Attribution Theory

Humans are motivated to assign causes to their actions and behaviors.[1] In social psychology, attribution is the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. The development of models to explain these processes is called attribution theory.[2] 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.


Gestalt psychologist Fritz Heider is often described as the "father of attribution theory",[3] during the early years of the 20th century.

In his 1920s dissertation, Heider addressed the problem of phenomenology: why do perceivers attribute the properties such as color to perceived objects, when those properties are mental constructs? Heider's answer that perceivers attribute that which they "directly" sense - vibrations in the air for instance - to an object they construe as causing those sense data. "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."[4]:7

Heider extended this idea to attributions about people: "motives, intentions, sentiments ... the core processes which manifest themselves in overt behavior".[4]:7-8


External attribution

External attribution, also called situational attribution, refers to interpreting someone's behavior as being caused by the situation that the individual is in. 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 discomfort that it may in reality have been the result of his bad driving.[5]

Internal attribution

The process of assigning the cause of behavior to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces.


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.[6] 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.[7]

Correspondent inference theory

Correspondent inferences state that people make inferences about a person when their actions are freely chosen, are unexpected, and result in a small number of desirable effects.[2] 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. For example, we believe we can make stronger assumptions about a man who gives half of his money to charity, than we can about one who gives $5 to charity. An average person would not want to donate as much as the first man because they would lose a lot of money. By donating half of his money, it is easier for someone to figure out what the first man's personality is like. The second factor, that affects correspondence of action and inferred characteristic, is the number of differences between the choices made and the previous alternatives. If there aren't many differences, the assumption made will match the action because it is easy to guess the important aspect between each choice.[8]

Covariation model

The covariation model 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.[9]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. There have been claims that people under-utilise consensus information, although there has been some dispute over this.[10]

There are several levels in the covariation model: high and low. Each of these levels influences the three covariation model criteria. High consensus is when many people can agree on an event or area of interest. Low consensus is when very few people can agree. High distinctiveness is when the event or area of interest is very unusual, whereas low distinctness is when the event or area of interest is fairly common. High consistency is when the event or area of interest continues for a length of time and low consistency is when the event or area of interest goes away quickly.[10]

Three-dimensional model

Bernard Weiner 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.[11] 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.[12] 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

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".[13] The following are examples of attributional biases.

Fundamental attribution error

The fundamental attribution error describes the habit to misunderstand dispositional or personality-based explanations for behavior instead considering external factors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain and assume the behavior of others. For example, if a person is overweight, a person's first assumption might be that they have a problem with overeating or are lazy and not that they might have a medical reason for being heavier set.[14] When evaluating others' behaviors, the situational context is often ignored in favor of the disposition of the actor to be the cause of an observed behavior. This is because when a behavior occurs attention is most often focused on the person performing the behavior. Thus, the individual is more salient than the environment and dispositional attributions are made more often than situational attributions to explain the behavior of others.[5] However, when evaluating one's own behavior, the situational factors are often exaggerated when there is a negative outcome while dispositional factors are exaggerated when there is a positive outcome.[5]

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.[15]

Culture bias

Culture bias is when someone makes an assumption about the behavior of a person based on their cultural practices and beliefs. 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. In other words, working together and being involved as a group is more common in certain cultures that views each person as a part of the community. 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.[16]

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 due to their internal factors whereas collectivist cultures tend to attribute a person's behavior to his external factors.[17]

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).[18]

Actor/observer difference

People tend to attribute other people's behaviors to their dispositional factors while attributing own actions to situational factors. In the same situation, people's attribution can differ depending on their role as actor or observer.[19] For example, when a person scores a low grade on a test, they find 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 another person scores poorly on a test, the person will attribute the results to internal factors such as laziness and inattentiveness in classes. The theory of the actor-observer bias was first developed by E. Jones and R. Nisbett in 1971, whose explanation for the effect was that when we observe other people, we tend to focus on the person, whereas when we are actors, our attention is focused towards situational factors.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.[original research?]

