Attribution Theory

How, when and why we determine the causes of behavior (our own or that of others) is the domain of attribution theory. Attribution theory is a critical aspect of social and applied psychology, particularly where issues of motivation and self-esteem arise.

Circa 1958, Fritz Heider introduced the concept of humans as “naive scientists” who seek to explain observable behavior patterns by attributing them to unobservable causes. Heider also argues that causal attributions are either internal or external. For example, if you lose a game, you may attribute it to the conditions or officiating (external attribution). However, when you succeed, you might attribute it to your work ethic or talent (internal attribution).

Harold Kelley expanded Heider’s premise by arguing that attributions that people make are rational and generally accurate. Kelley proposed that people make attributions using co-variation (based on multiple observations) or configuration (based on a single observation). One of the limitations of Kelley’s theory of attribution is that it relies too heavily on its assumption of rationality in human thought.

In the co-variation model, the perceiver makes attributions based on how many persons commit the act (consensus), if the person committed the act before (consistency) and whether the act is committed in similar circumstances (distinctiveness). For example, if someone failed an English exam before, you can attribute his or her current failure in English 101 to ability (or lack of) because consistency is high. In the absence of information, Kelley argued that perceivers use “causal schemata”, where perceivers draw on their beliefs and stereotypes to make attributions.

The validity of the distinction between external and internal attributions is a source of debate in psychology. This is because one can identify internal attributions as external attributions and vice versa. A core topic within the attribution concept is “Attributional biases.” For example, if I fail an exam that I failed before and that everyone else passed, I may still attribute my failure to external causes (self-serving bias) despite evidence to the contrary. Major attributional biases include the fundamental attribution error, actor-observer differences, self-serving biases and group-serving biases.

Attribution theory is quite diverse- illustrating the inherent complexity of social sciences. Some of the attribution models have been used in motivation, clinical psychology and counselling. Attribution theory is continuing to develop in an attempt to make the understanding of causal attributions more robust.

For more information on the attribution concept, refer to the following links: