Understanding Attribution Theory: The Psychology Of Explaining Behavior

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attribution theory brings many different questions to our attention. Can we truly have an objective opinion about our behaviors? Have we judged someone else too harshly? Do we tend to be optimistic or pessimistic most of the time?

Attribution theory is the study of how we ascribe meaning to various forms of behavior and experiences.

Attribution theory has played a substantial role in social psychology since it was first proposed in the 1950s. Below, we’re going to discuss attribution theory, its role in our lives, and how it can impact our view of the world. 

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Negative or inaccurate attributions can impact your relationships

What is attribution theory?

Attribution theory, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “a theoretical proposition about the processes by which people ascribe motives to their own and others’ behavior”. Attribution helps us understand the frameworks through which we view our own actions and the actions of others. It can help us sort out our personal biases or better understand why we tend to try to paint ourselves in the most positive light possible.

Attribution theory can be illustrated by an interaction in which you are speaking with a friend. As you’re talking, you start to notice in their voice or body language that they’ve become irritated. Your determination of why they are now upset—whether it was due to something you said, another external influence, or their nature—is an example of attribution. 

Attribution can be divided into three types: predictive, interpersonal, and explanatory. 

Predictive attribution

means that we attribute things in ways that allow us to make future predictions. For example, if you choose to skip breakfast, you may attribute the fact that you’re overly hungry by lunchtime to the fact that you didn’t eat anything earlier. That’s an attribution that is likely true. 

Interpersonal attribution

refers to our tendency to avoid ascribing negative events to our behaviors. In the example we provided earlier, in which your friend became upset during your conversation, you may have believed your friend was stressed out about something else when, in fact, you accidentally made a remark that was insulting. 

Explanatory attribution

helps us to better understand the world around us. We can take an optimistic approach to our circumstances or a pessimistic point of view. Attribution theory suggests that when we're optimistic, we attribute positive events to stable, internal, and global causes. At times when we're pessimistic, we tend to attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes and positive events to external, stable, and specific causes. 

How does attribution influence our biases?

Our personal opinions are colored by our experience, including the relationships we've had, past interactions with others, and information we’ve learned. Through this experience, we often develop preferences regarding certain issues or circumstances, which can cause us to judge others unfairly and make errors in judgment.

A self-serving bias means that we have a bias about whether we see ourselves in a positive or negative light. When we're successful or are feeling positively about ourselves, we tend to attribute our success to internal factors, such as something we did that we're proud of. 

Attribution psychologists have also identified something called actor-observer bias which means that we're more likely to blame external forces for our behavior than personal characteristics. We tend to have more information about our situation than anyone else would, so we're clearer about what we can attribute the cause to. When we observe our friends, we're likely to take their point of view because we're more aware of who they are as people and how they handle the situations around them.

What is Weiner's theory of attribution?

Bernard Weiner developed a theory of attribution that became highly influential in the field of social psychology. Weiner theorized that people try to determine the likelihood of positive outcomes in the future based on their attribution of negative outcomes in the past. He identified the following three stages in how people attribute causes to an event or behavior:

  1. Behavior must be observed or perceived.
  2. The behavior is determined to be intentional.
  3. Behavior is attributed to internal or external causes.

Weiner also connected his attribution theory to achievement. According to his theory, the most important factors that affect how we perceive our behavior are ability, effort, the difficulty of tasks, and luck. Also, Weiner believed that we attribute our actions to the following three causes:

  1. Internal or external nature
  2. Stability
  3. Controllability

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Weiner theorized that if we succeed, internal forces were at work, such as having the necessary skills or credentials. When we see someone else succeed, we tend to attribute it to an external force such as luck or knowing the right people. 

When Weiner looked at our perspective of when we fail, on the other hand, he discovered that we tend to attribute it to external forces or situational matters rather than a lack of ability or effort, or another deficiency. When we see someone else fail, though, we tend to attribute it to internal factors such as their personality or ability to make wise choices. This is called fundamental attribution error

Other interpretations of attribution theory

Several other psychologists have paved the way for attribution theory’s development. Fritz Heider, considered the “father of attribution theory”, suggested that when we observe others, we analyze their behavior and find some common-sense explanation for their actions. He also grouped attributes into external and internal attributes to explain behaviors.

In 1965, Edward Jones and Keith Davis theorized that people make inferences about other people in cases where their actions were intentional rather than accidental. They postulated that when we see others acting in certain ways, we look for some connection between the person's motives and their behavior. Jones and Davis believed people's inferences were based on the extent to which several choices were available, the degree to which they expect a certain behavior to occur, and the possible effects of the behavior. This idea is called .

The social psychologist Harold Kelley developed what many believe is the most influential model of attribution, the covariation model. Here, covariation refers to the repeated occurrence of certain factors that contribute to an outcome. So, according to Kelley, we make determinations as to cause based on their presence leading up to the event. If, for example, you notice that your partner is often irritable when their favorite team loses, you may start attributing their behavior to that team losing. 

Kelley postulated that we do this using three measures: consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency.

  • Consensus – Refers to an individual’s actions as they relate to the actions of others. Displaying behavior that is similar to others suggests high consensus, while exhibiting behavior that is considered unique suggests low consensus. 
  • Distinctiveness – Refers to an individual’s actions in relation to the scenario. Behaving the same way across similar situations suggests low distinctiveness, while behaving in an uncharacteristic way in a situation suggests high distinctiveness.
  • Consistency – Refers to an individual’s actions over time. Behaving similarly regardless of the scenario or how other people act suggests high consistency, while behaving in a way that is dependent on a specific time suggests low consistency. 

Through this framework, we then make determinations as to the causes for behavior. We may attribute behavior to the individual, the circumstances, or an external stimulus. 

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Negative or inaccurate attributions can impact your relationships

Discuss your attribution patterns in online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can help individuals learn more about the links between their thoughts and behaviors through common therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In a broad-based study of 1,500 participants, researchers concluded that the “accumulated evidence provides compelling support for the efficacy and effectiveness of online CBT”. CBT is a therapy method that can help individuals better understand how their thoughts about a situation may lead to maladaptive behaviors. 

It can be difficult to get to the bottom of why we think and act the way we do, as numerous biological, social, and environmental factors may be at play in our assumptions and the formation of our perspective. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can learn more about your behavior remotely, through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. BetterHelp works with thousands of mental health professional, who have a range of specialties, so you’ll have a good chance of connecting with someone who can address your specific concerns.  

Takeaway

Attribution theory can help us understand how we evaluate social situations and interact with others. The ability to interpret the behavior of others, along with our own actions, is useful in a variety of scenarios. If you’d like help understanding how your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions connect, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist online. Working with a professional can be a productive next step on your mental health journey.

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