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?
- Malle, B. F. (2011). Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior. Theories in Social Psychology, 23, 72-95.
- Psychology Notes Hq: Attribution Theory
- Simply Psychology: Attribution theory
- Wikipedia: Attribution (psychology)
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
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.