What is attribution theory

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Last updated: March 31, 2019

In the late 1950s a psychologist called Fritz Heider developed the concept of attribution theory, based on how people explain the actions of an individual to a scenario/incident or another person. Over the 1960s and 1970s a school of thought developed in social psychology that has become known as attribution theory. Over the years of studying and researching attribution has become fragmented and very complex with many variants but original theory is still valid and valuable.

Heider explained attribution theory at its simplest by observing that ‘people are often more interested in the causes of events than the events themselves'(Heider 1958). This had led attribution theorists to uncover the reasoning we use when deciding why something has happened. the type of scenario which can be studied to show or highlight the use of attribution theory by a person are in abundance as they require human involvement on any scale. Day to day events such as some one laughing at a joke to getting frustrated when trying to complete a task fills this criteria.When looking at an incident where attribution theory is present there are three ‘variables’ which are considered, these factors will lead the person who is seeing the reasons for the outcome, to come to a conclusion as to what the cause of the of the outcome is or was. The first possible cause is that of the actor. The actor is the person whose behaviour was the event.

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The second is the entity. This is the thing or person, which the actor’s behaviour was directed towards. The final cause is the situation in which the behaviour took place (J Arnold et al 1995:244).Deciding whether it was the actor, entity or situation, which caused the actors behaviour, does not its self determine what it was about the actor, entity or scenario was responsible for the actor’s actions. When an observer is attributing causes of behaviour there are three assessments, which are made. These evaluations are easier to make if the observer has prior knowledge of the actor.

They must evaluate the extent of which the actor’s behaviour demonstrates ‘distinctiveness’, does the actor only act this way in the presence of that entity.The second conclusion could be ‘ consistency’, does the actor do this repeatedly with this entity over time and different situations. Thirdly ‘consensus’ do other people behave in the same way towards that entity. By assessing how these causes contribute to a person’s behaviour we can start assessing the types of attributes put forward by the observer. Different types of attribution Attributes can fall into two of four categories. The first thing to asses is if the behaviour is seen to be as a result of an internal or external factor.An internal factor will be related to the actor, an external factor will be attributed to the entity.

The second assessment must be whether the attribute was stable or unstable. A stable attribute will have been consistent where as an unstable attribute will vary every time the scenario occurs. A simple example of this would be an actor scoring badly on a test. Depending on how the actor justifies the poor result will determine the types of attribute he/she has awarded them self. In this scenario the ability of the actor would be an internal and stable attribute, as their ability is personal to the actor and consistent.

The effort they put into the test would be an internal and unstable attribute as although it is personal to the actor the amount of effort they choose to put into the test could vary. the difficulty of the test would be an external stable attribute as although the actor had no control over choosing the difficulty of the questions used in the test, the test questions would be consistent if some one else were to be given it. Finally the luck of the actor would be both an external and unstable attribute because the actor has no control over how or when he/she is lucky.Many experiments have been carried out by social psychologists to try and discover how and why people choose the attributions they do to explain the outcome of behaviour from a scenario. Psychologist Brewin, highlighted the importance of this theory in an experiment he conducted in 1984. Brewin found that the attributes the actor gives themselves when explaining industrial accidents they had been involved in affected the actors recovery time.

Brewins evidence and results show that, among those who only felt causally responsible for the accident there was no relation to the time of their recovery.However those who felt more culpable tended to have a faster recovery rate. Experiments like this show how important the attribution of causes are, and explaining behaviour and outcomes using attribution theory can determine consequences and results of the behaviour. (Banyard and Hayes 1994:159-160) the above example touches on one of the many arguments of bias which surround attribution theory. Actors tend not to attribute to themselves but to the situation or entity but observers of the actor tend to attribute the cause to the actor.This bias is known as actor-observer error. Biases in attribution A huge amount of research has been carried out by social psychologists attempting to highlight the ‘possible errors in attributions made by ordinary people’ (Howitt et al 1996:106) so does bias always affect the observers attributions. Like so much in attribution theory the following types of bias are subject to disagreement.

The three most come types of bias are fundamental attribution error, actor-observer error and false consensus error.Fundamental attribution error is to be ‘over hasty in ascribing personal characteristics to the actors we observe’. (Howett et al 1996:106) put simply we are more likely to make assessments about the actor than the situation or entity.

Observers are also prone to not making ‘adequate allowance for the biasing effects of social roles upon performance’ (Ross et al 1977:485). Actor-observer error as mentioned previously is the error of attribution which occurs when an actor may wrongly attribute the entity or situation for the cause of behaviour rather than themselves.Storms (1973) experimented this theory by videotaping people talking and then played the video to the actors and asked them to explain the changes in conversation.

By stepping away from the scenario and becoming solely an observer and not an actor/observer the subjects awarded the attributions to themselves and not the entity or situation. Experiments like this show us that attribution is the basis of evaluations which we make about ourselves. However research by Nauta in 1988 investigated the reactions of 287 Dutch ministers to 4 different scenarios with positive and negative outcomes.Nauta found that positive outcomes were attributed to internal causes while negative outcomes to stable and external causes.

(Baynard and Hayes (1994:61) this study and many others such as Salancik and Meindl (1984) and Noel, Forsyth and Kelly (1987) highlight motivational bias and actors are sometimes bias towards themselves as to portray them in the best light. False consensus effect is the third most common bias shown by the ‘naive perceiver’ (Howwet et al 1996:107). When attributing ones own behaviour one will often refer to the situational causes.This stems from the belief that the actors own behaviour was rational and most reasonable people would behave in a similar fashion. Experiments by Ross Green and House (1977) have shown evidence for false consensus effect to be common. This evidence backs up social psychologists views that the average person is inadequate at explaining social scenarios.

Without having the knowledge of the attribution theory and some of the potential biases that could influence the causes attributed to the behavioural outcome misjudgements can often be made.However the average person’s views should not be dismissed, as there are limitations in the attribution theory itself and these can affect the out come of issues. Conclusion In summary the way we perceive somebody is usually influenced by our prior expectations of them. Those expectations may or may not be accurate. We need to be aware of them and look for evidence that they are wrong rather than only what we expect to see. It is also important to assess what out original expectation is based on and decide whether it is solid enough to allow it to influence our judgement.Peoples own beliefs about what they are like are also often adopted by the observer.

In deciding causes of a person’s behaviour the observer should find out as much about the situation as possible and what other people generally do in the same situation. By doing this, bias that so often is present when attributing causes to peoples behaviour can sometimes be limited or removed giving a clearer perspective and allow all potential causes to be assessed and attributed accordingly.It is often the case, and is easy to assume attribution theory is based very strongly on an observing individuals own bias. However if the observer is aware of how attribution theory is constructed and the different elements which are open for consideration and interpretation it allows the observers bias to be removed.

Attribution theory therefore on occasions can and does do more than just allow an individual to see the world in the light of their own biases.

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