Attribution Theory - Definition, Stages, Types and Errors - (2023)

Attribution theory is a concept that discusses how human beings determine and evaluate the reasons behind others’ behaviors and activities. It suggests how general people assume the causes of behavior and events of other individuals.

Attribution Theory is the way how humans utilize data to come at causative interpretations for occurrences. People, according to researchers, are naive psychologists attempting to make a better understanding of social reality. People can see cause and effect links even when none exist.

What is Attribution Theory?

Definition: Attribution theory is a theory that describes how people infer the causes or make a casual explanation for someone’s behaviors or any events. In our regular life, attribution takes place so many times in our own behavior, assumptions, conjectures, or inferences that we make without being aware of underlying biases, conditioning, prejudices, or processes.

According to Fiske and Taylor, two of the most influential social psychologists working today-

Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses 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.

Humans generally use logic or assumptions to justify their actions and behaviors. According to psychological research, attribution occurs when people defend their decision and reactions.

Individuals’ interpretations of occurrences and how they relate to their attitude and behavior are discussed in attribution theories. In psychology, the attribution process takes place automatically when we make judgments regarding the causes of another person’s behavior.

As per Ushioda, Professor, and Head of Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick-

People tend to explain their successes and failures in ways that make them feel better about themselves.

Every theory discovered has a certain history related to it. It specifies its existence and usage. The history related to attribution theory is discussed below.

(Video) Attribution Theory - Meaning, Application, Stages, Types, Characteristics and Errors in the theory

History of Attribution Theories

Fritz Heider, a Gestalt psychologist, is referred to as the father of attribution theory. It was him who discovered it. He discovered it in the early 20th century, and he pitched for the same in the year 1958.

Weiner and his colleagues formed the drafting of the theoretical structure. It is, to date, referred to as the ‘Big research’ done in the field of psychology. Its key structure point is the basis of assumptions made by an individual to figure out the cause and reason for something they have done.

The focus of Weiner and his team in the year 1970 was on achievement. The key point in their theoretical structure was that luck, effort, task difficulty, and ability are the most important elements of achievement.

If these points are kept in mind and are in just the right proportions with one’s will to succeed, then the chances to succeed are high.

Weiner’s 3-Dimensional Attribution Model

Three informal dimensions are used for classifying Weiner’s achievement attributions and they are-

  1. Stable theory (unstable and stable)- It talks about how expectations of a person’s future are affected by stability
  2. Locus of control (external and internal)- It is associated with the concept that the tenacity of an individual on a project is related to his or her control
  3. Controllability (uncontrollable or controllable)- It suggests that controllability or causality affects the emotional reactions for the result of a task.

Let us dive deep into these three dimensions of attribution theories and understand their significance right away-

1. Control Points

It may be defined as a learner’s view that environmental, or internal factors impact their behavior. The locus of control directly influences the feelings associated with the attribution.

Employees, for example, feel a sense of accomplishment after acing an examination they thought they had prepared for. The achievement would not be judged if the exam was supposed to be straightforward. People could believe that it was due to luck.

2. Stability

As time goes, the likelihood of the attributing causes changes. All of those are examples of how changing one’s behavior over time might influence the outcome.

A person’s failure in a dancing competition, for example, might be ascribed to a lack of practice.

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3. Controllability

It is closely related to a person’s impression of power over their behavior, situation, or activity.

For example, a competitor may withdraw from a tournament if he believes the referees are prejudiced against other competitors. He may think that winning is out of his reach and hence cease to exert effort.

Types of Attribution

Human beings have the tendency of making internal attributions for a few things or events while they make external attributions for other things. This way of attribution occurs mainly because of our cognitive biases and the type of attribution that comes into play in a particular situation.

As per attribution theory, the two primary forms of attribution are dispositional and situational, plus three other types of attribution that take place in our daily life are interpersonal, predictive, and explanatory attributions.

1. Dispositional Attribution

In dispositional attribution, a person’s intrinsic characteristics are thought to be the cause of their behavior.

2. Situational attribution

It is the process of attributing causes for behavior to situations or events beyond a person’s control rather than internal characteristics.

3. Interpersonal Attribution

When an individual tells a story to a group of people, friends, or acquaintances, he or she would like to share the story in a way that would put him or her in the best possible light. This form of attribution is understood as interpersonal attribution.

4. Predictive Attribution

This type of attribution occurs because of the human tendency of attributing things in ways that let them make future predictions.

5. Explanatory Attribution

This type of attribution takes place when we make assumptions for making sense of the world around us. People have an optimistic explanatory style in which they attribute positive events to internal, stable, and global causes while they attribute negative events to external, unstable, and specific causes. While on the other hand, people with pessimistic styles attribute negative events to stable, internal, and global causes and positive events to stable, external, and specific causes.

Let us now delve into some other theories that had contributed to optimizing the significance and social cognition of attribution theories in the modern world are-

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Theories Supporting Attribution Concept

Attribution Theory - Definition, Stages, Types and Errors - (1)

1. Jones & Davis Correspondent Inference Theory

As per Jones and Davis’ (1965) views regarding human or social psychology, human beings have the tendency of giving more attention to intentional behavior in comparison to accidental or unthinking behavior. Their theory help in understanding the process through which internal attribution is made.

They say that such behavior occurs when someone notices a relation or correspondence between motive and behavior. Dispositional or internal attributions let us find information that can compel us to make predictions or do causal attributions regarding the future behavior of an individual. Their theory provides ideas about the conditions that influence us in making dispositional attributes to someone’s behavior that assume as intentional.

All in all, their theory talks about the events when we infer that an individual’s behavior corresponds with or relates to their personality. Correspondent attribution is an alternative term to dispositional attribution.

2. Kelley’s Covariation Model

The covariation model of Kelley is one of the most popular attribution theories that provide a logical model for analyzing that whether an individual’s action could be attributed to some characteristic (dispositional) of that invidious or the environment around (situational).

Here covariation is associated with an individual that has the information from different observations related to various times and situations. This helps that individual in perceiving the covariation of an observed effect and its possible reasons.

Kelly also suggests that human beings while trying to find out the causes of behavior act like scientists. In the process, he suggests that people consider three kinds of evidence while making their assumptions-

  1. Consensus or whether other people might also act similarly in a given situation
  2. Distinctiveness or whether that individual acts similarly across other situations
  3. Consistency or whether that individual behaves the same way in a given situation every time

3. Heider’s ‘Common Sense’ Theory

Fritz Heider, an Austrian psychologist in his book “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations” gave suggestions that we human beings observe others and do the analysis of their behavior to finally come up with our own common-sense explanations for the actions of the others.

He grouped his explanations into external attribution in which explanations or assumptions are blamed on situational forces or internal attribution that is associated with individual characteristics and traits of that individual.

Stages of Attribution

While attempting to comprehend another person’s behavior, there are three different phases to the attribution process that generally take place and they are-

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  1. Observation- The individual must observe the activity firsthand. It entails keeping the environment and the behaviors and responses of other persons in the situation.
  2. Belief- The person must think that the act or behavior was deliberate rather than automated or unintentional.
  3. Cause- An individual’s thinking and ideas must be used when determining whether the cause of the behavior was internal or external factors. If the behavior were unintended, the reason would be assigned to the circumstances or scenario. It would be linked to provocateurs, personal attributes, beliefs, or necessities if it was purposeful.

Applications of Attribution

Like a story is weaved using different elements and tone, there are different Attribution Theory applications and elements. These elements are :

  1. In the fields like law, psychology, mainly clinical psychology, education, mental health affairs, the attribution theory used is of ‘WEINER,’ a renowned psychologist. It is used extensively and preferred mainly in these kinds of domains.
  2. 2. The attribution theory states that achievement and self-perception are correlated, and they can’t do away with each other. They have a symbiotic relationship, and their existence depends on each other.
  3. Weiner, in 1980 said that success and failures are affected by casual attributions because success needs a lot of attribution, which requires a lot of hard work and seriousness.
  4. After Weiner, the applications of Attribution Theory were discussed by Daltrey and Lewis in the year 1990. These discussions were held in the field of healthcare.
  5. Daly, in 1996 worked upon the importance of attribution theory in the field of Career Development. It is essential because, in career development, different kinds of attributes are needed to step on the ladder of success and soar high in the sky like an eagle.
  6. This theory’s importance was revealed by working on the fears of the employees in their promotion. Often, an employee feels the failure he might encounter during his path to success and job promotion. Every post comes with its own set of rules and perks and demands different attributes to fulfill the responsibility given by the company.

Errors and Biases in the Attribution Theory

Attribution Theory - Definition, Stages, Types and Errors - (2)

The different types of errors in the Attribution theory are :

  1. Fundamental Attribution Error- Our in-built beliefs and natural shortcomings are our fundamental attribution Error. For example, if you are standing in front of a crowd and you have to speak, you’ll stammer if you’re a little nervous. It isn’t your fault but a fundamental Attribution Error.
  2. Culture Bias- Culture Bias refers to the partiality in the beliefs due to cultural diversity. The difference in culture can be thought of as having a negative impact.
  3. Self-Serving Bias- Self-serving bias believes that my success is because of my hard work and luck, but my failure is because of my teacher’s incapability and grudges.


Managers and workers benefit from attribution theory because it helps them understand how others behave. The notion highlights the errors people make while comprehending others and the theory’s benefits and limitations. It also points out how the idea may be used appropriately and evaluated in practice.

All in all, attribution theory is common-sense psychology or experimental social psychology that is effective in explaining different attribution processes that help us understand why an event or behavior took place.

What are your thoughts about the effectiveness of attribution theory? What factors do you consider crucial enough to influence attribution?

Also Read

  1. Big Five Personality Traits
  2. Behaviorism – Definition, Types and Methods

Table of Contents

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  • What is Attribution Theory?
  • History of Attribution Theories
  • Weiner’s 3-Dimensional Attribution Model
    • 1. Control Points
    • 2. Stability
    • 3. Controllability
  • Types of Attribution
    • 1. Dispositional Attribution
    • 2. Situational attribution
    • 3. Interpersonal Attribution
    • 4. Predictive Attribution
    • 5. Explanatory Attribution
  • Theories Supporting Attribution Concept
    • 2. Kelley’s Covariation Model
    • 3. Heider’s ‘Common Sense’ Theory
  • Stages of Attribution
  • Applications of Attribution
  • Errors and Biases in the Attribution Theory
    • Conclusion!
    • Also Read


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