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Attribution theory is an aspect of attribution a field of social psychology which was born out of the theoritical models of Fritz Heider, Harold Kelley, Edward E. Jones, and Lee Ross. Attribution theory is concerned with the ways in which people explain (or attribute) the behavior of others. It explores how individuals "attribute" causes to events and how this cognitive perception affects their motivation. Think of "explanation" as a synonym and "why" as the question to be answered.

Common sense psychology

From the book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations(1958), Fritz Heider tried to explore the nature of interpersonal relationship, and espoused the concept of what he called "common sense" or "naïve psychology". In his theory, he believed that people observe, analyze, and explain behaviors with explanations. Although people have different kinds of explanations for the events of human behaviors, Heider found it is very useful to group explanation into two categories; Internal (personal) and external (situational) attributions.[1] When an internal attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the individual's characteristics such as ability, personality, mood, efforts, attitudes, or disposition. When an external attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the situation in which the behavior was seen such as the task, other people, or luck (that the individual producing the behavior did so because of the surrounding environment or the social situation). These two types lead to very different perceptions of the individual engaging in a behavior.[2]

Correspondent inference theory

Main article: Correspondent inference theory

Correspondent inferences state that people make inferences about a person when his or her actions are freely chosen, are unexpected, and result in a small number of desirable effects.[3] According to Edward E. Jones and Keith Davis’ Correspondent Inference Theory, people make correspondent inferences by reviewing the context of behavior. It describes how people try to find out individual’s personal characteristics from the behavioral evidence. People make inferences on the basis of three factors; degree of choice, expectedness of behavior, and effects of someone’s behaviors.

Covariation model of attribution

Main article: Covariation model of attribution

When there is low consensus and distinctiveness, people make personal attributions for behaviors that are high in consistency(top row). On the other hand, people make stimulus attributions when there is high consensus and distinctiveness (bottom low).[3]

Co-variation principle states that people attribute behavior to the factors that are present when a behavior occurs and absent when it does not. Thus, the theory assumes that people make causal attributions in a rational, logical fashion, and that they assign the cause of an action to the factor that co-varies most closely with that action.[4] Harold Kelley's covariation model of Attribution looks to three main types of information from which to make an attribution decision about an individual's behavior. The first is consensus information, or information on how other people in the same situation and with the same stimulus behave. The second is distinctiveness information, or how the individual responds to different stimuli. The third is consistency information, or how frequent the individual's behavior can be observed with similar stimulus but varied situations. From these three sources of information observers make attribution decisions on the individual's behavior as either internal or external.Kelly’s theory and the examples of prediction are represented in the diagram.

Three dimensional model of attribution

Main article: Three dimensional model of attribution

Bernard Weiner [5] proposed that individuals have initial affective responses to the potential consequences of the intrinsic or extrinsic motives of the actor, which in turn influence future behavior. That is, a person's own perceptions or attributions determine the amount of effort the person will engage in activities in the future. Weiner suggests that individuals exert their attribution search and cognitively evaluate casual properties on the behaviors they experience. When attributions lead to positive affect and high expectancy of future success, such attributions should result in greater willingness to approach to similar achievement tasks in the future than those attributions that produce negative affect and low expectancy of future success.[6] Eventually, such affective and cognitive assessment influences future behavior when individuals encounter similar situations.

Weiner's achievement attribution has three categories:

  1. stable theory (stable and unstable)
  2. locus of control (internal and external)
  3. control (controllable or uncontrollable)

Stability influences individuals' expectancy about their future; control is related with individuals' persistence on mission; causality influences emotional responses to the outcome of task.

See also


  1. Lilienfeld, Scott O.; Lynn, Steven Jay; Namy, Laura L.; Woolf, Nancy J. (2010), "11", Psychology: A Framework For Everyday Thinking, Pearson Education Incorporated, pp. 380, ISBN 0-205-65408-1 
  2. Aronson. Social Psychology 106-108
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named social psy
  4. Kelley, Attribution theory in social psychology. Levine, Nebraska Symposium on Motivation
  5. Weiner, B. (1992), Human Motivation: Metaphors, Theories and Research, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
  6. Munton, Silvester, Stratton, Hanks. “Attributions in Action”. John Wiley&Sons, 1999

Further reading

Key texts


  • Heider, Fritz. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0471368334
  • Hewstone,M.(1983) (ed.) Attribution Theory: Social and Functional Extensions, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Weiner, B. (1986). An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag


  • Eiser, J.R. (1983) From attributions to behaviour. In: M. Hewstone (ed.) Attribution Theory: Social and Functional Extensions, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Kelley, H.H. (1967) Attribution theory in social psychology. In: D.L. Vine (ed.) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Kruglanski, A.W. (1980) Lay epistemo-logic, process and contents: another look at attribution theory,Psychological Review 87: 70-87.
  • Lalljee, M. (1981) Attribution theory and the analysis of explanations. In: C. Antaki (ed.) The Psychology of Ordinary Explanations of Social Behaviour, London: Academic Press.
  • Guimond, S., Begin, G. and Palmer, D.L. (1989) Education and causal attributions: the development of 'person-blame' and 'system-blame' ideology, Social Psychology Quarterly 52: 126-40.
  • Guimond, S. and Palmer, D.L. (1990) Types of academic training and causal attributions for social problems, European Journal of Social Psychology 20(t)61-75.
  • Kruglanski, A.W., Baldwin, M.W. and Towson, M.J. (1983) The lay epistemic process in attribution making. In: M. I Hewstone (ed.) Attribution Theory: Social and Functional Extensions, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • McArthur, L.A. (1972) The how and what of why: some determinants and consequences of causal attribution, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 22: 171-93.
  • McFarland, C. and Ross, M. (1982) The impact of causal attributions on affective reactions to success and failure, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 43: 937-46.
  • Miller, D.T. and Ross, M. (1975) Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin 82: 213-25.
  • Storms, M.D. (1973) Videotape and the attribution process: reversing actors' and observers' points of view, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27: 165-75.
  • Taylor, S.E. and Fiske, S.T. (1978) Saliency, attention and attribution: top of the head phenomena. In: L. Berkowitz (ed) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 12, New York: Academic Press.

Additional material



  • Scholar
  • Apple, W., Streeter, L.A. and Krauss, R.N. (1979) Effects of pitch and speech rate on personal attributions, journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 715-27.
  • Dovidio, J.F. and Ellyson, S.L. (1982) Decoding visual dominance: attributions of power based on relative percentages of looking while speaking and looking while listening, Social Psychology Quarterly 45: 106-13.
  • Feldman, J.M. and Hinterman, R.J. (1975) Stereotype attribution revisited: the role of stimulus characteristics, racial attitude and cognitive differentiation, journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31: 1177-88.
  • Mikulincer, M. (1988) The relation between stable/unstable attribution and learned helplessness, British Journal of Social Psychology 27: 221-30,
  • Pasahow, R.J. (1980) The relationship between an attributional dimension and learned helplessness, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 89: 358-67.
  • Perner, J. and Wimmer, H. (1985) `John thinks that Mary thinks that ...': attribution of second-order beliefs by 5- to 10-year-old children, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 39: 437-7 1.
  • Stratton, P.M., Munton, A.G., Hanks, H., Heard, D., Brewin, C., and Davidson, C. (1988) The Leeds Attributional Coding System Manual, Leeds: LFTRC.

External links

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