15 Situational Attribution Examples

situational attribution examples and definition, explained below

Situational attribution refers to when an individual’s behavior is attributed to factors in the environment.

These factors may include the environment (see: environmental factors), other people’s behaviors, umpire bias, and so on.

One of the first psychologists to study attributions was Fritz Heider in his seminal work in 1958, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.

Situational vs Dispositional Attribution

Heider’s attribution theory identifies two types of attributions: situational and dispositional.

  • Situational attribution: Situational attribution is when a person’s action is explained as coming from factors external to themselves (also known as external attribution). Situational factors include the physical or social environment, the influence of culture, or the actions of others that may cause a person to act a certain way. Under these circumstances, a person may not be considered totally responsible for their behavior. There is something in the environment that is the primary causal reason. (Not to be confused with: external locus of control)
  • Dispositional attribution: Dispositional attribution occurs when a person’s behavior is explained as coming from factors internal to the individual. This includes their personality characteristics, their level of knowledge, or the skills they do or do not possess. This means that the person is held responsible for their actions. There is something internal to them that is the primary causal factor. (Not to be confused with: internal locus of control).

Situational Attribution Examples

  • Explaining Failure on a Test: When a person fails an important exam, they may point to situational factors such as not getting enough sleep the night before the exam.
  • Having a Traffic Accident: Shortly after a traffic accident, one of the drivers points the finger at the other. The blame is not with oneself, but rather attributable to the bad driving of the other person involved in the accident.
  • Forgiving the President: If you’re inclined to politically agree with the president, you might be more likely to blame global factors for the economic downturn (situational) rather than blaming it on his policies (dispositional).
  • Having a Bad Day at Work: After having a short spat with one’s spouse, an apology may include talking about what a bad day they had at work, which made them more irritable than usual.
  • The Blind Umpire: Losing a baseball game can be due to a lot of factors. Having an umpire that made a lot of bad calls that went against your team is a way to make the loss less painful.
  • A Low Job Performance Evaluation: Getting a low performance evaluation at work can be attributed to a boss that piles on the work, provides very little direction, and often changes project requirements mid-stream.
  • Being Late for a Job Interview: As soon as the applicant walks in late to their job interview, they may try to explain the reason as a result of fussy children not getting ready for school on time and a lot of traffic on the highway.
  • The Humble Project Manager: When a challenging project was completed on schedule and to high standards, a humble project manager may compliment the talent and diligence of their team.
  • Giving the Benefit of the Doubt: A new immigrant keeps making comments that are offensive to the locals. Instead of being upset, his new friends just attribute his mistakes to cultural differences.
  • The Understanding Coach: After throwing two interceptions and losing the game, the quarterback gets into a heated argument with one of the coaches. The head coach knows that usually the kid is calm and composed, but having such a terrible game will put most players on edge.
  • The Unemployment Line: When some people drive passed the unemployment line, they realize that the economy is in a severe downturn. Being out of work is more a function of bad times than bad people.
  • Burnt Dinner: A normally skilled cook burns dinner one evening. They attribute the mishap to being distracted by a phone call, rather than reflecting on the fact they failed to multitask and balance their focus.
  • Unexpectedly Low Exam Scores: A student receives a lower-than-expected score on their exams. They attribute the outcome to the difficulty or ambiguity of the test questions, rather than reflecting on their study method or level of personal preparedness.
  • Excuses for Being Late: One of my weaknesses is that I’m often late to scheduled events. I could blame the traffic or other unexpected issues on the way there, but really, my dispositional factor is to blame: I just don’t give myself enough time.
  • Homework excuses: Regularly, my students will come to class with situational rather than dispositional reasons for their failure to complete their homework. Two common ones are: the dog ate my homework and my seventh grandma died this month.

Case Studies and Research Basis

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

The tendency to apply a situational explanation to behavior in part depends on who exhibited the behavior.

If the behavior comes from ourselves, then there is a general tendency to apply a situational attribution.

However, it the behavior comes from someone else, then there is a tendency to apply dispositional attributions. This is referred to as the actor-observer bias.

One of the first studies to demonstrate this phenomenon was conducted by Nisbett et al. (1973).

In three different studies, college students were asked to explain their behavior (as the actors) and the behavior of others (as observers), such as their best friend or one of their parents.

Their explanations were then coded and categorized as reflecting situational or dispositional factors.

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. Attributions of Criminal Behavior  (Dominioni et al., 2020)

When jurors are presented with evidence during a criminal trial, the attorneys are in a competition over attributions. The defense wants the jury to ascribe situational factors for the defendant’s actions. This could lead to a lesser sentence or perhaps even a verdict of not guilty.

