Attribution Theory

Attribution theory is a social cognitive theory which explains how people explain phenomena on the basis of cause and effect and how that influences their motivation. According to the theory, observations about behavior and its causality shape future behavior. The theory studies how people interpret events and relate them to their way of thinking and actions. The person's perception of success or failure will predetermine the amount of efforts he or she will invest in the same activity in the future.

According to scientific classification, attributions can be explanatory, predictive and interpersonal. This means that people use attributions to explain and understand their surroundings, to predict future events and to interpret other people's behavior.

Causality is analyzed in three ways: internal or external; stable or unstable; controllable or uncontrollable. Those who explain their success through internal, stable and controllable factors show higher levels of intrinsic motivation. On the contrary, external, unstable and uncontrollable attributions tend to dampen motivation.

Attributions are also influenced by people's bias and errors. "Our perceptions of causality are often distorted by our needs and certain cognitive biases," according to Fritz Heider (1896 to 1988), the Austrian-born psychologist. These errors include instances when people exaggerate the importance of internal factors, or the tendency to explain behavior through other people's personality and character.

Attribution theory relies on scientific methods to measure and categorize attributions. These include surveys with open-ended questions and the direct rating method. The psychological attribution theory was first discussed in Heider's 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Exploring what he called commonsense or naïve psychology, Heider drew the conclusion that people are amateur scientists in social situations and they attribute the behavior of others to their own perceptions. This concept serves as a basis of further research into how people relate to each other and how they interpret each other's behavior.

Heider divides factors influencing behavior into external and internal. In case of internal attribution, the person attributes the cause of the given behavior to factors such as attitude or personality. In case of external attribution, behavior results from the environment or weather. Later the attribution theory was further developed by the American social psychologist Harold Kelley (1921 to 2003). Kelley developed the Covariation Model, which postulates that the effect is attributed to one of the causes which covaries over time and behavior can vary in different situations. Therefore, people attribute behavior to the factors that are present when it occurs.

Kelley insisted that the person's behavior is determined by three major factors: the person, the action and the context. Attribution is made based on three criteria: consensus, distinctiveness and consistency. Consensus describes how people with similar stimuli adopt similar behavior. Distinctiveness shows how the same person responds to different situations. Consistency indicates how the person's response can remain the same in different situations. Kelley is criticized for failing to make the difference between intentional and unintentional actions.

Attribution theorists have also discussed the relationship between attribution and gender. Research shows that women tend to attribute success in engineering to hard work and external help. They interpret failure are a result of their lack of ability. By comparison, men attribute success to their ability and failure to insufficient efforts and bad treatment (Felder, Felder, Mauney, Hamrin and Dietz, 1995). Other studies give evidence that women tend to value hard work as a route to success (Jackson, Gardner and Sullivan, 1993).

Attribution theory is also closely related to education as emotional and motivational factors may influence academic success and failure. Attribution theory is used to explain the differences between high achievers and low achievers at school. Research shows that the two groups have different attributions and hence their motivation varies. Good students appear to attribute failure to bad luck, while success boosts their confidence. Bad students, on the other hand, attribute success to luck and uncontrollable factors.

According to Bernard Weiner's classification, factors which influence achievement and motivation are effort, ability, luck and difficulty of tasks. These factors can be either internal or external, stable or unstable. They can be either under or beyond the student's control. A stable cause can guarantee that the outcome will the same on every occasion. The attribution theory is also widely used in criminal law to explain criminals' motivation. The concept is also applied in marketing. Critics of attribution say that it reduces all human behavior to rational, logical and systematic decisions. Attribution theorists also neglect social, cultural and historical factors in human behavior.

Attribution Theory: Selected full-text books and articles

Motivation: Theory and Research By Harold F. O'Neil Jr.; Michael Drillings Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Classroom Motivation from an Attributional Perspective" and "Attribution Theory" begins on p. 270
Attribution Feedback in the Elementary Classroom By Foote, Chandra J Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring-Summer 1999
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Emotion in Advertising: Theoretical and Practical Explorations By Stuart J. Agres; Julie A. Edell; Tony M. Dubitsky Quorum Books, 1990
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Fear Appeals in Advertising: an Emotion Attribution Approach"
Organizational Behavior: Foundations, Theories, and Analyses By John B. Miner Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Attribution Theory Applied to Poor Performance" begins on p. 67
Motivation for Achievement: Possibilities for Teaching and Learning By M. Kay Alderman Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Attributional Beliefs and Motivation"
Public Relations as Relationship Management: A Relational Approach to the Study and Practice of Public Relations By John A. Ledingham; Stephen D. Bruning Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian's tip: Discussion of attribution theory begins on p. 77
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