Attribution Theory

“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)

This theory deals with the explanation of a person’s behavior, whether others or their own. One example would be, is a person crying because she is wimpy or because something hurt her?

Attribution theory concerns all explanations made by people in attempts to explain their actions and events that occur.

Heider didn’t exactly develop the theory, but rather emphasized certain themes that others took up. He believed that everyone is a psychologist to some extent, or at least tries to be. The naive psychologists within them often see cause and effect relationships even when there is none.

Ideas of Attribution Theory

According to Heider, there are two main ideas of Attribution Theory, which hold major influence.

Dispositional Attribution (Internal Attribution)

Internal attribution refers to the tendency of assigning the cause or responsibility of a certain behavior or action to internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces. Internal attributions that we often hold responsible for others behavior are motives, personality, beliefs and so on.

Situational Attribution (External Attribution)

External attribution is exactly in contrast to internal attribution. The tendency of assigning the cause or responsibility of a certain behavior or action to outside forces rather than international characteristic is called external attribution. We often explain our new actions and b behavior using the environment or situational features, something that is beyond our control.

Theories of Attribution

Common Sense Psychology

The concept of common sense or naive psychology was developed by Fritz Heider in an attempt to explore the nature of interpersonal relationship. The idea of common sense psychology was espoused because he believed that every individual observed analyzed and explained behaviors and actions with their explanations.


Sheila failed her final exam. Rita automatically assumes that the reason is Sheila's inability to study. Because the attributions involved in the explanation is internal (Sheila's personal issues), it's an example of Dispositional or Internal Attribution.

Likewise, Sheila explains that the reason for her failure was because the questions were difficult, rather than her inability to answer them. She blames the situation rather than herself. This is an example of Situational or External Attribution.

Correspondent Inference Theory

Correspondent Inference theory was formulated by Edward E. Jones and Keith Davis in 1965, which accounts for a person's inferences about an individual's certain behavior or action. The major purpose of this theory is to try and explain why people make internal or external attributions. Internal attribution is easily understandable because of the correspondence we see between motive and behavior.

Factors that affect people's inferences:

  • choice
  • expectedess of behavior
  • effects of behavior

Covariation Model

Coriation Model was proposed by Kelley, which deals with both social perception and self-perception.

Covariation principle states

An effect is attributed to the one of its possible causes with which, ver time, it covaries. (Kelley, 1973:108).

In simple words, covariation means that an individual has information from multiple observations and is thus capable of perceiving he covariation of an observed cause and the effects.

According to Kelley, there are three kinds of evidence.

  • Consensus
  • Distinctiveness
  • Consistency

Three Dimensional Model

Bernard Weiner proposed a theory suggesting that a person's own attributions in attempt to explain their success or failure determines the effort they are willing to exert in the future. Affective and cognitive assessment influences the behavior in the future when similar situations are experienced.

Three categories of Weiner's attribution theory are:

  • stable theory (stable and unstable)
  • locus of control (internal and external)
  • controllability (controllable or uncontrollable)

Critical Evaluation

  • One of the major criticism of the attribution theory has been the assumption of people as logical and systematic thinkers. Because of this, attribution theory is criticized for being mechanistic and reductionist.
  • Attribution theories also fail to take social, historical, and cultural factors into consideration, which shape attributions of cause.