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Attribution Theory

 

Explanations > Theories > Attribution Theory

Description | ResearchSo What? | See also | References 

 

Description

We all have a need to explain the world, both to ourselves and to other people, attributing cause to the events around us. This gives us a greater sense of control. When explaining behavior, it can affect the standing of people within a group (especially ourselves).

When another person has erred, we will often use internal attribution, saying it is due to internal personality factors. When we have erred, we will more likely use external attribution, attributing causes to situational factors rather than blaming ourselves. And vice versa. We will attribute our successes internally and the successes of our rivals to external ‘luck’. When a football team wins, supporters say ‘we won’. But when the team loses, the supporters say ‘they lost’.

Our attributions are also significantly driven by our emotional and motivational drives. Blaming other people and avoiding personal recrimination are very real self-serving attributions. We will also make attributions to defend what we perceive as attacks. We will point to injustice in an unfair world. People with a high need to avoid failure will have a greater tendency to make attributions that put themselves in a good light.

We will even tend to blame victims (of us and of others) for their fate as we seek to distance ourselves from thoughts of suffering the same plight.

We will also tend to ascribe less variability to other people than ourselves, seeing ourselves as more multifaceted and less predictable than others. This may well because we can see more of what is inside ourselves (and spend more time doing this).

In practice, we often tend to go through a two-step process, starting with an automatic internal attribution, followed by a slower consideration of whether an external attribution is more appropriate. As with Automatic Believing, if we are hurrying or are distracted, we may not get to this second step. This makes internal attribution more likely than external attribution.

Research

Roesch and Amirkham (1997) found that more experienced athletes made less self-serving external attributions, leading them to find and address real causes and hence were better able to improve their performance.

So What?

Using it

Beware of losing trust by blaming others (i.e. making internal attributions about them). Also beware of making excuses (external attributions) that lead you to repeat mistakes and leads to Cognitive Dissonance in others when they are making internal attributions about you.

Defending

Watch out for people making untrue attributions.

See also

Correspondent Inference Theory, Covariation Model, Fundamental Attribution Error, Actor-Observer Difference, Ultimate Attribution Error, Idealization, Post Hoc, Self-determination theory, Attributional Style, Theory of Mind

References

Roesch and Amirkham (1997), Heider (1958), Jones and Davis (1965), Kelley (1967), Kammer (1982)

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