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Social Psychology

Psychology (Year 12)

Attribution Theory

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Jessica Pratt

An attribution is best defined as the reasons we give for our own behaviours and the behaviours of others. In this way, an attribution theory simply seeks to explain how and why people come to make causal attributions. A study by Heider & Simmel (1944) first demonstrated how individuals are predisposed to attribute personality traits even to inanimate objects such as shapes and colours. The study involved two groups when watching a video where shapes ‘interacted’ - one group being asked to describe what occurred when watching a video, and the other was asked for their interpretations of their movements. Viewers often saw characters with emotions, motivations and purposes. A dominant observation was that the big triangle was aggressive, dumb, stupid, etc.

Heider’s Attribution Theory

Fritz Heider theorised that people tend to see cause and effect relationships even when there isn’t a relationship. Simply put, individuals impose almost a narrative into assigning a cause to one’s behaviour.

From this, he proposed two types of attributions:

  1. internal, dispositional attributions - individuals assign the cause of one’s behaviour to internal, stable characteristics such as their personality traits or their values and beliefs.

  2. external, situational attributions - assigning the cause of one’s behaviour to external influences such as an environmental event or situation out of one’s control, rather than their personality.

Fundamental Attribution Error

This is described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”.

Heider refers to this as a bias where we take the behaviour of others at face value rather than considering the specific circumstances that influence one’s behaviour. It is a tendency to internally attribute the behaviour of another person rather than attribute it to situational circumstances.

For example, if you were late to class, you would make an external attribution due to knowing the underlying situational circumstances behind your behaviour, such as your car not starting. However, observing another classmate being late to class may, and most likely, would cause you to propose an internal attribution such as that they are a disorganised person despite not knowing the circumstances behind their lateness.

Self-serving Bias

A psychological phenomenon where individuals tend to attribute their own successes to internal, dispositional factors, but their failures to external, situational influences. It often occurs to maintain self-esteem.

For example, you attribute getting a high grade in a test to being smart, but failing a test to a bad teacher.

Errors in Attribution

There are three other effects that may contribute towards errors in attribution:

  • The false-consensus effect is the tendency to believe that your viewpoint is the consensus among most people; that your views are considered normal across the population.

  • Actor-observer bias occurs when individuals create different reasons for the same event.

  • The just world hypothesis is the tendency to believe that people receive what they deserve.

Kelley’s Co-variation Model

Harold Kelley, an American psychologist, developed a model that suggested that people consume three types of information when working to attribute an individual’s behaviour. The term ‘co-variation’ refers to a person having information from observations that occurred at different times and in varied situations. From these

observations, individuals can perceive correlated cause and effect relationships.

Three types of material that contribute to causal explanations:

  1. Consensus: whether other people act in the same way in a similar situation.

  2. Distinctiveness: whether the person acts in the same way in different situations.

  3. Consistency: whether the person acts the same when the situation appears again.

Kelley’s model has been criticised, however, due to evidence that people are often poor at assessing co-

variation between events. It also requires multiple observations over time, which often isn’t possible to do.


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