In the preceding chapter, we discussed how motivational factors might account for attitude change. In this chapter, we turn to an attributional analysis of attitudes and persuasion. An attribution is an inference made about why something happened, why someone did or said something, or why you acted or responded in a particular way. The crux of the attributional approach is that people infer underlying characteristics--such as attitudes and intentions--from the verbal and overt behaviors they observe. When there appears to be an obvious reason for some behavior, people confidently attribute that behavior to that cause.
A common feature of the various attributional approaches surveyed in this chapter is that an inference about the cause of a response is the most direct antecedent of attitude change. The inference might be that there is something internal to the person that caused an observed behavior, such as the person's attitude or personality, or it might be that there is something external to the person that caused the behavior, such as a threat on the person's life. The former type of inference is called a dispositional attribution, whereas the latter is called a situational attribution.
For example, consider the case of a door-to-door salesman who appears unable to deliver a sales pitch (see fig. 6.1). From this behavior you might deduce that he is a very poor salesman (a dispositional attribution). You might even buy one of the products being sold to help the individual out. But what if by watching the salesman at your neighbor's house you can see that he acts incompetent in order to evoke sympathy and thereby gain a purchase? You probably would no longer attribute his failure to deliver the standard door-to-door pitch to poor salesmanship but rather to a manipulative or devious intent. These two attributions have very different implications for your susceptibility to the sales pitch. As we shall explain in this chapter, attitude change does indeed depend in part upon the attributions people make about the behavior of others and about their own behavior.
Interest in this approach to attitudes blossomed in 1965, following Daryl Bem's reinterpretation of cognitive dissonance theory using what is now construed in terms of an attributional analysis. Bem suggested that people infer their own attitudes in much the same way as they infer the attitudes of others--by the