Attribution Theory: Origin, Development, and Consequences

Attribution Theory: Origin, Development, and Consequences

Last update: 29 April, 2018

All of us interpret behavior. We interpret our own behavior and the behavior of others. Attribution theory is a psychological theory that explains how we interpret behavior. Belonging to the branch of social psychology, it was primarily developed by Heider. He defined it as a method to evaluate how people perceive their own behavior and the behavior of others. 

Heider’s attribution theory tries to analyze how we explain other people’s behavior. It also analyzes how we explain life events: how we make attributions about behavior. Heider believed that we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to one of two things:

  • internal causes (personality traits, intelligence, motivation, etc.)
  • external causes (luck, context, third-party actions, etc.)

Causes of causal attributions

Heider’s attribution theory differentiates between internal and external attributions. Later, Bertrand Weiner added two more factors to the theory. Heider’s attributions came to be called the locus of control. To this, Weiner added stability and controllability. Let’s talk a little more about each one of these factors:

  • Locus of control: internal or external, depending on the person or context. This is related to self-esteem. An individual who attributes his failures to personal factors will see a notable decrease in self-esteem. He is using the internal locus of control.
  • Stability: the assessment we make with respect to stability at the moment the behavior takes place. It refers to the duration of the cause. If a subject attributes his failure to factors that he judges to be stable in time (for example, the difficulty of a race), his motivation to succeed will decrease. If, on the other hand, he attributes it to unstable factors, his desire to succeed will not decrease.
  • Controllability: whether the interpretation is due to external factors, which don’t depend on the person, or internal factors that do. An external factor could be just bad luck. An internal factor is lack of skill. When someone determines that the cause is due to internal factors, their desire to succeed will drop.
A girl looking happily at an ice cream cone.

Behavior attributions

Causal attributions, as you can see, can be about other people’s behavior, or your own. At the same time, these attributions can have an internal or external locus. They can be stable or unstable. In addition, the controllability can be internal or external. The different combinations that arise from these possibilities say something about motivation and self-esteem.

For example, if a young woman wins a race, you could say it’s because she trained hard and prepared well. This is an internal attribution that refers to the person. On the other hand, someone might say that she won because there wasn’t any good competition. Or that the other participants weren’t prepared. Those would both be external attributions.

The most positive attributions are internal attributions of success that attribute stability and controllability. This type of attribution increases self-esteem and motivation. On the other hand, if these same attributions are applied to failure, then self-esteem and motivation decrease.

causal attribution theory

Differences in causal attributions

The same person can make different causal attributions about similar events. Likewise, different people can make different causal attributions about the same event. For example, some people might think that you fail a test because you weren’t capable (internal and stable cause). Other people think it is due to the difficulty of the test (external and unstable cause). These variations, in addition to influencing self-esteem and motivation, also have an important influence on our  expectations.

When we interpret behavior, we use heuristics and biases that lead us to make erroneous attributions. So often these attributions are motivated by our prior beliefs. Making different interpretations would generate cognitive dissonance. Human beings, in general, tend to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Also, these causal attributions influence our relationships with the people whose behavior we are evaluating. So, we will tend to hold in higher esteem those with better attributions that put them in a better place. We listen to them more and hold their opinion in higher regard.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.