Attribution Theory

Attribution is a concept in social psychology addressing the processes by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events; attribution theory is an umbrella term for various models that attempt to explain those processes.[1] Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider in the early part of the 20th century, subsequently developed by others such as Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner.


Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider during the early years of the 20th century. In his 1920's dissertation Heider addressed a fundamental problem of phenomenology; why do perceivers attribute the properties of an object they sense, such as its color, texture and so on, to the object itself when those properties exist only in their minds? Heider's answer was to consider the object being perceived and the physical media by which it is sensed – the ticking of a watch causing vibrations in the air for instance – to be quite distinct, and that what the perceiver's senses do is to reconstruct an object from its effect on the media, a process he called attribution. "Perceivers faced with sensory data thus see the perceptual object as 'out there', because they attribute the sensory data to their underlying causes in the world."[2]

Heider subsequently extended his ideas to the question of how people perceive each other, and in particular how they account for each other's behavior, person perception. Motives played an important role in Heider's model: "motives, intentions, sentiments ... the core processes which manifest themselves in overt behavior". Heider distinguished between personal causality – such as offering someone a drink – and impersonal causality such as sneezing, or leaves falling. Later attribution theorists have tended to see Heider's fundamental distinction as being between "person (or internal) causes and situation (or external) causes of behavior.[3]


Explanatory attribution

People make explanatory attributions to understand the world around them and to seek reasons for a particular event. For example, if Jacob’s car tire is punctured he may attribute that to a hole in the road; by making attributions to the poor condition of the highway, he can make sense of the event without any discomfiture that it may in reality have been the result of his bad driving.

Interpersonal attribution

Sometimes, when your action or motives for the action are questioned, you need to explain the reasons for your action. Interpersonal attributions happen when the causes of the events involve two or more individuals.[4]

More specifically, it is likely that one will always want to present oneself in the most positive light in interpersonal attributions. For example, let’s say Jaimie and her boyfriend had a fight. When Jaimie explains her situation to her friends, she will say she tried everything to avoid a fight but she will blame her boyfriend that he, nonetheless, started a fight. This way, Jaimie is seen as a peacemaker to her friends whereas her boyfriend is seen as the one who started it all.


Common sense psychology

From the book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations(1958), Fritz Heider tried to explore the nature of interpersonal relationship, and espoused the concept of what he called "common sense" or "naïve psychology". In his theory, he believed that people observe, analyze, and explain behaviors with explanations. Although people have different kinds of explanations for the events of human behaviors, Heider found it is very useful to group explanation into two categories; Internal (personal) and external (situational) attributions.[5] When an internal attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the individual's characteristics such as ability, personality, mood, efforts, attitudes, or disposition. When an external attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the situation in which the behavior was seen such as the task, other people, or luck (that the individual producing the behavior did so because of the surrounding environment or the social situation). These two types lead to very different perceptions of the individual engaging in a behavior.[6]

Correspondent inference theory

Correspondent inferences state that people make inferences about a person when his or her actions are freely chosen, are unexpected, and result in a small number of desirable effects.[1] According to Edward E. Jones and Keith Davis’ Correspondent Inference Theory, people make correspondent inferences by reviewing the context of behavior. It describes how people try to find out individual’s personal characteristics from the behavioral evidence. People make inferences on the basis of three factors; degree of choice, expectedness of behavior, and effects of someone’s behaviors.

Covariation model of attribution

Co-variation principle states that people attribute behavior to the factors that are present when a behavior occurs and absent when it does not. Thus, the theory assumes that people make causal attributions in a rational, logical fashion, and that they assign the cause of an action to the factor that co-varies most closely with that action.[7] Harold Kelley's covariation model of Attribution looks to three main types of information from which to make an attribution decision about an individual's behavior. The first is consensus information, or information on how other people in the same situation and with the same stimulus behave. The second is distinctive information, or how the individual responds to different stimuli. The third is consistency information, or how frequent the individual's behavior can be observed with similar stimulus but varied situations. From these three sources of information observers make attribution decisions on the individual's behavior as either internal or external. Kelly’s theory and the examples of prediction are represented in the diagram.

