Similarly, blaming oneself for bad hair days based on body characteristics without considering external elements like weather conditions impact on styling products quality indicates how internal attributes focus inward only.

On the other hand, external attribution involves acknowledging that various environmental factors significantly determine behavior beyond an individual’s immediate control (Grace, 2020).

These can include other people’s behaviors or situational demands, such as time constraints and opportunities available within a context.

For example, suppose traffic causes an employee’s delay in reaching work. In that case, it is fairer to consider external circumstances beyond the employee’s control.

In academic contexts where test difficulties are always unpredictable- students may attribute poor performance less to their own intellect and more to the exam being challenging due to unfamiliar topics introduced just before testing.

So, internal attributions tend to attribute behavior to personal traits or characteristics of the individual, while external attributions focus on external factors within the individual’s immediate control.

Benefits of an Internal Attribution

Internal attribution plays a key role in achieving personal empowerment since it recognizes the impact of individual actions in shaping outcomes.

This perspective is evident in the case of high-achieving students who attribute their academic performance to intelligence, dedication, and study habits – an acknowledgment that instills agency over one’s own fate.

Internal attribution also aids resilience when faced with adversity since it shifts focus towards identifying personal shortcomings rather than external factors for failure or setbacks. 

Through this approach, individuals nurture growth mindsets that encourage learning from mistakes while maintaining motivation to achieve goals.

Internal attribution plays an important role in facilitating individual growth as it fosters commitment to introspection for the purposes of obtaining advancement through improving existing traits.

This renewed motivation results from the linkage between internally attributed accomplishments stemming from characteristics such as diligence or adaptability that then serve as driving reasons for one’s need for skill enhancement.

Internal attribution also aids in forming positive self-efficacy that translates into faith in one’s ability to surmount challenges.

For instance, a female athlete who attributes her accomplishments to discipline and hard work uses the sense of accomplishment gained in her athletic experience into fortitude in other areas of life.

Limitations of an Internal Attribution

While an internal attribution has several benefits, it is not without limitations. It can lead to excessive self-blame or self-adulation. It may also neglect external factors that need to be considered.

The theory has a major shortcoming in that it may lead to an oversimplified, overly-optimistic outlook on the world which doesn’t consider external variables.

The concept suggests that a person’s success or failure is solely based on their inherent abilities and effort, disregarding any assistance they may have received from external sources such as privilege or the good fortune of being born into a wealthy country.

An internal attribution can also lead to individuals placing too much pressure on themselves, particularly when they don’t succeed in something. They may believe it’s due to their lack of talent or skills regardless of other contributing circumstances.

Additionally, focusing only on internal attribution overlooks the impact of systemic oppression in society. This situation can create barriers for those facing social inequality, covering up their disadvantage, and exposing them to unfair comparisons.

Conclusion

Internal attribution refers to the idea of crediting oneself with achievement or disappointment based on intrinsic characteristics like traits, abilities, or endeavor dedication level.

This practice has some great benefits. A person with both internal attribution and a growth mindset would hold that their hard work can improve their situation.

However, a person with an internal attribution and a fixed mindset might hold that they are incapable, and there is nothing they can do about it.

Therefore, internal attribution can be helpful to some extent, but being overly fixated on one’s fixed internal failures can also become self-defeating.

References

Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2017). Social psychology and human nature. New York: Cengage Learning.

Gerace, A. (2020). Internal and external attributions. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 2328–2334. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_2301

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

Shin, S., & Ki, E.-J. (2020). Attribution and attributional processes of organizations’ environmental messages. International Journal of Market Research63(5), 576–596. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470785320934294

Weiten, W., Dunn, D. S., & Hammer, E. Y. (2014). Psychology applied to modern life: Adjustment in the 21st century. London: Cengage Learning.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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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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