People’s tendency to explain their own or others’ behaviour constitutes the basis of the attribution theory. The father of the theory, Heider, famously said that each and every person is a psychologist of their own or at least tries to be. After the concept first emerged in the 1950s, the theoretical framework underwent further development and numerous changes aimed at a more precise description of human behaviour patterns. Yet, some modern researchers point out that theory, as is now, is not devoid of bias and error. This paper will provide a brief overview of the attribution theory and discuss whether it has been able to explain how people attribute causes to the behaviour of other people.
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Theories and Models: An Overview
The father of the attribution theory, Fritz Heider, published little and was not as well known as his more accomplished contemporaries. However, his groundwork, ‘Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships,’ left an undeniable legacy that became an impetus to an extensive body of research. Heider claimed that humans never stop observing and analyzing others1. The researcher put forward a simple hypothesis: every time an individual is confronted with something that is not easily explainable, they resort to either internal (personal) or external (attribution)2. A simple example would be a situation at a public venue: a customer is not satisfied with how the waiter treats him. Objectively, the waiter seems scatter-minded, answers abruptly and is overall far from perfectly polite. From the standpoint of external attribution, it is possible to speculate that the waiter might have had a bad day, been feeling unwell, or something happened – all in all, situational factors made him act this way. If internal attribution is applied, the customer might assume that the waiter is simply rude and that it is his personal trait. It is easy to notice that these two types of attributions can lead to two different ways to perceive reality.
Seven years after ‘Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships’ was published, Jones and Davis attempted at explaining the mechanism of attributing causes to behaviour. As it turned out, rationalizing the intention was fairly challenging, and Jones and Davis focused on describing how people make attribution to a person with no regards to differentiating between internal and external attributions. The researchers coined the term “non-common effects”: the observer can explain someone’s choice with more confidence if the alternative options do not have much in common 3. Further, it is easier to explain the intention if a person does something socially undesirable because, this way, their actions cannot be a basic courtesy.
In the 1960s, Kelley developed the attribution theory further by trying to make sense of our own and other people’s behaviour. He came up with three criteria based on which an individual proceeds with attribution. First, personal judgement relies heavily on social consensus: if the majority of people have X opinion, an individual is more inclined to share it 4. Second, the more unique (distinctive) the behaviour that a person displays, the more likely it will be attributed to a circumstance. Lastly, high consistency (a person always does X) is typically attributed to internal factors whereas low consistency to circumstances 5. Other researchers pointed out that Kelley failed to distinguish between intentional and unintentional behaviour, which might have undermined the robustness of his theory.
Lastly, Weiner went even further and sought to provide an explanation as to how attribution might predict people’s future behaviour. He developed three criteria: stability, the locus of control and controllability 6. Weiner argued that those phenomenon and human self-perception were interrelated. If a person fails at completing a task and attributes this to their own shortcomings (internal locus of control), they are more prone to make a greater effort next time. If they attribute it to a circumstance, they lose control over the situation and might be discouraged to try again.
As of now, the present theory claims to explain the mechanism of attribution of causes to behaviour, outline the role that social factors play in the process and make future behaviour prognosis 7. Thus, as one may assume, the attribution theory could be of great use in management and human resources development (HRD). In business, managers have to constantly interpret the behaviour of their employees and make decisions based on their judgement. For instance, if an employee does not perform well on a separate occasion, some managers will be inclined to attribute it to external factors, some – to his or her general inability 8. Further, employees might resolve or avoid conflicts on the job by becoming familiar with how people perceive others’ actions and explain intentions 9.
Hewett et al. carried out a meta-analysis of the literature on the practical application of the attribution theory. They pointed out the following knowledge gaps: three strands of the attribution theory in HRD barely overlap and are not consistent with each other. The attribution theory seems to have helped managers to understand employees’ perceptions of what is expected of them 10. Another useful application was explaining employees’ reaction to managers’ feedback 11. Yet, Hewett et al. claim that reviewed research did not provide any meaningful qualitative data and relied on highly subjective surveys and quantitative methods which were not appropriate 12. A question arises as to whether robust research has yet to be conducted, or theory itself contains bias and error that prevents from putting together a comprehensive framework and finding practical application.
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Bias and Error
The first shortcoming that the attribution theory has yet to overcome is the assumption that humans are rational and logical thinkers. For instance, within the framework put forward by Kelley, people gauge a particular individual’s consistency when committing a certain act. Moreover, they seem to be taking into consideration social consensus simultaneously, thus, conducting a complex, multidimensional analysis 13. These two statements mean that the observers try to rely on objective facts when attributing causes to the actors’ behaviour. In practice, it seems that people’s judgement displays certain enmeshment of subjective and objective traits. While they might try to put their own convictions aside, many would still judge others on the basis of what moves and motivates them. For this reason, the attribution theory is often criticized as being too mechanistic and reductionist.
