Attribution theory

From Academic Kids

Attribution theory is a field of social psychology, which was born out of the theoritical models of Fritz Heider, Harold Kelley, Edward E. Jones, and Lee Ross. Attribution theory is concerned with the ways in which people explain (or attribute) the behavior of others. It explores how individuals "attribute" causes to events and how this cognitive perception affects their motivation. Think of "explanation" as a synonym and "why" as the question to be answered.

The theory divides the way people attribute causes to events into two types.

  • "External" or "situational" attribution assigns causality to an outside factor, such as the weather,
  • whereas "internal" or "dispositional" attribution assigns causality to factors within the person, such as their own level of intelligence or other variables that make the individual responsible for the event.

The following quote explains the attribution theory:

"The foolish deer feels that God saved him from the injured lion, forgetting the swift legs that God gave." Srijit Prabhakaran (

People often make self serving attributions. So, if something good happens to themselves or someone they like, they tend to see it as having an internal, stable cause ("I aced the test because I'm so smart), and when bad things happen to themselves or people they like they are more likely to make external unstable attributions ("I did badly on the test because it was so hard, and I had a headache") Similarly, they will attribute good things happening to a person that they do not like to a situational factor (they got lucky) and something bad happening to a dispositional factor (they are stupid).

An example of this, in politics, could be the collapse of the Soviet Union. US leaders attributed it to something dispositional about themselves (we were strong and steadfast, democracy persevered). Also, oftentimes, failing Third-World economies are attributed to corrupt leaders and other dispositional attributions rather than a situation attribution, such as the international system.

There seem to be features that people look for when making attributions, such as universality ("does everyone do this, or just the person I'm watching?") and uniqueness ("do they do it this way every time, or was this just an aberration?").

There is evidence from people like John Bargh and Tory Higgins, and Srull and Wyer that when people see an act, they automatically make personality attributions, and start mentally cataloging that person by that label. Dan Gilbert has a theory of attribution which says that when you see people do something, you make an automatic fast attribution to their personality, and that if circumstances warrant, you can then slowly "discount" the attribution to a feature of the environment ("whoa, he's not a coward, even I would run away if a bear started gnawing on my arm like that").

Attributions for events can change a person's behaviour, and many theories such as cognitive dissonance rely on it. So, for example, in a classic dissonance paradigm, if a person believes that they did something counterattitudinal (say, a student writing an essay in favour of raising tuition prices), because they CHOSE to do it (i.e. they make an internal attribution), then they tend to change their mind and believe that they really do support higher tuition. If, however, they write that same counterattitudinal essay but they believe they were FORCED to write it (i.e. they make an external attribution for their behaviour), then they are unlikely to change their attitude. Similarly, if someone is paid for a job, they attribute the fact they are doing the job to the fact they are making money for it, rather than to intrinsic factors, such as enjoyment, and subsequently they will actually think that they enjoy the task less, and will be less likely to spontaneously chose to do it again in the future. Studies have shown that adding an external reward to a task previously rewarded only internally makes people less intrinsically motivated to perform that task.

However, in some circumstances, extrinsic factors can cause positive changes in behaviour. If an individual believes that they have earned the reward or punishment for intrinsic reasons, then that might effect a positive change in behaviour. It is when the reason for the reward is attributed to external factors that the behaviour change might not be in the desired direction.

Other important theorists include Edward E. Jones, Harold Kelley and Lee Ross.

See also: attributional bias, causation.


  • Heider, Fritz. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0471368334

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