Attribution Theory: The Psychology of Interpreting Behavior

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In psychology, attribution is a judgment we make about the cause of another person's behavior. Attribution theory explains these attribution processes, which we use to understand why an event or behavior occurred.

To understand the concept of attribution, imagine that a new friend cancels plans to meet up for coffee. Do you assume that something unavoidable came up, or that the friend is a flaky person? In other words, do you assume that the behavior was situational (related to external circumstances) or dispositional (related to inherent internal characteristics)? How you answer questions like these is the central focus for psychologists who study attribution.

Key Takeaways: Attribution Theory

  • Attribution theories attempt to explain how human beings evaluate and determine the cause of other people's behavior.
  • Well-known attribution theories include the correspondent inference theory, Kelley's covariation model, and Weiner's three-dimensional model.
  • Attribution theories typically focus on the process of determining whether a behavior is situationally-caused (caused by external factors) or dispositionally-caused (caused by internal characteristics).

Common Sense Psychology

Fritz Heider put forward his theories of attribution in his 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Heider was interested in examining how individuals determine whether another person's behavior is internally caused or externally caused.

According to Heider, behavior is a product of capacity and motivation. Capacity refers to whether we are able to enact a particular behavior—that is, whether our innate characteristics and our present environment make that behavior possible. Motivation refers to our intentions as well as how much effort we apply.

Heider contended that both capacity and motivation are necessary for a particular behavior to occur. For example, your ability to run a marathon depends on both your physical fitness and the weather that day (your capacity) as well as your desire and drive to push through the race (your motivation).

Correspondent Inference Theory

Edward Jones and Keith Davis developed the correspondent inference theory. This theory suggests that if someone behaves in a socially desirable way, we do not tend to infer much about them as a person. For example, if you ask your friend for a pencil and she gives one to you, you are not likely to infer much about your friend's character from the behavior, because most people would do the same thing in a given situation—it is the socially desirable response. However, if your friend refuses to allow you to borrow a pencil, you are likely to infer something about her innate characteristics due to this socially undesirable response.

Also according to this theory, we do not tend to conclude much about an individual's internal motivation if they’re acting in a particular social role. For example, a salesperson might be friendly and outgoing at work, but because such a demeanor is part of the job requirements, we will not attribute the behavior to an innate characteristic.

On the other hand, if an individual displays behavior that is atypical in a given social situation, we tend to be more likely to attribute their behavior to their innate disposition. For example, if we see someone behaving in a quiet, reserved manner at a loud and boisterous party, we’re more likely to conclude that this person is introverted.

Kelley’s Covariation Model

According to psychologist Harold Kelley’s covariation model, we tend to use three types of information when we’re deciding whether someone’s behavior was internally or externally motivated.

  1. Consensus, or whether others would act similarly in a given situation. If other people would typically display the same behavior, we tend to interpret the behavior as being less indicative of an individual's innate characteristics.
  2. Distinctiveness, or whether the person acts similarly across other situations. If a person only acts a certain way in one situation, the behavior can probably be attributed to the situation rather than the person.
  3. Consistency, or whether someone acts the same way in a given situation each time it occurs. If someone’s behavior in a given situation is inconsistent from one time to the next, their behavior becomes more difficult to attribute.

When there are high levels of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency, we tend to attribute the behavior to the situation. For example, let's imagine that you've never eaten cheese pizza before, and are trying to figure out why your friend Sally likes cheese pizza so much:

  • All of your other friends also like pizza (high consensus)
  • Sally doesn't like many other foods with cheese (high distinctiveness)
  • Sally likes every pizza she's ever tried (high consistency)

Taken together, this information suggests that Sally's behavior (liking pizza) is the result of a specific circumstance or situation (pizza tastes good and is a nearly universally enjoyed dish), rather than some inherent characteristic of Sally's.

When there are low levels of consensus and distinctiveness, but high consistency, we’re more likely to decide the behavior is due to something about the person. For example, let's imagine that you’re trying to figure out why your friend Carly likes to go sky-diving:

  • None of your other friends likes to go sky-diving (low consensus)
  • Carly likes many other high-adrenaline activities (low distinctiveness)
  • Carly has been sky-diving many times and she's always had a great time (high consistency)

Taken together, this information suggests that Carly's behavior (her love of sky-diving) is the result of an inherent characteristic of Carly's (being a thrill-seeker), rather than a situational aspect of the act of sky-diving.

Weiner’s Three-Dimensional Model

Bernard Weiner’s model suggests that people examine three dimensions when attempting to understand the causes of a behavior: locus, stability, and controllability.

  • Locus refers to whether the behavior was caused by internal or external factors.
  • Stability refers to whether the behavior will happen again in the future.
  • Controllability refers to whether someone is able to change the outcome of an event by expending more effort.

According to Weiner, the attributions people make affect their emotions. For example, people are more likely to feel pride if they believe that they succeeded due to internal characteristics, such as innate talent, rather than external factors, such as luck. Research on a similar theory, explanatory style, has found that an individual's explanatory style people is linked to their health and levels of stress.

Attribution Errors

When we try to determine the cause of someone’s behavior, we are not always accurate. In fact, psychologists have identified two key errors that we commonly make when attempting to attribute behavior.

  • Fundamental Attribution Error, which refers to the tendency to over-emphasize the role of personal traits in shaping behaviors. For example, if someone is rude to you, you may assume that they’re generally a rude person, rather than assuming that they were under stress that day.
  • Self-Serving Bias, which refers to the tendency to give ourselves credit (i.e. make an internal attribution when things go well, but blame the situation or bad luck (i.e. make an external attribution) when things go poorly. According to recent research, people who are experiencing depression may not show the self-serving bias, and may even experience a reverse bias.

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