What is the Attribution Theory? Description
The Attribution Theory by Fritz Heider is a method that can be used for
evaluating how people perceive the behavior of themselves and of other people.
Attribution theory is about how people make causal explanations. In his 1958
book "The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations", Heider says that all behavior
is considered to be determined by either internal or by external factors:
- External Attribution: causality is assigned to an outside factor,
agent or force. Outside factors fall outside your control. You perceive
you have no choice. So your behavior is influenced, limited or even completely
determined by influences outside your control. Therefore you feel not responsible.
A generic example is the weather. Also called: Situational Attribution.
- Internal Attribution: causality is assigned to an inside factor,
agent or force. Inside factors fall inside your own control. You can choose
to behave in a particular way or not. So your behavior is not influenced,
limited or even completely determined by influences outside your control.
Therefore you feel responsible. A typical example is your own intelligence.
Also called: Dispositional Attribution.
One of the most amazing features of human beings is that we believe we
can explain anything. Research by psychologists has revealed that most people
are biased in their judgment of who or what is responsible for an event or
- We tend to attribute the successes of others and our own failures to
external factors. We perceive these as not their own merit and
not our own fault.
- We tend to attribute our own successes and failures of others to internal
factors. We perceive these as our own merit and their own fault.
Other factors that are believed to be relevant to attribution are:
- Do we like another person or not? If so, internal
attributing is more likely in the case of success.
- Is there a reward or punishment attached to a behavior?
If so, external attributing is more likely.
- Is the other person highly motivated to achieve or not?
According to Weiner ('80), a high achiever will:
- Approach rather than avoid tasks related to succeeding. Because he
believes success is due to high ability and effort which he is confident
of. Failure is thought to be caused by bad luck or a poor exam, i.e. not
his fault. Thus, failure doesn't hurt his self-esteem but success builds
pride and confidence.
- Persist when the work gets hard rather than giving up. Because failure
is assumed to be caused by a lack of effort, which he can change by trying
- Select challenges of moderate difficulty (50% success rate). Because
the feedback from those tasks tells you more about how well you are doing,
rather than very difficult or very easy tasks which tell you little about
your ability or effectiveness.
- Work with a lot of energy because the results are believed to be determined
by how hard you try.
- Attribution factors by Kelley (1967): Kelley advanced
Heider's theory by adding hypotheses about factors that affect the formation
- Consistency information. The degree to which the actor performs
that same behavior toward an object on different occasions.
- Distinctiveness information. The degree to which the actor
performs different behaviors with different objects.
- Consensus information. The degree to which other actors perform
the same behavior with the same object.
- Is the cause of the success or failure controllable or
not? A controllable factor is one which we believe we ourselves can alter
if we wish to do so. An uncontrollable factor is one that we do not believe
we can easily alter.
Achievement can be attributed to at least four things:
- Effort. An internal and unstable factor over which we can exercise
a great deal of control.
- Ability. A relatively internal and stable factor over which we
do not exercise much direct control.
- Level of task difficulty. An external and stable factor that
is largely beyond our control.
- Luck. An external and unstable factor over which we exercise
very little control.
Origin of the Attribution Theory. History
Heider first wrote about attribution theory in his book The Psychology
of Interpersonal Relationships (1958). The book played a central role in the
origination and definition of attribution theory. Jones and Davis' systematic
hypotheses about the perception of intention was published in 1965 in the
essay "From Acts to Dispositions." Kelley published "Attribution in Social
Psychology" in 1967. Kelley (1967) advanced Heider's theory by adding hypotheses
about factors that affect the formation of attributions: consistency, distinctiveness,
Usage of the Attribution Theory. Applications
- Psychology, Criminal Law, Ethics, Decision-making. Understanding Cognitive
- HRM. Appraisals, Self-Appraisals, Peer-Appraisals, etc.
- Marketing Communication. Applied to advertising, attribution theory
argues that consumers can attribute claims either to the advertiser's desire
to sell the product (one-sided advertising) or to actual attributes of the
product communicated by an honest advertiser (two-sided advertising). This
theory suggests that two sided messages including negative information of
the product may lead the audience to think that the advertiser is telling
the truth. This enhanced perception of advertiser credibility strengthens
beliefs concerning the positive attributes that the advertiser claims are
associated with the product.
Steps in the Attribution Theory. Process
There is a three-stage process underlying attribution:
- Perception. Observe. The person must perceive or observe the
- Judgment. Determine deliberateness. The person must believe that
the behavior was intentionally performed.
