Attribution theory

  • First explained by Fritz Heider (1958).
  • Attribution theory proposes how people explain events and experiences in their lives, and the adaptational consequences of those explanations.
  • Attribution theory  was developed in an attempt to understand why an event occurred so that later events can be predicted and controlled.
Major Concepts
  • Attribution refers to "the process of explaining one's own behavior and others".
  • Attribution theory concerns with how individuals “attribute” or explain the behavior of other people, events, or their own behavior.
  • Attribution theory proposes that people attribute a given behavior either to causes outside of the person or to some factor within the person who is performing the action (“dispositional” or “internal” factors).
  • Responsibility for the behavior is assigned or not assigned depending on the
    attribution of the cause of the behavior.
  • Factors that determine attribution include
    • effect on self-esteem (i.e., one’s bad behavior is more likely to be attributed to outside causes than is one’s good behavior),
    • universality of the behavior (everyone behaves in that manner, so it is just a habit or manifestation of conformity), and
    • unusual nature of the particular behavior at a given time.
  • Causes of behaviour may be divided as two:
    • Situational - cause of behaviour is attributed to external factors such a delays or ration of others
    • dispositional - cause of behavior attributed to internal factors such as personality or character.
  • People tend to attribute their successes to dispositional factors, and their failures to situational factors.
    • For example:  “I did well on the test because I am smart,” or “I did poor on the test because I didn’t get enough sleep.
  • Attribution Errors
    • Fundamental attribution error refers to the tenancy for people to overestimate the influence of another person's internal characteristics on behaviour and underestimate the influence of situation.
  1. Ciccareloi SK, Meyer GE. Psychology: South Asia Edition. Pearson Education & Dorling Kindersley (India) Pvt. Ld., New Delhi, 2008.
  2. Heider F. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley, 1958.


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