Attribution Theory

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How people make causal explanations. Explanation of Attribution Theory of Heider. ('58)

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 an action:

  • 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:
    1. 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.
    2. 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 harder.
    3. 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.
    4. 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 of attributions:
    • 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:

  1. Effort. An internal and unstable factor over which we can exercise a great deal of control.
  2. Ability. A relatively internal and stable factor over which we do not exercise much direct control.
  3. Level of task difficulty. An external and stable factor that is largely beyond our control.
  4. 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, and consensus.

Usage of the Attribution Theory. Applications

  • Psychology, Criminal Law, Ethics, Decision-making. Understanding Cognitive Bias.
  • HRM. Appraisals, Self-Appraisals, Peer-Appraisals, etc.
  • Education.
  • 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:

  1. Perception. Observe. The person must perceive or observe the behavior.
  2. Judgment. Determine deliberateness. The person must believe that the behavior was intentionally performed.
  3. 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 person).

Book: Fritz Heider - The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations -

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Compare with Attribution Theory: Framing  |  Emotional Intelligence  |  Cultural Intelligence  |  Johari Window  |  Path-Goal Theory  |  Expectancy Theory  |  Theory of Planned Behavior  |  Hawthorne Effect  |  Theory of Needs

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