What Is… Attribution Theory

Attribution theory: internal attribution, external attribution, and fundamental attribution error

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is attribution theory.

When something happens, we have a natural tendency to want to know why, so we seek out cause-and-effect relationships. Attribution theory considers how we attribute events to certain factors.

Factors influencing attribution

An early influence in attribution theory was psychologist Fritz Heider, who believed that we are all essentially naive social scientists running experiments on the world around us. Heider suggested that attributions could be dispositional or situational.

Dispositional factors are those that lie within the person performing the action, such as their personality.  Situational factors are those outside the person. Both of these types of factors can be either stable or unstable (i.e. likely to change in the short term).

We tend to have a self-serving bias when we consider our own behaviour. If we succeed at a task, we’re likely to attribute it to our own skill, while if we fail at the task, we’re more likely to attribute it to situational factors. The same sort of attribution error can apply when we’re considering whether our favourite sports team wins or loses a game, e.g. if the team wins it’s because of their skill, but if they lose it’s because of unfair refereeing.

Fundamental attribution error

Fundamental attribution error occurs when we overestimate others’ behaviour as being caused by internal factors, such as their personality, while we underestimate situational factors. Victim-blaming is an example of this, as people overestimate the role that the individual plays in their own victimization.

Culture plays a role as well. In individualist cultures, fundamental attribution error is more likely, and people are more likely to have a self-serving bias. In collectivist cultures, there is less fundamental attribution error and a tendency towards self-effacing bias.

Jones and Davis later theorized that intentionality of behaviour was important in making dispositional (internal) attributions. They proposed that free choice, accidental vs. intentional behaviour, the extent of social desirability and conformity, and personal relevance came into play in making attributions.

Examples of attribution errors

It’s interesting how we look for a cause-and-effect relationship even where there isn’t one. You can see this when people think they’ve had a lottery win because of their “system”, or guys who grow a playoff beard because they think it will help their favourite hockey team win. You also see it when people think a woman got raped because of what she was wearing. These sorts of errors are likely most damaging when people don’t realize the flaw in their logic. Probably most playoff beard-growing fans realize on some level that logically their beard isn’t going to change their team’s outcomes, but the “she was raped because she wore a miniskirt” types seem to think that’s a perfectly logical conclusion.

Relationship breakups are a time when I suspect there are a lot of misattributions flying around. A former friend of mine, who tended to be pretty histrionic, was crushed when her boyfriend broke up with her. She decided that in order to understand why the breakup occurred, she needed to know more about his past. She started tracking down anyone who knew him, trying to get information that would account for the breakup. It was clearly making her even more miserable, but she was looking for evidence to support attributing the breakup to internal flaws within him, to save herself from seeing any blame within herself. It was very strange to witness as an outsider.

What do you notice about your own attribution patterns?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

21 thoughts on “What Is… Attribution Theory”

  1. For the longest time, I used to blame my father for who I became. Yes, there was evidence pointing in his direction that were true. However, as I grew older… I understood it was genetics, environmental circumstances, and just plain my own wrong choice decisions that led me down the path to my own destruction.
    People seem to blame others for their own mishaps in life, utilizing them as scapegoats.
    If it weren’t for my diagnoisis of being mentally ill, I probably would not have realized I was judging and or blaming.
    I own up to things, and not place blame unless their is reason for it.
    Great post, Ashley!!

  2. This is a brilliant post. I hadn’t known any of this, but I was aware of sometimes just finding someone else to blame for when things went wrong. I would not be able to (because I simply didn’t know how) to take responsibility for myself. This realisation has really helped me grow. It’s been a terrific insight this post. Thanks! Katie.

  3. This was very interesting. I tend to be VERY overly analytical about the causes of EVERYTHING in my life. And as such I have a disturbing amount of knowledge about psychological and physical symptoms and illnesses. And if I don’t get outside perspective on some of my theoretical causes, I tend to really focus on them to the detriment of my own actual feelings. Then I get stuck.

  4. I always blame myself instead of thinking it might be someone else’s fault for the argument or for why I didn’t the job I wanted. I am my own worst critic on my life

  5. As a psychology student this post is a blessing for finally making me understand attribution theory clearly 😄!! I went through a break up a few months ago and i noticed how i kept switching the attribution between me and my ex… “i was stupid for doing this”, “he was acting selfish”. It was not helpful at all and i can finally make peace with us both being reason for the breakup so that i can finally let go and move on :)! Interesting to think about, great post!

  6. Its really fascinating to me! I do wonder a lot about this! I do try to figure out a cause and effect for everything! don’t know if its my personality, or what! but I have to know the whys!

  7. Dear Ashley, I have left this post open for a few days now, reading a line each time I can find a minute. I knew the word, but your write up has made me know it better. So many things stand out to me for eg this: ” I think it’s interesting how we look for a cause and effect relationship even where there isn’t one (or at least not a clear one)”. Ashley, I wish you so much well and also the energy to keep writing and breaking down some of these terms for us like this.

  8. This is quite thought provoking Ashley.

    I guess when I have certain responses to situations such as shutting down, freezing or distancing myself from my supports, these are learned behaviours from my circumstances.
    However, when I change those behaviours I take the pride and celebration because I’ve changed the behaviour.

    Great post 🙂

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