Three-dimensional model of attribution

Bernard Weiner[8] proposed that individuals have initial affective responses to the potential consequences of the intrinsic or extrinsic motives of the actor, which in turn influence future behavior. That is, a person's own perceptions or attributions as to why they succeeded or failed at an activity determine the amount of effort the person will engage in activities in the future. Weiner suggests that individuals exert their attribution search and cognitively evaluate casual properties on the behaviors they experience. When attributions lead to positive affect and high expectancy of future success, such attributions should result in greater willingness to approach to similar achievement tasks in the future than those attributions that produce negative affect and low expectancy of future success.[9] Eventually, such affective and cognitive assessment influences future behavior when individuals encounter similar situations.

Weiner's achievement attribution has three categories:

  1. stable theory (stable and unstable)
  2. locus of control (internal and external)
  3. controllability (controllable or uncontrollable)

Stability influences individuals' expectancy about their future; control is related with individuals' persistence on mission; causality influences emotional responses to the outcome of task.

Bias and errors in attributions

While people strive to find reasons for behaviors, they fall into many traps of biases and errors. As Fritz Heider says, “our perceptions of causality are often distorted by our needs and certain cognitive biases”.[10] The following are examples of attributional biases.

Fundamental attribution error

The fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for behavior while under-valuing situational explanations. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain and assume the behavior of others. For example, when a student fails to turn in a homework assignment, a teacher is too ready to assume that the student was too lazy to finish the homework, without sufficiently taking into account the situation that the student was in.[11]

The core process assumptions of attitude construction models are mainstays of social cognition research and are not controversial—as long as we talk about “judgment.” Once the particular judgment made can be thought of as a person’s “attitude,” however, construal assumptions elicit discomfort, presumably because they dispense with the intuitively appealing attitude concept. [12]

Culture bias

People in individualist cultures, generally Anglo-America and Anglo-Saxon European societies, value individuals, personal goals, and independence. People in collectivist cultures see individuals as members of groups such as families, tribes, work units, and nations, and tend to value conformity and interdependence. This cultural trait is common in Asia, traditional native American societies, and Africa.

Research shows that culture, either individualist or collectivist, affects how people make attributions.[13]

People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make fundamental-attribution error than people from collectivist cultures. Individualist cultures tend to attribute a person’s behavior to his internal factors whereas collectivist cultures tend to attribute a person’s behavior to his external factors.

Research suggests that individualist cultures engage in self-serving bias more than do collectivist cultures, i.e. individualist cultures tend to attribute success to internal factors and to attribute failure to external factors. In contrast, collectivist cultures engage in the opposite of self-serving bias i.e. self-effacing bias, which is: attributing success to external factors and blaming failure on internal factors (the individual).

Actor/observer difference

People tend to attribute other people’s behaviors to their dispositional factors while attributing own actions to situational factors. Basically, even in the same situation, people’s attribution can differ depending on their role(actor or observer).[14] For example, when a person gets a low grade on a test, he/she finds situational factors to justify the negative event such as saying that the teacher asked a question that he/she never went over in class. However, if other people get low grades on the test, he/she attributes the results to their internal factors such as laziness and inattentiveness in classes. The actor/observer bias is used less frequently with people one knows well such as friends and family since one knows how his/her close friends and family will behave in certain situation, leading him/her to think more about the external factors rather than internal factors.

Dispositional attributions

Dispositional attribution is a tendency to attribute people’s behaviors to their dispositions; that is, to their personality, character, and ability.[15] For example, when a normally pleasant waiter is being rude to his/her customer, the customer will assume he/she has a bad temper. The customer, just by looking at the attitude that the waiter is giving him/her, instantly decides that the waiter is a bad person. The customer oversimplifies the situation by not taking into account all the unfortunate events that might have happened to the waiter which made him/her become rude at that moment. Therefore, the customer made dispositional attribution by attributing the waiter’s behavior directly to his/her personality rather than considering situational factors that might have caused the whole “rudeness”.[16]

Self-serving bias

Self serving bias is attributing dispositional and internal factors for success and external, uncontrollable factors for failure. For example, if a person gets promoted, it is because of his/her ability and competence whereas if he/she does not get promoted, it is because his/her manager does not like him/her (external, uncontrollable factor). Originally, researchers assumed that self-serving bias is strongly related to the fact that people want to protect their self-esteem. However, alternative information processing explanation came out. That is, when the outcomes match people’s expectations, they make attributions to internal factors; when the outcome does not match their expectations, they make external attributions.[10] People also use defensive attribution to avoid feelings of vulnerability and to differentiate himself from a victim of a tragic accident.[17] An alternative version of the theory of the self-serving bias states that the bias does not arise because people wish to protect their private self-esteem, but to protect their self-image (a self-presentational bias). Note well that this version of the theory can predict that people attribute their successes to situational factors, for fear that others will disapprove of them looking overly vain if they should attribute successes to themselves.

For example, people believe in just-world hypothesis that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people” to avoid feeling vulnerable. This also leads to blaming the victim even in a tragic situation.[10] When people hear someone died from a car accident, they reassure that the accident will never happen to them by deciding that the driver was drunk at the time of the accident. People automatically decide that it was the driver’s fault drunk-driving and thus it will never happen to them. Another example of defensive attribution is optimism bias in which people believe positive events happen to them more than to the others and that negative events happen to them less than to the others. Too much optimism leads people to ignore some warnings and precautions given to them. For example, smokers believe they are less likely than other smokers to get lung cancer.[18]

Defensive attribution hypothesis

The defensive attribution hypothesis (or defensive attribution bias) is a social psychological term referring to a set of beliefs held by an individual with the function of defending the individual from concern that they will be the cause or victim of a mishap. Commonly, defensive attributions are made when individuals witness or learn of a mishap happening to another person. In these situations, attributions of responsibility to the victim or harm-doer for the mishap will depend upon the severity of the outcomes of the mishap and the level of personal and situational similarity between the individual and victim. More responsibility will be attributed to the harm-doer as the outcome becomes more severe, and as personal or situational similarity decreases.[19]

Application of attribution

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness was first found in animals when psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier discovered that the classically conditioned dogs that got electrical shocks made no attempt to escape the situation. The dogs were placed in a box divided into two sections by a low barrier. Since one side of the box was electrified and the other was not, the dogs could easily avoid electrical shocks by hopping to the other side. However, the dogs just stayed in the electrified side, helpless to change the situation. [20] This learned helplessness also applies to human beings. People feel helpless when they feel powerless to change their situation. This happens when people attribute negative results to their internal, stable and global factors leading them to think they have no control over their situation. Making no attempt to avoid or better the situation will often exacerbate the situations that people are faced with, and may lead to clinical depression and related mental illnesses.[21]

Perceptual salience and attribution

When people try to make attributions about another's behavior, their information focuses on the individual. Their perception of that individual is lacking most of the external factors which might affect the individual. The gaps tend to be skipped over and the attribution is made based on the perception information most salient. The most salient perceptual information dominates a person's perception of the situation.[22]

For individuals making behavioral attributions about themselves, the situation and external environment are entirely salient, but their own body and behavior are less so. This leads to the tendency to make an external attribution in regards to their own behavior.[23]


Attribution theory has been criticized as being mechanistic and reductionist for assuming that people are rational, logical and systematic thinkers. It turns out however that they are cognitive misers and motivated tacticians as demonstrated by the fundamental attribution error. It also fails to address the social, cultural and historical factors that shape attributions of cause. This has been addressed extensively by discourse analysis, a branch of psychology that prefers to use qualitative methods including the use of language to understand psychological phenomena. The linguistic categorization theory for example demonstrates how language influences our attribution style.

See also

Psychology portal




Further reading

  • Gordon, L. M., & Graham, S. (2006). Attribution theory. "The encyclopedia of human development." Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1, 142–144.