The prosecution is working hard for a different set of attributions. They want the jury to ascribe dispositional factors to the defendant’s actions; to blame his/her character and see them as a bad person. That could lead to a guilty verdict.

In the U. S. court system, whether character evidence is admissible in court is a bit complicated, and for good reason. Character evidence can have a profound influence on jury verdicts.

For instance, Dominioni et al. (2020), 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 (p. 254).

3. Attributions in Marriage (Fincham et al., 2002)

Marriage can be a beautiful thing…if it lasts. In some countries, divorce rates hover around 50%, meaning the likelihood of maintaining a long-term marriage is a flip of the coin.

Given the pains of divorce and the assumption that most couples would like to have their marriage last, it would be beneficial to understand the factors that lead to a long and successful marriage.

To this end, Fincham et al. (2002) asked 128 married Italian couples with at least one adolescent child to participate in a survey on family relations (72% agreed).

The survey assessed a variety of factors, including: marital quality, marital attributions, emotions, and forgiveness.

Several questions on the survey described a hypothetical negative behavior of the spouse. The respondents were asked to make either a dispositional or situational attribution for their spouse’s behavior.

The results indicated that:

“…spouses making more benign responsibility attributions were more likely to react to their partner’s negative behaviors by being empathic and not experiencing negative affects” (p. 33).

Situational attributions were more strongly related to forgiveness in wives than husbands, while empathy was more strongly related to forgiveness in husbands than wives.

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

A lot of research on attribution theory comes from the U. S. However, the theory should apply to other cultures as well. Afterall, psychologists hope to identify fundamental principles of human behavior, not just the behavior of people in one country.

Pultz et al. (2020) conducted a survey of approximately 350 unemployed university graduates and interviewed an additional 33 others in Denmark.

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

Results revealed that:

“…self-blame is strongly associated with a lower subjective well-being” (p. 11).

The authors provide the thinking of one individual, Helene, as illustrative of a more nuanced way of dealing with unemployment.

“Helene is in a dialogue with the discourse of self-blame but, by comparing herself to her peers and others in the same position whom she perceives as ordinary and competent people, she is able to mobilise a buffer against the tendency to feel fundamentally flawed” (p. 12).

5. Kelly’s Covariation Model  (Kelly, 1967)

When making attributions about a person we know, we have a lot of information regarding their previous actions in a range of situations. This is where Kelly’s Covariation Model (1967; 1973) applies.

According to Kelly, people consider three main variables when trying to explain an individual’s behavior (person X).

  • Consensus: do other people act the same as person X? If person X acts upset about an exam and other students are also upset, then person X’s behavior is high in consensus.
  • Distinctiveness: how does person X act in other situations? If person X gets upset in other situations, then distinctiveness is low.
  • Consistency: how does person X act at other times in the same situation? If person X gets upset after every exam, then consistency is high.

For example, if person X always laughs when watching a particular show (high consistency), doesn’t laugh when watching other shows (high distinctiveness), and other people laugh at that show (high consensus), then person X’s behavior will be attributed to situational factors (i.e., the show is funny).

However, if person X laughs but most people don’t (low consensus), person X laughs at a lot of shows (low distinctiveness), and frequently laughs at that show (high consistency), then person X’s behavior will be attributed to dispositional factors (i.e., person X likes to laugh).

6. A Conversation with Fritz Heider (Heider, 1976)

Heider’s book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations is one of the most influential writings in psychology. It presented several theories regarding human behavior that had a significant impact on the field.

For example, his attribution theory sparked decades and decades of research, not just in psychology, but also in other fields such as management and criminology.

The issue as to why people engage in attributions was covered in a rare interview with the insightful scholar (Heider, 1976). The topic of discussion had to do with the self-serving bias, which is the tendency to take credit for success and deny responsibility for failure.

As Hieder explained,

“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).

Attributions help protect one’s self-image. In a sense, they serve a similar purpose as a defense mechanism.        


Explaining the behavior of others is something people do on a daily basis. We want to know why a coworker made a certain remark, or why an individual in the news committed such a horrible crime.

Generally speaking, our explanations will either be situational or dispositional. That is, either something unique about the circumstances made them act a certain way, or their actions are a result of the type of person they are.

Although most of the time our attributions just help us make sense out of the world, in other cases, those attributions can have substantial affects.

For example, married couples may be happier if they attribute their spouse’s negative actions to situational variables. In criminal cases, attributing a defendant’s actions to situational variables may mean they are seen as less culpable for a crime.

According to the father of attribution theory, Fritz Heider, situational attributions for failures will help protect our self-image, while taking credit for success can make us feel good about ourselves.


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.

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.

Kelley, H. H. (1973). The process of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28(2), 107-128. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0034225

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

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

Weiner, B. (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Website | + posts

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.

Website | + posts

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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *