What Is Attribution in Social Psychology? (2023)

What Is Attribution in Social Psychology?

In social psychology, attribution is the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors. In real life, attribution is something we all do every day, usually without any awareness of the underlying processes and biases that lead to our inferences.

For example, over the course of a typical day, you probably make numerous attributions about your own behavior as well as that of the people around you.

When you get a poor grade on a quiz, you might blame the teacher for not adequately explaining the material, completely dismissing the fact that you didn't study. When a classmate gets a great grade on the same quiz, you might attribute their good performance to luck, neglecting the fact that they have excellent study habits.

What impact do attributions for behavior really have on your life? The attributions you make each and every day have an important influence on your feelings as well as how you think and relate to other people.

Types

Why do we make internal attributions for some things while making external attributions for others? Part of this has to do with the type of attribution we are likely to use in a particular situation. Cognitive biases often play major roles as well.

The main types of attributions you may use in daily life include the following.

Interpersonal Attribution

When telling a story to a group of friends or acquaintances, you are likely to tell the story in a way that places you in the best possible light.

Predictive Attribution

We also tend to attribute things in ways that allow us to make future predictions. If your car was vandalized, you might attribute the crime to the fact that you parked in a particular parking garage. As a result, you may avoid that parking garage in the future.

Explanatory Attribution

We use explanatory attributions to help us make sense of the world around us. Some people have an optimistic explanatory style, while others tend to be more pessimistic.

People with an optimistic style attribute positive events to stable, internal, and global causes and negative events to unstable, external, and specific causes. Those with a pessimistic style attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes and positive events to external, stable, and specific causes.

Theories

Psychologists have also introduced a number of different theories to help further understand how the attribution process works.

Correspondent Inference Theory

In 1965, Edward Jones and Keith Davis suggested that people make inferences about others in cases where actions are intentional rather than accidental. When people see others acting in certain ways, they look for a correspondence between the person's motives and their behaviors. The inferences people then make are based on the degree of choice, the expectedness of the behavior, and the effects of that behavior.

Heider's 'Common Sense' Theory

In his 1958 book, "The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations," Fritz Heider suggested that people observe others, analyze their behavior, and come up with their own common-sense explanations for their actions.

Heider groups these explanations into either external attributions or internal attributions. External attributions are those that are blamed on situational forces, while internal attributions are blamed on individual characteristics and traits.

(Video) Attribution Theory and Social Psychology Explained with Examples - Simplest explanation ever

Biases and Errors

The following biases and errors can also influence attribution.

The Actor-Observer Bias

Interestingly, when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to have the opposite bias of the fundamental attribution error. When something happens, we are more likely to blame external forces than our personal characteristics. In psychology, this tendency is known as the actor-observer bias.

How can we explain this tendency? One possible reason is that we simply have more information about our own situation than we do about other people's. When it comes to explaining your own actions, you have more information about yourself and the situational variables at play. When you're trying to explain another person's behavior, you are at a bit of a disadvantage; you only have the information that is readily observable.

Not surprisingly, people are less likely to fall victim to the actor-observer discrepancy with people that they know very well. Because you know more about the personality and behavior of people you're close to, you are better able to take their point of view and more likely to be aware of possible situational causes for their behaviors.

Actor-Observer Bias in Social Psychology

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When it comes to other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. This phenomenon tends to be very widespread, particularly among individualistic cultures.

Psychologists refer to this tendency as the fundamental attribution error; even though situational variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

The fundamental attribution error explains why people often blame other people for things over which they usually have no control. The term blaming the victim is often used by social psychologists to describe a phenomenon in which people blame innocent victims of crimes for their misfortune.

In such cases, people may accuse the victim of failing to protect themselves from the event by behaving in a certain manner or not taking specific precautionary steps to avoid or prevent the event.

Examples of this include accusing survivors of rape, domestic violence, and kidnapping of behaving in a manner that somehow provoked their attackers. Researchers suggest that hindsight bias causes people to mistakenly believe that victims should have been able to predict future events and therefore take steps to avoid them.

Self-Serving Bias

Think about the last time you received a good grade on an exam. Chances are that you attributed your success tointernalfactors, such as "I did well because I am smart" or "I did well because I studied and was well-prepared."

What happens when you receive a poor grade, though?Social psychologistshave found that in this situation, you are more likely to attribute your failure toexternalforces, such as "I failed because the teacher included trick questions" or "The classroom was so hot that I couldn't concentrate." Notice that both of these explanations lay the blame on outside forces rather than accepting personal responsibility.

(Video) Attribution Theories: Part 1 (Learn Social Psychology Fundamentals)

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as theself-serving bias. So why are we more likely to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and blame outside variables for our failures? Researchers believe that blaming external factors for failures and disappointments helps protectself-esteem.

How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

4 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Jones WW, Davis KE. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. Adv Exper Soc Psych. 1965; 2:219-266. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60107-0

  2. Reisenzein R, Rudolph U. The discovery of common-sense psychology.Social Psychology. 2008;39(3), 125–133. doi:10.1027/1864-9335.39.3.125

    (Video) Attribution Theory (Examples and What it is)

  3. Felson RB, Palmore C. Biases in blaming victims of rape and other crime.Psychology of Violence. 2018;8(3), 390–399.doi:10.1037/vio0000168

  4. Shepperd J, Malone W, Sweeny K.Exploring causes of the self‐serving bias. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2008;2:895-908. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00078.x

Additional Reading

  • Goldinger SD, Kleider HM, Azuma T, Beike DR. “Blaming the victim” under memory load.Psychol Sci. 2003;14(1):81-85. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.01423

  • Jaspars J, Fincham FD, Hewstone M. Attribution Theory and Research: Conceptual Developmental and Social Dimensions. Academic Press. 1983.

  • Jones EE, Nisbett RE. The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press. 1971.

What Is Attribution in Social Psychology? (1)

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Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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FAQs

What is attribution in social psychology with example? ›

Dispositional attribution is a tendency to attribute people's behaviors to their dispositions; that is, to their personality, character, and ability. For example, when a normally pleasant waiter is being rude to his/her customer, the customer may assume he/she has a bad character.

What is attribution theory in social psychology? ›

Attribution theory, proposed by Fritz Heider (1958), is a social psychology theory that deals with how individuals relate and make sense of the social world. More specifically, it is concerned with how people translate events around them and how their translations affect their thinking and behavior.

What are attributions in psychology examples? ›

Example: Maria's car breaks down on the freeway. If she believes the breakdown happened because of her ignorance about cars, she is making an internal attribution. If she believes that the breakdown happened because her car is old, she is making an external attribution.

What are attributes in psychology? ›

Psychological attributes are the specific characteristics of a person that influence their behavior and thoughts. These include personality, temperament, intelligence, and emotional state. Psychological attributes are important to consider when trying to understand the reason for someone's behavior.

What is attribution in simple words? ›

: the act of attributing something. especially : the ascribing of a work (as of literature or art) to a particular author or artist. : an ascribed quality, character, or right.

What is the best definition of attribution? ›

Attribution is about "giving credit where credit is due." By acknowledging where information comes from, you show respect for the intellectual work of those who came before. An example of attribution is a citation.

What is the importance of attribution in social behavior? ›

Assigning motives or reasons to situations and actions have been the basic premise of human existence. Attributing cause to an action makes it logical and easier to comprehend. In social psychology, attribution is the process through which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events.

What are the three 3 factors that influence attribution? ›

Weiner focused his attribution theory on achievement (Weiner, 1974). He identified ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck as the most important factors affecting attributions for achievement. Attributions are classified along three causal dimensions: locus of control, stability, and controllability.

What are the three types of attributions? ›

Applying The 3 Stages Of The Attribution Theory In eLearning
  • Stage 1: Observation. The individual must observe the behavior first-hand. ...
  • Stage 2: Belief. The individual must believe that the behavior or action was performed intentionally, instead of accidentally or involuntarily. ...
  • Stage 3: Cause.
Feb 3, 2016

What is an example of providing attribution? ›

Publishing a web page with attribution information. For example, on a webpage featuring your audio recording, provide a credit list of material you used that adheres to best practices above.

How do attributions affect our behavior? ›

The underlying assumption of attribution theory is that people are motivated to understand their environment and the causes of particular events. If individuals can understand these causes, they will then be in a better position to influence or control the sequence of future events.

What are the two main types of attributions? ›

There are basically two types of attributions: internal and external, or personal and situational. Either the person is in control of his/her behavior, or the situation is exerting influence upon him/her, to shape his/her behavior.

What is attribute in Example? ›

What is an attribute? For example, eye color is an attribute of a person, while screen size is an attribute of a smartphone or TV. In computing and computer programming, an attribute is a changeable property or characteristic of some component of a program that can be set to different values.

What does attribute mean examples? ›

: a quality, character, or characteristic ascribed to someone or something. has leadership attributes. : an object closely associated with or belonging to a specific person, thing, or office. a scepter is the attribute of power. especially : such an object used for identification in painting or sculpture.

What are attributes explain with one example? ›

An attribute is defined as a quality or characteristic of a person, place, or thing. Real life individuals and fictional characters possess various attributes. For example, someone might be labeled beautiful, charming, funny, or intelligent.

What is another word for attribution? ›

synonyms for attribution
  • acknowledgment.
  • ascription.
  • assignment.
  • credit.
  • adscription.

Why is attribution so important? ›

Why Is Attribution Important? As we've established here, attribution is important because it helps marketers understand the impact of their marketing efforts. It allows you to determine which marketing channels are driving the most ROI for your business.

What is attribution in sociology? ›

Attribution is a process that begins with social perception, progresses through causal judgment and social inference, and ends with behavioral consequences. Heider's (1958) analysis encompasses the whole process in an abstract way; more recent formulations attack different segments.

What is attribution in psychology quizlet? ›

Attribution. process by which people explain events, their own behavior, and the behavior of others. Internal attribution. inference that a person is behaving in a certain way because of something about the person (e.g. their attitude, character, or personality)

What is attribution AP psychology? ›

Attribution theory: A theory that describes how people explain their own and others' behavior. Dispositional attribution: A type of attribution in which you assign responsibility for an event or action to the person involved.

Why does attributions matter in psychology? ›

Attribution psychology helps to explain our behavior and how we perceive the way others act. It also helps us sort out our personal biases. Learning more about attribution theory and attribution psychology can help us better understand why we're attracted to certain types of friendships or certain qualities in a mate.

What are the four elements of attribution? ›

Creative Commons asks that you include four essential elements in your attribution. These are: Title, Author, Source, and License.

What is required for attribution? ›

Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

Why do people form attributions? ›

The purpose behind making attributions is to achieve COGNITIVE CONTROL over one's environment by explaining and understanding the causes behind behaviors and environmental occurrences.

How does attribution process work? ›

Attribution is a 3-step process that includes observing the behavior, determining whether the observed behavior is intentional or not, and determining whether the behavior is caused by external or internal factors.

How does attribution affect motivation? ›

Learners are engaged in the learning environment due to a desire to develop causes of behaviors. Causes of behaviors are defined as an individual's attributions. According to Heider (1958), individuals are motivated to engage in learning due to a personal need to develop new attributions.

What are positive attributions? ›

An individual with an optimistic attributional style tends to see positive events as being internal, stable, and global – while dismissing negative events as external, unstable, and specific.

What are personal and situational attributions? ›

Personal attributions are explanations for outcomes that come from inside of you, like traits, moods, and abilities, while situational attributions come from the outside, like weather, luck accidents, or other people.

How do you show attribution? ›

What to include when attributing a work
  1. credit the creator.
  2. provide the title of the work.
  3. provide the URL where the work is hosted.
  4. indicate the type of licence it is available under and provide a link to the licence (so others can find out the licence terms); and.
  5. keep intact any copyright notice associated with the work.

How do you use attribution? ›

Most of a story's major information should be attributed, through phrases such as “she said” or “according to a recent report.” Attribution can be placed at the beginning of a sentence to introduce information or added after a statement. Pay close attention to verb tense and choice when attributing sources.

What is attribution and what are the 2 types of attributions that we can make? ›

There are basically two types of attributions: internal and external, or personal and situational. Either the person is in control of his/her behavior, or the situation is exerting influence upon him/her, to shape his/her behavior.

What is a reason to use attribution? ›

An attribution statement is used to provide credit to the original creator; its purpose is similar to a citation. Best practice says that the statement should include the title of the work, name of the creator, and licence type (with links to each).

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