Dispositional attributions

Dispositional attribution is a tendency to attribute people's behaviors to their dispositions; that is, to their personality, character, and ability.[20] For example, when a normally pleasant waiter is being rude to his/her customer, the customer may 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".[21]

Self-serving bias

Self-serving bias is attributing dispositional and internal factors for success, while external and uncontrollable factors are used to explain the reason 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, an alternative information processing explanation is that when the outcomes match people's expectations, they make attributions to internal factors. For example if you pass a test you believe it was because of your intelligence; when the outcome does not match their expectations, they make external attributions or excuses. Whereas if you fail a test, you would give an excuse saying that you did not have enough time to study.[13] People also use defensive attribution to avoid feelings of vulnerability and to differentiate themselves from a victim of a tragic accident.[22] An alternative version of the theory of 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). This version of the theory would 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, it is suggested that coming to believe that "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people" will reduce feelings of vulnerability[]. This belief would have side-effects of blaming the victim even in tragic situations.[13] When a mudslide destroys several houses in a rural neighborhood, a person living in a more urban setting might blame the victims for choosing to live in a certain area or not building a safer, stronger house. Another example of attributional bias is optimism bias in which most people believe positive events happen to them more often than to others and that negative events happen to them less often than to others. For example, smokers on average believe they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers.[23]

Defensive attribution hypothesis

The defensive attribution hypothesis is a social psychological term referring to a set of beliefs held by an individual with the function of defending themselves 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.[22]

An example of defensive attribution is the just-world hypothesis, which is where "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people". People believe in this in order to avoid feeling vulnerable to situations that they have no control over. However, this also leads to blaming the victim even in a tragic situation.[13] When people hear someone died from a car accident, they decide that the driver was drunk at the time of the accident, and so they reassure themselves that an accident will never happen to them. Despite the fact there was no other information provided, people will automatically attribute that the accident was the driver's fault due to an internal factor (in this case, deciding to drive while drunk), and thus they would not allow it to happen to themselves.

Another example of defensive attribution is optimism bias, in which people believe positive events happen to them more often than to others and that negative events happen to them less often than to others. Too much optimism leads people to ignore some warnings and precautions given to them. For example, smokers believe that they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers.[23]


Attribution theory can be applied to juror decision making. Jurors use attributions to explain the cause of the defendant's intent and actions related to the criminal behavior.[24] The attribution made (situational or dispositional) might affect a juror's punitiveness towards the defendant.[25] When jurors attribute a defendant's behavior to dispositional attributions they tend to be more punitive and are more likely find a defendant guilty[25] and to recommend a death sentence compared to a life sentence.[26]

In clinical psychology

Attribution theory has had a big application in clinical psychology.[27] Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale developed a theory of the depressive attributional style, claiming that individuals who tend to attribute their failures to internal, stable and global factors are more vulnerable to clinical depression.[28] The Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) has been developed to assess whether individuals have the depressogenic attributional style.[29] However, the ASQ has been criticized, with some researchers preferring to use a technique called Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanation (CAVE) in which an individual's ordinary writings are analysed to assess whether s/he is vulnerable to the depressive attributional style.[30]

Learned helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness emerged from animal research in which psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier discovered that dogs classically conditioned to an electrical shock which they could not escape, subsequently failed to attempt to escape an avoidable shock in a similar situation.[31] They argued that learned helplessness applied to human psychopathology. In particular, individuals who attribute negative outcomes to internal, stable and global factors reflect a view in which they have no control over their situation. It is suggested that this aspect of not attempting to better a situation exacerbates negative mood, and may lead to clinical depression and related mental illnesses.[32]

Perceptual salience

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.[33]

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 regard to their own behavior.[34]


Attribution theory has been criticised 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


