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.