Attribution (Psychology)

Attribution is a theory used in psychology to explain how people attribute and explain the causes for behaviors and outcomes. The study of attribution does not concern itself with the actual causes of behaviors, but rather with the perceptions that people have regarding the causes of those behaviors.

Fritz Heider first proposed the attribution theory in 1958. As a student, Heider lived through a tense period in which the people around him became angry at each other. He noticed that on more than one occasion, he had two friends come to him separately to express their grievances against the other. Heider found each friend's position to be plausible. He then needed to fit both points of view together to recreate the situation objectively.

These experiences led Heider to study the reasons why each friend viewed the same situation differently. He theorized that each friend's perspective was based on the attributions they made for their behavior and the behavior of the other participant in the argument. The attributional approach assumes that people are fundamentally interested in understanding the reasons for their behavior and the behaviors of the people in the world around them.

People can attribute their behaviors to dispositional or situational causes. Dispositional factors are based on internal personality or character traits, for example an inherent tendency toward laziness and motivation that can affect a person's success on a test. Situational factors are outside a person's domain of control. For instance, a person's success on an exam may be affected by the teacher's ability to impart information or the difficulty of the exam.

When people make attributions regarding an event or outcome, they must first decide which information is relevant. This information may come from the situation itself or from concepts that the person has previously encountered. As each person's experiences are unique, the information used to create judgments and attributions is unique.

Self-attributions are inferences that people make about their own behaviors. Some researchers believe that specific self-attributions are created to help a person maintain a feeling of control over life events. Therefore, people may attribute a specific event to dispositional causes, even if outside observers can clearly see that the event was caused by situational factors.

Research suggests that attributing events to internal, controllable factors allows individuals to better cope with a given situation. In the face of an unwanted outcome attributed to controllable factors, an individual will make active efforts to resolve the problem. However, outcomes attributed to forces outside of an individual's control can cause psychological distress and escapist responses, which may then lead to aggravated distress and illness.

Most researchers agree that people have an interest in maintaining their own self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, and therefore have a tendency to attribute their positive actions to dispositional causes and their negative actions to the surrounding factors that are beyond their control. Most individuals take pride in a successful career, attributing their achievements to their innate ingenuity, cleverness and ability to manage their employees. On the other hand, these same people will attribute the break-up of their marriage to outside factors, such as their spouse's refusal to compromise and their in-laws' untoward interference.

Individuals tend to absolve themselves of blame from unpleasant outcomes that can be attributed to dispositional factors. They will blame their loss of employment on the general economic environment without considering that they might have been fired because they were unproductive. Generally, people do not give this same absolution to their friends and neighbors. Instead, they believe that someone else who has lost a job was lazy and incompetent.

Attributions are personal and unique to each individual. One person may attribute a large philanthropic donation to the contributor's generosity, while another person may attribute this same donation to the donor's ignoble need to flaunt his wealth. Moreover, these attributions are generally based on how the person making the judgment previously looked at the person being judged. One will attribute positive reasons to a friend's behavior and negative reasons to a foe's behavior.

Much research and studies have been conducted regarding the relationship between attribution and behavior. Do individuals who interpret events and outcomes on the basis of dispositional causes have a higher success rate than those who make situational attributions?

Self-consistency theorists believe that individuals are motivated to maintain their cognitive self-evaluation. Those with a high self-esteem make attributions that will uphold their satisfaction with their own actions. Those with a lower self-esteem will more likely attribute success to situational factors, negating the possibility that it was their own character traits that resulted in their success.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

New Directions in Attribution Research
John H. Harvey; Robert F. Kidd; William John Ickes.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.1, 1976
New Directions in Attribution Research
John H. Harvey; William Ickes; Robert F. Kidd.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.2, 1978
Consistency and Cognition: A Theory of Causal Attribution
Virginia Hensley Duval; F. Stephan Mayer; Shelley Duval.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983
Social Cognition, Inference, and Attribution
Robert S. Wyer Jr.; Donal E. Carlston.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1979
Librarian’s tip: "Implications of Novelty and Redundancy Effects for Social Attribution: A Conceptual Integration" begins on p. 172
Reactions to Critical Life Events: A Social Psychological Analysis
Marita R. Inglehart.
Praeger Publishers, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Generalized Principle of Cognitive Consistency: Integrating the Principle of Cognitive Consistency with Hypotheses about the Attribution Process"
Explaining One's Self to Others: Reason-Giving in a Social Context
Margaret L. McLaughlin; Michael J. Cody; Stephen J. Read.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992
Psychological Metaphysics
Peter A. White.
Routledge, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Implications for Research in Causal Attribution"
Cognition in Close Relationships
Garth J. O. Fletcher; Frank D. Fincham.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Attribution Processes in Close Relationships"
Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition
Gordon B. Moskowitz.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "On Partitioning the Fundamental Attribution Error: Dispositionalism and the Correspondence Bias"
Initial Reactions to Client Attributional Presentations: Content versus Belief Similarity Models
Murdock, Nancy L.
Counselor Education and Supervision, Vol. 40, No. 3, March 2001
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