  1. ^ Moskowitz, G. B. (2005). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. ^ a b Kassin; Fein; Markus (2010). Social Psychology (Eighth international ed.). Wadsworth: Cengage Learning. ISBN 978-0-8400-3172-3. 
  3. ^ Sanderson, Catherine (2010). Social Psychology. John Wiley & Sons. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-471-25026-5. 
  4. ^ a b Malle, Bertram F. (2004). How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Interaction. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-13445-4. 
  5. ^ a b c Heider. F (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley. ISBN 9780898592825. 
  6. ^ Lilienfeld, Scott O.; Lynn, Steven Jay; Namy, Laura L.; Woolf, Nancy J. (2010). "Social Psychology". Psychology: A Framework For Everyday Thinking. Pearson Education. p. 380. ISBN 978-0-205-65048-4. 
  7. ^ Aronson. Social Psychology. pp. 106-108. [full ]
  8. ^ Lipe, Marlys G. "Counterfactual reasoning as a framework for attribution theories". Retrieved . 
  9. ^ Kelley, Harold H. (1967). "Attribution Theory in Social Psychology". In Levine, David. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. 15. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 192-238. 
  10. ^ a b McLeod, Saul. "Attribution Theory". Simply Psychology. Retrieved 2017. 
  11. ^ Weiner, B. (1992). Human Motivation: Metaphors, Theories and Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 0-7619-0491-3. 
  12. ^ Munton; Silvester; Stratton; Hanks (1999). Attributions in Action. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-98216-4. 
  13. ^ a b c d Forsyth, Donelson (1987). Social Psychology. Brooks/Cole. ISBN 0-534-06744-1. 
  14. ^ Sanderson, Catherine (2010). Social Psychology. John Wiley & Sons. p. 118. ISBN 978-0-471-25026-5. 
  15. ^ Schwarz, N. (2006). "Attitude Research: Between Ockham's Razor and the Fundamental Attribution Error". Journal of Consumer Research. 33 (1): 19-21. doi:10.1086/504124. 
  16. ^ Hongyin Wang (1993). ???????? [Introduction to the Cross-Culture Psychology]. Shanxi Normal University Press. ISBN 7-5613-0864-7. 
  17. ^ Perrius, Chris. "Individualism, collectivism, and attribution". Retrieved 2017. 
  18. ^ "Individual and Cultural Differences in Person Perception". 
  19. ^ Jones; Nisbett (1971). The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press. ISBN 0-382-25026-5. 
  20. ^ Pettigrew (1979). "The ultimate attribution error: Extending Allport's cognitive analysis of prejudice, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 5 (4): 461-476. doi:10.1177/014616727900500407. 
  21. ^ Graham; Folkes (1990). Attribution Theory: Applications to Achievement, Mental Health, and Interpersonal Conflict. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-0531-1. 
  22. ^ a b Shaver, Kelly G. (1970). "Defensive Attribution: Effects of Severity and Relevance on the Responsibility Assigned for an Accident". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 14 (2): 101-113. doi:10.1037/h0028777. 
  23. ^ a b Roesch; Amirkham (1997). "Boundary Conditions for Self-serving Attributions: Another Look at the Sports Pages". Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 27 (3): 245-261. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1997.tb00631.x. 
  24. ^ Moskowitz, G. B. (2005). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. New York, NY: Guilford Press. ISBN 9781593850852. 
  25. ^ a b Sommers, S. R. & Ellsworth, P. C. (2000). "Race in the courtroom: Perceptions of guilt and dispositional attributions" (PDF). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 26 (11): 1367-1379. doi:10.1177/0146167200263005. 
  26. ^ Cochran, J. K.; Boots, D. P. & Heide, K. M. (2003). "Attribution styles and attitudes toward capital punishment for juveniles, the mentally incompetent, and the mentally retarded". Justice Quarterly. 20 (1): 65-93. doi:10.1080/07418820300095461. 
  27. ^ Antaki, C. & Brewin, C., eds. (1982). Attributions and psychological change: Applications of attributional theories to clinical and educational practice. London: Academic Press. 
  28. ^ Abramson, L. Y.; Seligman, M. E. & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). "Learned helplessness in humans: critique and reformulation" (PDF). Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 87 (1): 49-74. PMID 649856. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49. 
  29. ^ Peterson, C.; Semmel, A.; Von Baeyer, C.; Abramson, L. Y.; Metalsky, G. I. & Seligman, M. E. (1982). "The attributional style questionnaire". Cognitive Therapy and Research. 6 (3): 287-299. doi:10.1007/BF01173577. 
  30. ^ Schulman, P.; Castellon, C. & Seligman, M. E. (1989). "Assessing explanatory style: The content analysis of verbatim explanations and the attributional style questionnaire" (PDF). Behaviour Research and Therapy. 27 (5): 505-509. PMID 2818415. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(89)90084-3. 
  31. ^ Maier; Seligman (1976). "Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 105 (1): 3-46. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.105.1.3. 
  32. ^ Seligman, Martin (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. Freeman/Times Books/Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0-7167-0752-7. 
  33. ^ Aronson. Social Psychology. pp. 113-114. [full ]
  34. ^ Huffman. Psychology in Action. p. 622. [full ]

Further reading

  • Gordon, L. M.; Graham, S. (2006). "Attribution theory". The Encyclopedia of Human Development. 1. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. pp. 142-144. ISBN 1-4129-0475-7. 

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