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Attribution Theory in Achievement Levels


Different people use various methods to interpret and understand the elements of their world. Consequently, different theories are used to explain how people understand and interpret the behaviours of others. The theory of attribution was developed with the aim of helping individuals to understand and explain the “causes of behaviours and events” (Kelley and Michela 480). Attribution theory consists of several methods and models that shed light on how individuals assign causes to the end results of events. Attribution theory has since been used to explain several human conditions and behaviours. In addition, the attribution theory covers several theorists and scholars who have borrowed or added to its research.

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One of the pioneers of attribution theory is Fritz Heider whose work is considered as the earliest known contribution on the subject. Heider’s work came before the propositions on the theory of helplessness. Another psychologist who made contributions to the attribution theory is Bernard Weiner. Weiner’s research on attribution theory focused on student motivation and its causes. Theorists concur that “there are two types of attribution as defined by this theory; interpersonal and external attributions” (Kelley and Michela 458). In situations of external attribution, individuals usually attribute particular behaviours or events to factors that are outside their control. On the other hand, interpersonal attribution applies to situations that involve actions that touch on more than one person like in cases of blame-shifting. This paper is a study of a real-life application of attribution theory in relation to levels of achievement between different individuals.

The Situation

Success and failure are two factors that are often difficult to understand and assess because they appear random to most people. Consequently, these two factors have often been attributed to a number of factors, including luck, opportunity, and ability. In this scenario, we will investigate the success and failures of two different students with respect to attribution theory. The two students are Farah and Amani, and they are both fourth graders. The two students attend the same school, take the same subjects, they are taught by the same teachers, they are of the same age, but their background information varies to some extent.

Farah was born in a family of five children, and she is the second last child. Farah has three elder brothers and a sister who is in preschool. All of Farah’s elder brothers are high achieving students in their own right, and they are all-star students. On the other hand, Farah is a low achieving student, and she is mostly a below-average student. Farah’s father believes girls cannot perform as well as boys, and he constantly uses this information to comfort his low-achieving daughter. When the report cards of all the children are sent to the house, Farah’s father begins by opening those of his sons and finishes by examining that of his daughter whom she assures all will be well. Farah’s performance is particularly worse in science subjects; a field that she has heard is reserved for ‘boyish careers’.

Amani, on the other hand, is an only child who is primarily raised by her mother. Amani’s parents are divorced, but they both mentor her and offer her educational advice from time to time. Amani’s parents have made it clear that they expect her to be on top of her class at whatever cost. Her mother has reiterated that she was a good student from the onset, and that is how she became a high-flying lawyer. In addition, Amani is often rewarded for her top performance by being offered summer trips and other gifts. Amani’s parents also discourage her from giving them excuses in instances where her performance levels drop.

The performance levels of both Farah and Amani will be investigated using various models of attribution theory. The secret behind the failures and successes of the two students will be explained with respect to types, sub-theories, biases, errors, and applications of attribution theory.

Theoretical Analysis

Attribution theory maintains that there are definite connections between success and failure on one hand and motivation on the other. Several theorists have made a connection between motivation and levels of performance. The pioneer of attribution theory, Fritz Heider hypothesized in his original dissertation that “perceivers attribute the properties of an object they sense, such as its colour, texture and so on, to the object itself when those properties exist only in their minds” (Kelley and Michela 487). This hypothesis shows that it is possible to point out the fundamental differences in perception between Farah and Amani. Farah perceives that high academic performance is outside of her basic abilities. On the other hand, Amani perceives that she has the ability and the means to attain high academic levels. It is also important to note that the perceptions of both students have been fixed in their consciousness by their primary caregivers.

