Attribution

The Basic Idea

Imagine you are driving to work and you get cut off by another car. You start to feel angry and deem this driver a careless, selfish person with a lack of concern for the safety of others. The very next day, you are on your way to meet a client at a new location. Not being familiar with the area, you cut someone off to avoid a wrong turn. You rationalize this decision because it was an exception, not something you do regularly; you are usually a safe and thoughtful driver.

In these two scenarios, you attributed different causes to the two acts of unsafe driving. We make similar attributions on a daily basis to explain the behavior of ourselves and others. In psychology, attribution theory attempts to understand how people form relationships between events, internal characteristics, and behaviors. As the aforementioned example demonstrates, people tend to be more understanding of their own behaviors and attribute them to the situation instead of an inherent characteristic. With others, we tend to make dispositional attributions, believing their behavior is caused by personal characteristics.1

The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.

– Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell in his bookThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference2

Key Terms

Situational Attribution: explaining our own or another’s behavior using situational contexts instead of individual characteristics or personality.3 We tend to make situational attributions when we explain our own negative behavior.

Dispositional Attribution: explaining our own or another’s behavior using internal characteristics. We tend to make dispositional attributions when we explain someone else’s negative behavior.3

Fundamental Attribution Error: the mistake of overestimating the influence of internal characteristics and underestimating the influence of external forces on someone’s behavior. We tend to use dispositional attributions too often and ignore the situational variables that cause behavior.3

Interpersonal Attribution: the process of spinning a story to friends in a way that places you in the best possible light.1 Often, that means providing context to explain negative behaviors in a way that places blame outside of yourself.

Predictive Attribution: our tendency to explain events with a cause and effect relationship in a way that makes it possible to make future predictions and alter our behavior accordingly.1 For example, if you are playing basketball and play really well, you might explain this by the fact that you had a protein shake that morning and predict that every time you have a protein shake, you will perform well in basketball. 1

 

History

Phenomenology refers to the study of subjective experience. Phenomenological research studies experiences and meanings to understand how people encounter the world and particular situations.4 Social psychologists have contributed to this field by studying the relationships between perception and interpersonal behavior.

Austrian social psychologist and father of attribution theory, Fritz Heider, began studying these relationships in the 1920s while writing his thesis. Heider was interested in how people perceived qualities within inanimate objects. He soon developed his theory of object perception, which explored why people attribute qualities to objects when those qualities exist only in their minds.  The color yellow is a mental construct, but we say that a ball – which exists outside our minds – is yellow. Heider concluded that people attribute sensory information to underlying causes in the world, which causes them to view objects as ‘out there’.5

Later, Heider extrapolated his object attribution theory to people. Just as we perceive characteristics in objects, we perceive and infer the characteristics of people based on their behavior. People’s perception was more complex than object perception because there exists more than observational data: emotions and beliefs also influence our perception of others. In 1958, Heider published The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which likened people to scientists: he claimed that people observe others, analyze their behaviors, and come up with their own cause and effect explanations for their actions.1 He believed that humans engage in this scientific thinking to make sense of the world around them, which is composed of a massive amount of behavioral data.5 Under Heider’s theory, people attribute ‘common-sense’ theories to others’ behavior, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Common Sense theory.1

In his book, Heider divided behavioral explanations into two categories: external attributions and internal attributions, which are now known as situational attributions and dispositional attributions. Heider’s core hypothesis was that people believe others act intentionally and therefore their actions can be attributed to a cause. Heider wrote that people are “perceived as action centers and as such can do something to us. They can benefit or harm us intentionally, and we can benefit or harm them. Persons have abilities, wishes, and sentiments; they can act purposefully, and can perceive or watch us.5

In 1965, American psychologists Edward Jones and Keith Davis argued that Heider’s theory was based on the assumption that attributions determine a sufficient cause for action. If we see someone eating, a sufficient explanation would be that they are hungry. We attribute eating to the external cause of hunger. However, Jones and Davis believed that people also make attributions by considering the alternate action available. 6 Attributions are made by considering the perceived degree of choice, how expected the behavior is, and the effects of the behavior.1 Jones and Davis also suggested that people do not make attributions for all the actions of others, but only for those behaviors which impact them directly.

People

 

Fritz Heider

Austrian social psychologist, known as the father of attribution theory. Heider first observed that people attribute characteristics that exist in our minds to objects in the physical world. Heider later expanded his theory to the way we perceive others’ behavior. He suggested we draw connections between characteristics and behavior to explain the actions of others.

Edward Jones

American social psychologist who dedicated his career to studying attribution theory. Along with Keith Davis, he came up with the correspondence inference theory of attribution. Their theory was based on the assumption that we attribute causes to behaviors we perceive as being intentional, because we see a correspondence between motivation and behavior.

Keith Davis

American social psychologist that worked with Edward Jones in developing the correspondence inference theory. These researchers believed there were five variables people considered when making attributions: degree of choice, accidental vs intentional behavior, the level social desirability of the behavior, whether the behavior affects them, and whether we take the behavior personally.3

Lee Ross

Canadian social psychologist who coined the term fundamental attribution error.

Victor Harris

American social psychologist who conducted a now-famous study with Edward Jones demonstrating we continue to attribute dispositional causes to behavior even after we’ve been told that individuals had no choice in how to behave.