- Attribute. The person must determine if he believes the other
person was forced to perform the behavior (in which case the cause is attributed
to the situation) or not (in which case the cause is attributed to the other
Book: Fritz Heider
- The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations -
||Applicant Attribution-Reaction Theory
"Ployart and Harold proposed a new theory called the Applicant Attribution-Reaction Theory (AART) by combining both theories from applicants reactions literature and of attribution theories. AART states that attributional processes are in fact causing the responses of applicants’, such as test performance or perceptions.Thus, these perceptions barely have explanatory power, they are the consequences of attributional processes.
The authors describe 7 steps in AART, listed below:
1. Objective Event: this part represents the staffing processes that take place, such as the meetings, selection methods, the completion of a test or being a participant in an interview. By answering the question which events will encourage attributional search, these types of events are often characterized by being surprising, important, undesirable or stressful. Events with such conditions will most of the times result in a search for what caused the event.
The following four points are considered as the Attributional Process, which is the most important part of AART:
2. Perceived Situation: This part is representing the interpretation of the event by the applicants. An important implication of this part needs to be mentioned: not all situational features are seen as being important to applicants. Features are likely to be salient when they are novel, or goal-important and when they violate one’s beliefs. As a result it is more likely to perceive negative events.
3. Expectation: this part includes a set of standards/ rules such as consistency. The theory says it is possible for rules which are important to the applicant to affect the perception of a situation.
4. Perceived satisfaction or Violation: in this step the applicant will compare step 2 (perceived situation) with his/ her own expectation (step 3).
5. Attribution: The following step is characterized by making a stable and controllable, internal or external attribution for an events’ cause. This point represents an important difference between AART and other theories of applicant reactions: the particular cause of the event is LESS important than the attribution of that event.
6. Behavioral Consequences: As a result of the attributional examination, the applicant has certain behavioral and attitudinal reactions. In fact this is one of the key issues of AART as I mentioned before: the attributional processes are causing applicants’ reactions.
7. Cultural/Individual differences: A last feature of AART is that it includes cultural and individual differences. These differences might have an indirect or direct effect on the attributional process and this point can therefore not be ignored.
Source: Ployhart, R.E. and C.M. Harold. (2004). “The Applicant Attribution-Reaction Theory(AART): An Integrative Theory of Applicant Attributional.” International Journal of Selection and Assessment, Vol 12.\
||What is Perception Management?
"Actors (members) in an organisation behave in such a way, in order to influence the public’s perceptions about themselves.
According to Erving Goffman, he/she will try to uphold a certain (self-) image by influencing the perceptions of others. The public will (un)consciously search for flaws in ones behaviour that is not congruent with their perception of the ‘right’ behaviour.
These ‘given-offs’ are features of the performance that ‘present the actor as not quite the person he/she wishes to present him/herself’ (McAuley et al. 2007 p302).
This view that ‘all the world is a stage, and all men and women are merely players’ (Shakespeare, As you like it, 1623) has some profound implications on the communication in organisations and on the way individuals, like politicians and managers, behave (McAuley et al. p302).
This ‘impression management’ is closely related to role taking discussed by McAuley et al (p305). When a certain role is taken, it ‘forces’ the actor to behave according to the perceptions of others. These perceptions of certain roles of an organisational identity are established through a ‘guide of action’ like rules of conduct in organizations."
||Disadvantages of Attribution Theory: Distracts the Attention From Our Own Responsibility
"We have to understand that attribution theory takes away from us the responsibility of owning up to our decisions.
Many cases like the issues of underdeveloped countries attributing their dire situations to colonialism and now neo colonialism comes to mind.
We do not try to see what role the leadership in these countries provide and how their leadership enabled their citizens to become better people.
If we take the attribution theory on face value, we actually miss the point of our own efforts in mitigating the dire circumstances we find ourselves in."
||Good Summary of Attribution Theory
"I was in class on the 02/10/2009 and did not understand what attribution theory mean, but after reading your article, it really made sense to me. The use of simple english words made it easy for me to understand as a none english speaking person. I was able to make examples using my own self behaviour applying the theory.
Thank you very much. Am now ready to answer any question in the exam relating the attribution theory."
||More Ways in which we Explain an Outcome...
"The article mentions that there are at least 4 things or reasons that people use to explain an outcome: 1. Effort, 2. Ability, 3. Level of task difficulty and 4. Luck. To those main attributional explanations we may add:
7. Strategy, and perhaps also
8. Group pressure.
These are also used sometimes by people to explain a success or a failure."
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Compare with Attribution Theory:
| Cultural Intelligence
| Johari Window
| Path-Goal Theory
| Expectancy Theory
| Theory of Planned
Behavior | Hawthorne
Theory of Needs
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