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Who Proposed The Attribution Theory?

Fritz Heider was an Austrian psychologist who followed the Gestalt school of psychology. He published a book called “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations” in 1958 which explained the balance theory and the attribution theory. He is considered to be the father of attribution theory.

What Is The Attribution Theory?

Heider’s attribution theory explains how people attempt to explain the cause of certain behaviors and events. Usually, we attempt to make a good impression when we meet someone.

However, according to attribution theory, the primary person begins to explain the behavior of the other person.

The individual begins to place a meaning/ attach a cause for the other person’s behavior.

According to Fiske and Taylor (1991), “Attribution theory deals with how the social perceivers use the information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment.”

This theory underlines the fact that humans tend to look for cause-and-effect relationships as an explanation.

There are 2 different types of attribution, they are dispositional (internal) causes and situational (external) causes.

1. Dispositional Causes

This type of attribution is when one designates the cause of behavior to be due to some internal source or characteristics rather than an external source.

For example, if your friend is angry at you, you may attribute her behavior to her personality. “Oh she gets like this sometimes, she is a moody person.”

However, if there is too much emphasis placed on the dispositional causes (internal causes); this may lead the person to ignore the situational causes and thus result in a Fundamental Attribution Error. This generally occurs when the situational causes are ignored and the person’s viewed as flawed due to their personality traits, intelligence etc.

For example, actors and actresses play certain characters in TV shows and movies. They may even have similar characteristics to the characters they play. It is important to remember that they behave that way because of the character they portray. People tend to ignore the situational causes (the tv show, the characters they play) and focus on the dispositional causes (the actor’s personality, intelligence etc).

2. Situational Causes

This type of attribution is when one designates the cause of behavior to an external source rather than an internal source of the individual.

For example, if your mom is annoyed you may attribute it to the fact that you are both stuck in traffic and she is getting late.

It is human tendency to come up with reasons to explain the behavior of others. Think back on all the times you have come up with internal or external reasons for someone’s behavior.

For example, you may approach your teacher to ask something. however, he/she snaps. You may attribute this to something that may have affected her/him personally.

“They must have had a rough morning.”

This indicates that it is human nature to attach meaning to someone’s behavior.

Let’s look at dispositional and situational causes. For example, your mother might yell at you after you come home from school. The situational cause may be that she was having a bad day at work and you were an outlet to vent her frustration. The dispositional cause may be that she is usually a mood person and hence the anger is attributed to her personality.

These theories then led to the discovery and publication of several other theories. These theories include the following:

The Correspondent Inference Theory was proposed by Jones and Davis in 1965. This theory helps us understand the process of creating internal attribution. They discovered that most people find a relationship between motive and behavior. They called that relationship a “correspondence”. They listed five different sources of correspondent inference, which are the following:

  • Choice
  • Accidental vs. Intentional Behavior
  • Social Desirability
  • Hedonistic Relevance
  • Personalism

It is a judgment that the person’s personality matches or corresponds with his/her behavior. For example, we may infer that Jack is a friendly person because he has shown loyalty, cares for others, and expresses empathy. Their personality and behavior are congruent, in other words, we infer because it matches.

This theory attempts to understand how we as humans use information to decide specific characteristics of another person most times, based on overt behaviours. This can get complicated, however as many times people aren’t necessarily who they seem.

In 1967, Kelley proposed the Covariation Model. This model is designed to identify how particular actions and behaviors should be classified as dispositional or situational. He identified and theorized three kinds of factors that are involved in the classification of attribution. They are the following:

1. Consensus

Consensus is the extent to which people react when they are approached by a certain stimulus/event as the person being observed. The higher the proportion of people who react the same way, the higher the consensus.

For example, Emma usually has a glass of wine when she goes out for dinner. If her friend joins her then her behavior is high in consensus. If her friend looks shocked and does not join her, the lower consensus.

2. Distinctiveness

Distinctiveness is the extent to which the person reacts to the same or different stimuli and events.

For example, if Emma only drinks when she goes out for dinner then her behavior is high in distinctiveness. If she usually drinks wine with dinner, then the distinctiveness is low.

3. Consistency

Consistency is the extent to which the observed person reacts to the stimulus in the same way over different periods.

For example, if Emma drinks a glass of wine every night, consistency is high. If she only drinks on special occasions, consistency is low.

According to Kelley, we tend to categorize behavior into internal causes when consensus and distinctiveness are low, but consistency is high.

Research Study

A study called “The Impact of religiosity and attribution theory on attitudes toward addiction and cancer” was conducted by Brandon Switzer and Guy Boysen in 2009. The sample consisted of 120 participants who completed a measure of religiosity and evaluated a vignette of a description of either addiction or cancer.

The results of the study indicated that people had a more negative attitude towards the individual with addiction than the individual with cancer. This research was proven to be consistent with attribution theory. The results indicated that religiosity might be less powerful in stigmatizing attitudes than attributions of the illness.

This indicates that we as humans tend to portray mental illness as a dispositional factor (internal causes) such as failure, inability to cope etc. This also indicates that we tend to label physical illnesses as a result of situational factors (external causes) such as fate, destiny, luck etc.

Fun Activity

When you are at home or school, watch your surroundings and observe behavior. Then come up with a list of both Dispositional and Situational Causes of behavior. Compare and contrast the different causes of behavior.

SituationDispositional CausesSituational Causes

Heider’s Attribution Theory paved the way for several other theories. But most importantly it explains human nature and how we often tend to look for reasons for a particular behavior/action. This helped the field of Social Psychology grow and provided a foundation on which several other theories were built.

I encourage you to observe and create lists of dispositional and situational causes of behavior. And while doing so, I hope you say a special thanks to Fritz Heider.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Nelly Maarif September 15, 2013, 9:42 am

    Attribution theory is one of the most common theorues appilied in Asian society… Some follow up research could be done to see whether the application of this theory is different in Asia contect vs those of western countries.

  • i.tmirxa February 4, 2016, 5:39 pm

    please …explain explanatory ,interpersonal and predictory attribution………….

  • Khaled Alyami December 28, 2019, 12:30 am

    This explanation was a great help for me to understand the theory.

    Thank you so much

  • Phillip Newberry May 30, 2021, 9:17 am

    Depends on a see mood and keep in mind wrong and right in
    life as your self see it

  • CYNTHIA ABELLA June 22, 2021, 8:22 pm

    Thank you for this material. I used it to impart to my students in my HBO class what attribution theory is. I chose it because the content as well as examples and applications are easy to understand.

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