Attribution Theory Essay

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There is no one theory of attribution; rather, several perspectives are collectively referred to as attribution theory. Attribution theory attempts to elucidate how people explain human behaviors by inferring the causes of those behaviors. Frtiz Heider (1958) provided the building blocks for developing attribution research. He proposed that in their search for causal structures of events, people attribute causality either to elements within the environment or to elements within the person. He noted that people tend to overestimate the role of internal causes, such attitudes, when explaining others’ behavior. Further, he assumed that people tend to make an internal attribution of causes if they view an action as intentionally caused.

Correspondence inference theory identifies the conditions under which an observed behavior can be said to correspond to a particular disposition or quality within the actor. The process of correspondence inference works backward and is divided into two stages: the attribution of intention and the attribution of dispositions. Another important contribution to attribution research is Kelley’s (1967) theory of covariation analysis which is concerned with the accuracy of attributing causes to effects. His theory in the essay ”Attribution theory in social psychology” hinges on the principle of covariation between possible causes and effects. Three types of information are utilized to make causal attribution: consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency. Consensus refers to whether all people act the same way toward the same stimulus or only the observed person. Distinctiveness concerns whether the observed person behaves in the same way to different stimuli. Consistency refers to whether the observed person behaves in the same way toward the same stimulus over time and in different situations. The attribution to personal or environmental factors depends on the combination of these qualities.

Bernard Weiner’s (1986) theory of achievement and emotion focuses on the emotional and behavioral consequences of the attribution process. This theory proposes three dimensions of perceived causality: the locus of the cause (within the person versus outside the person), the stability of the cause

(stable versus unstable), and the controllability over the cause (controllable versus uncontrollable). The resultant emotions depend on the type of attribution that observers make. Weiner differentiated between two groups of affects. First, ”outcome-dependent” affects which are experienced as a result of the attainment or non-attainment of a given outcome, and not by the cause of that outcome. The second group is called ”attribution-linked” affects which are experienced as a result of appraisal and assignment of a cause.

In the process of making attributions, people make mistakes by either overestimating or underestimating the impact of situational or personal factors when explaining their behaviors or the behaviors of others. These errors are termed biases in attribution. Correspondence bias, also called fundamental attribution error, is one of them which refers to observers’ tendency to exaggerate or overestimate the influence of dispositional factors when explaining people’s behavior.


  1. Heider,    (1958)   The  Psychology  of Interpersonal Relations. Wiley, New York.
  2. Weiner, B. (1986) An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion. Springer Verlag, New York.
  3. Kelley, H. H. & Michela, J. L. (1980) Attribution theory and research. Annual Review ofPsychology 31: 457-501.
  4. Weiner, B. (2008) Reflections on the history of attribution theory and research: people, personalities, publications, problems. Social Psychology 39: 151-6.

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