Harold Kelley

American social psychologist who proposed a covariation model of attribution in 1967. This logical model explains how people determine whether behavior has a dispositional or situational cause. The model states people use three different kinds of evidence to make their decision: consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency. Consensus refers to the extent to which other people behave in the same way in similar situations, distinctiveness refers to the extent to which the same person would behave in similar situations, and consistency refers to the extent to which the person behaves in this exact same way every time this situation occurs.3

Bernard Weiner

American social psychologist who applied attribution theory to student learning and proposed the three-dimensional model of attribution. Weiner suggested that a person’s own attributions explaining their success or failure determines how much effort they will later exert.  If a person attributes passing their test to the fact that they studied hard, they are more likely to exert the same effort in the future. The three dimensions of Weiner’s model include locus, stability, and controllability. Locus refers to whether the student sees the cause of their success/failure as internal or external, stability refers to whether the event is stable across time and situations, and controllability refers to whether or not the cause of the behavior is under the control of the student.7

Consequences

We will always try to make sense of the complicated world we live in. Being able to form links between causes and events to explain behavior can make life seem more manageable. However, we tend to make a lot of mistakes during attribution because of cognitive biases.

The fundamental attribution error, sometimes known as the correspondence bias, refers to our tendency to overemphasize dispositional causes when perceiving another’s actions and underemphasize situational influences. If someone is rude to us, we are likely to blame their personality instead of acknowledging they may have had a bad day. This bias was coined by social psychologist Lee Ross and based on the results from an experiment by Jones and Harris. In their study, Jones and Harris asked participants to listen to pro and anti-Fidel Castro speeches and rate the speech-givers personal attitudes towards this controversial figure. When participants were told the speech-givers had flipped a coin to determine whether they will give a positive or negative speech, participants still believed that those who gave pro speeches had a more positive attitude towards Fidel Castro.8

The opposite of the fundamental attribution error occurs when we explain our own behavior. In 1971, Jones and Nisbett found the actor-observer bias, which describes our tendency to overemphasize external causes when we perform negative behaviors. If you do poorly in an exam, you might blame the fact that the teacher didn’t relay the information properly or that the room you took the exam in was too noisy. You are unlikely to blame yourself for not studying hard enough.9

We also make mistakes when we attribute explanations to positive events. The self-serving bias describes our tendency to explain positive events due to personal, internal characteristics. If you land a job, you’re probably going to chalk it up to your intelligence and hard work instead of external events – like the fact that there were few other applicants. Psychologists believe that the self-serving bias occurs to boost our self-esteem.1

The dissonance between how we explain others’ behaviors and how we explain our own can cause social tension. We are often overly critical of others whilst taking credit ourselves when positive events occur.

Controversies

The most common criticism of attribution theory is that it assumes people are rational thinkers that constantly draw connections between causes and events. If we get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic it might not be because we have carefully thought out the dispositional factors that caused that behavior. The theory is therefore criticized for being mechanical and reductionist.

Additionally, multiple models of attribution have been put forward over time by different social psychologists. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what kind of factors are considered when a person determines the cause of a behavior.

Another way attribution theory falls short is that it suggests all people think in the same way and equally fall victim to cognitive biases, like the fundamental attribution error. However, one’s culture or gender impacts the way that they perceive the world, which in turn, can influence what attributions they make.10 Research has shown that collectivist Eastern countries are less likely to demonstrate the fundamental attribution error. That might be because collectivist cultures focus less on the individual and more on the society.11

Related TDL Content

Why We Sometimes Favor Aggressive Political Leadership

An aggressive style in politics is thought to come from a confident and powerful leader, which can draw us to hostile political leadership. In this article, contributor Kaylee Somerville explains how the fundamental attribution error causes this political preference due to the different internal characteristics we perceive in aggressive leaders and docile leaders.

“If Only”: The Good and the Bad of Counterfactuals

According to Jones & Davis’ model of attribution, one of the factors that influence whether we make a dispositional or situational attribution is the alternative behavior the individual could have performed. ‘What could have been’ is known as a counterfactual. In this article, Kaylee Sommerville examines why people often think  ‘what if’ and how counterfactuals impact our decision-making.

Sources

  1. Cherry, K. (2020, May 15). Attribution and Social Psychology. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/attribution-social-psychology-2795898#citation-2
  2. Malcolm Gladwell Quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7139218-the-mistake-we-make-in-thinking-of-character-as-something
  3. Mcleod, S. (2012). Attribution theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attribution-theory.html
  4. Davidsen, A. S. (2013). Phenomenological approaches in psychology and health sciences. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 10(3), 318-339. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2011.608466
  5. Malle, B. F. (2011). Attribution Theories: How People Make Sense of Behavior. In Theories in social psychology (pp. 72-95). John Wiley & Sons. https://research.clps.brown.edu/SocCogSci/Publications/Pubs/Malle_(2011)_Chadee_chap_precorr.pdf
  6. Jones, E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0
  7. Shresta, P. (2019, June 16). Weiner Attribution Theory. Psychestudy. https://www.psychestudy.com/social/weiner-attribution-theory
  8. Fundamental attribution error. (n.d.). Psychology Wiki. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error
  9. Cherry, K. (2020, May 5). Actor-Observer Bias in Social Psychology. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-actor-observer-bias-2794813
  10. Shrestha, P. (2017, November 17). Attribution theory. Psychestudy. https://www.psychestudy.com/social/attribution-theory
  11. Dean, K. K., & Koenig, A. M. (2011). Cross‐Cultural Differences and Similarities in Attribution. In K. D. Keith (Ed.), Cross-cultural psychology: Contemporary themes and perspectives (2nd ed., pp. 575-597). John Wiley & Sons. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781119519348.ch28

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