The attribution theory notes


Category: Social Psychology


  • Dictionary Word
  • Background
  • The Concept
  • Internal & External Attribution
  • Kelly’s Covariation Model to determine the behaviour as internal or external.
  • Consensus information
  • Distincitive information
  • Consistency information
  • Jones & Davis Correspondent Inference Theory

Note by Aman Varma

Dictionary Word: Attribute

– To ascribe (something) to a given cause, reason etc.


In his 1920s dissertation, Heider addressed the problem of phenomenology: why do perceivers attribute the properties such as color to perceived objects, when those properties are mental constructs?

How do we attach meaning to other’s behavior, or our own? This is called attribution theory. For example, is someone angry because they are bad-tempered or because something bad happened?

Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events.  It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment

(Fiske, & Taylor, 1991)

Attribution theory is concerned with how and why ordinary people explain events as they do.

There are two types of attribution:

1. Internal Attribution: The process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces. When we explain the behavior of others we look for enduring internal attributions, such as personality traits.  For example, we attribute the behavior of a person to their personality, motives or beliefs.

2. External Attribution: The process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some situation or event outside a person’s control rather than to some internal characteristic. When we try to explain our own behavior we tend to make external attributions, such as situational or environment features. For example, if Jacob’s car tire is punctured he may attribute that to a hole in the road; by making attributions to the poor condition of the highway, he can make sense of the event without any discomfort that it may in reality have been the result of his bad driving.

Humans are motivated to assign causes to their actions and behaviors.

• Harold Kelley‘s covariation model of attribution looks to three main types of information from which to make an attribution decision about an individual’s behavior, From these three sources of information observers make attribution decisions on the individual’s behavior as either internal or external.

The first is consensus information, or information on how other people in the same situation and with the same stimulus behave.

The second is distinctive information, or how the individual responds to different stimuli.

The third is consistency information, or how frequent the individual’s behavior can be observed with similar stimulus but varied situations.

• Jones & Davis Correspondent Inference Theory

  1. Choice: If a behavior is freely chosen it is believed to be due to internal (dispositional) factors.
  2. Accidental vs. Intentional Behavior: Behavior that is intentional is likely to be attributed to the person’s personality, and behavior which is accidental is likely to be attributed to situation / external causes.
  3. Social Desirability: Behaviors low in sociably desirability (non conforming) lead us to make (internal) dispositional inferences more than socially undesirable behaviors.  For example, if you observe a person getting on a bus and sitting on the floor instead of one of the seats. This behavior has low social desirability (non conforming) and is likely to correspond with the personality of the individual.
  4. Hedonistic Relevance: If the other person’s behavior appears to be directly intended to benefit or harm us.
  5. Personalism: If the other person’s behavior appears to be intended to have an impact on us, we assume that it is “personal”, and not just a by-product of the situation we are both in.

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