Attribution theories and models do not provide a feasible explanation as to what role is assigned to social, historical and cultural factors within the proposed framework. Heider only touches upon so-called cultural bias and people’s inclination to navigate the world with the help of conventional wisdom and stereotypes about other nations and ethnicities 14. He examines stereotypes as something that is given and not as something that is created in the context of an intercultural relationship. For instance, a member of X nation and a member of Y nation might have internalized different beliefs about a member of Z nation. Hence, their attributions might vary and not be subject to mechanical delineation.
Lastly, it seems that Heider and others confuse cause with reason. A cause might be determined by both the observer and the actor. As an example, a young student did not show up for class due to heavy rainfall. On top of that, his or her reason for being absent might be the fear to catch a cold. Interestingly enough, both explanations can be categorized as external attribution – a circumstance and situational reasoning respectively. Despite belonging to the same category, they are fundamentally different: reason cannot be known unless the actor decides to share it.
It is evident that humans do not handle uncertainty well: a logical explanation as to why something happened to them or others provides a much-needed sense of relief. Naturally, people seek closure: information vacuum around a pressing issue can push anyone to overthink, ruminating and even wallowing. When an individual fails to know what caused an event, his or her brain tries to find the rationale behind the action itself. Heider and his successors tried to explain the phenomenon and put forward the attribution theory. As of now, this theory deals with internal and external attribution, self-control and perception and behaviour prediction based on consistency and desirability. The attribution theory found practical application in business, management and human resource development; however, a body of evidence on its validity has yet to be collected. The theories and models are often accused of being overly simplistic, lacking explanation for social, cultural and historical factors and enmeshing cause and reason.
Duval, S. et al., Consistency and Cognition: A Theory of Causal Attribution, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2014.
Graham, S. and V. S. Folkes, Attribution Theory: Applications to Achievement, Mental Health, and Interpersonal Conflict, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2014.
Gross, R. and R. McIlven, Social Psychology, Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2016.
Heider, F., The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2013.
Hewett, R. et al., ‘Attribution Theories in Human Resource Management Research: A Review and Research Agenda’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 29, no. 1, 2017, pp. 87-126.
Hilton, D., Social Attribution and Explanation, 2017. Web.
Korn, C. W. et al., ‘Performance Feedback Processing Is Positively Biased as Predicted by Attribution Theory’, PloS one, vol. 11, no., 2, 2016.
Martinko, M., Attribution Theory: An Organizational Perspective, Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2018.
Matsumoto, D. and L. Juang, Culture and Psychology, Boston, Cengage Learning, 2012.
Sanders, K. and H. Yang, ‘The HRM Process Approach: The Influence of Employees’ Attribution to Explain the HRM‐Performance Relationship’, Human Resource Management, vol. 55, no. 2, 2016, pp. 201-217.
Shaver, K. G. An Introduction to Attribution Processes. Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2016.
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Vaughan, G. and Hogg, M., Social Psychology, 7th edition, Melbourne, Pearson Education Australia, 2017.
Weiner, B., Human Motivation, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2013.
Wyer, R. S. and T. K. Srull, Handbook of Social Cognition: Volume 1: Basic Processes, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2014.
- D. Matsumoto and L. Juang, Culture and Psychology, Boston, Cengage Learning, 2012, p. 15.
- F. Heider, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2013, p. 50.
- R. S.Wyer and T. K. Srull, Handbook of Social Cognition: Volume 1: Basic Processes, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2014, p. 72.
- R. Gross and R. McIlven, Social Psychology, Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2016, p. 58.
- S. Duval et al., Consistency and Cognition: A Theory of Causal Attribution, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2014, p. 101.
- B. Weiner, Human Motivation, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2013, p. 131.
- G. Vaughan and M. Hogg, Social Psychology, 7th edition, Melbourne, Pearson Education Australia, 2017, p. 78.
- M. Martinko, Attribution Theory: An Organizational Perspective, Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2018, p. 67.
- S. Graham and V. S. Folkes, Attribution Theory: Applications to Achievement, Mental Health, and Interpersonal Conflict, Abingdon-on-Thames, Psychology Press, 2014, p. 165.
- K. Sanders and H. Yang, ‘The HRM Process Approach: The Influence of Employees’ Attribution to Explain the HRM‐Performance Relationship’, Human Resource Management, vol. 55, no. 2, 2016, p. 210.
- C. W. Korn et al., ‘Performance Feedback Processing Is Positively Biased as Predicted by Attribution Theory’, PloS one, vol. 11, no., 2, 2016.
- R. Hewett et al. ‘Attribution Theories in Human Resource Management Research: A Review and Research Agenda’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, vol. 29, no. 1, 2017, p. 115.
- K. G. Shaver, An Introduction to Attribution Processes. Abingdon-on-Thames, Routledge, 2016, p. 131.
- D. Hilton, Social Attribution and Explanation, 2017, Web.