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Attribution Theory

Page history last edited by philosophyofsocialcognition 16 years, 3 months ago



Attribution Theory



Attribution Theory is the area of social psychology concerned with how people derive cause and effect relationships in the world. In other words, attribution theory is a theory that attempts to explain how we as humans derive explanations for specific events. Because of this one of the major inquires involved in attribution theory is how people explain the actions and behavior of others, and so attribution theory may also be applied in terms of folk psychology, and the attribution of beliefs and desires.


Essentially the attribution, or explanation, of an event comes in the form of either an external cause or an internal cause. Take for example witnessing someone shove someone else on a subway platform. In terms of external attribution, the behavior observed may be ‘attributed’ to something in the world outside of the agent acting: for instance the man doing the shoving may have been provoked by the man who was shoved. In terms of internal attribution, the behavior may instead be attributed to something internal to the man shoving: such as ‘he is a violent person’, or ‘he has a quick temper’. The difference of course is that one is an attribution of a situational variant acting as the cause of the shove, while the other is the attribution of a disposition or character trait acting as the cause. But what if you were the one doing the shoving?


Indecently this switch in perspective often changes which of the aspects of attribution theory is most likely to be utilized. The disparity between internal and external that arises due to inherent perspective is commonly called in Attribution Theory the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. This bias naturally (although more so in individualist cultures then in collectivist) leads one to more often attribute dispositions and character traits as the causes for the actions of others (Ross 1977). A similar Bias known as the ‘Actor-Observer Bias’ shows both this tendency to attribute external sources to the behavior of others, and adds the tendency for the attribution of internal sources to the behavior of our selves. But why is there such a drastic difference? The answer seems more readily to be the difference in perspective. In the case of attribution concerning ourselves, we are more aware of all of the possible aspects of the world that have brought about our action. When dealing with others, we often have only the action immediately present to us by which to attribute a cause. If this is the case then we should see that the two biases lesson with people we are more often in contact with (since we would have a better idea of the external forces which may cause their actions);  and this is the outcome that is often found (Idson & Mischel, 2001). 


This theory was originally posited by Fritz Heider in 1958 in his paper “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations”. In it Heider outlined a theory by which to explain how humans come to understand one another and why. According to Heider humans need to be able to organize the world around them or else everything would appear to be random, and we would be faced with a world which was totally and utterly incoherent. Because of this need for order and understanding Heider posited that man would inherently have a drive towards obtaining a cohesive view of the world around them, and a desire to control it. This then is the role of attribution.


 - Mark Miller, University of Toronto







  • Heider, Fritz. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-36833-4
  • Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcoming: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 174-221). New York: Academic Press
  • Idson, L. C., & Mischel, W. (2001). The personality of familiar and significant people: The lay perceiver as a social-cognitive theorist. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 585-596.

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