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To understand the element of Amani and Farah’s motivation in relation to attribution theory, it is prudent to explore some research studies. A study that was conducted by Hareli and Hess concentrated on how various students respond to feedback concerning their performance (Hareli and Hess 270). It has been argued that motivation levels are greatly impacted by the attributions of other people. For instance, a student is likely to be offended by a hurtful remark from a friend and appreciate a positive consideration from similar sources. Therefore, parents’ remarks are likely to have a compounded effect on both Amani and Farah. When a research study was conducted to gauge the impact of feedback on student performance, it became clear that negative reactions to bad comments have a harmful impact on motivation. This study can help explain why Farah is an under achiever while Amani’s performance is always enviable. The core differences lie in the comments of their parents. Consequently, positive comments from Amani’s parents have generated the ability to perform better than the students who have to deal with negative feedback from their caretakers.

The attribution theory has various theories and sub models that can be used to explain the differences between Farah and Amani’s performances. The correspondent inference theory claims that “people make inferences about a person when his or her actions are freely chosen, are unexpected, and result in a small number of desirable effects” (Dresel, Schober and Ziegler 34). Therefore, the two students’ parents make ‘correspondent inferences’ based on their children’s contexts. First, Farah’s father explains her daughter’s situation using her gender as context. On the other hand, Amani’s mother explains the situation of her daughter using the context of her own academic prowess. According to correspondent theory, individuals are likely to make conclusions based on these three factors; “degree of choice, expectedness of behaviour, and effects of someone’s behaviours” (Kelley and Michela 484). Expectedness of behaviour prompts Farah’s father to expect her daughter to perform worse than his sons. On the other hand, expectedness of behaviour prompts Amani’s parents to expect good academic results from their daughter.

Another inference model is the ‘covariation model’. The covariation model proposes that individuals will characterize certain actions in accordance with identifiable factors. Therefore, people tend to attribute certain behaviours to the characteristics that are available when these actions occur. In this case, Amani’s parents expect her to perform well in school because her mother was good in academics. However, it is probable that Amani’s parents would not make the same inference about their daughter if her mother was an under-achiever in school.

Fundamental Attribution Error in the Theory

The “fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overvalue dispositional or personality-based explanations for behaviour while under-valuing situational explanations” (Kelley and Michela 500). This theoretical model explains the oversights that could be made when explaining Farah and Amani’s situations. The fundamental attribution error can be found in almost every scenario where behavioural explanations are being made. Farah’s father explains her daughter’s poor performance by arguing that she cannot perform as well as his sons. Gender is used to explain Farah’s poor performance in school. On the other hand, fundamental attribution error would refute this hypothesis using situational explanations.

For instance, Farah’s poor performance in school may be explained using simple facts such as she does not work hard in school or she has a learning disability. However, the person making the perceptions (Farah’s father) overvalues the gender characteristics whilst failing to appreciate situational considerations such as hard work and personal abilities. The element of judgment applies to the situations of the two students. When individuals are making random or thought-out judgments, they are mostly seeking to appeal to their personal attitudes. For instance, Amani’s mother judges her daughter as an honours’ student to appeal to her personal attitude as a scholar. On the other hand, Farah’s father is appealing to his attitudes about the superiority of the male gender by attributing his daughter’s low achievements to her femininity.

Discounting Principle in Attribution Theory

When one is using the attribution theory to explain human behaviours, it is likely that he/she will “attach less importance to one potential cause of some behaviour when other potential causes are also present” (Harvey and Weary 67). This scenario can be explained using the discounting principle of attribution theory. The discounting principle of attribution theory helps in explaining the selective nature of human beings when they are drawing conclusions. For example, Farah’s inability to perform well in school is explained using her gender predispositions.

However, Farah’s gender is just one of many possible causes of her behaviour. For instance, other causes of her behaviour might include but are not limited to laziness, learning disability, bullying in school, and poor teachers. Nevertheless, Farah’s father attaches less importance to all other potential causes of her daughter’s behaviour. There are several explanations for the discounting principle including the tendency among individuals to serve their own biases. Human beings tend to attribute causality to factors that are beyond their control. For example, if Amani starts performing poorly in school, her parents are not likely to consider themselves as causes of this behaviour.

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Works Cited

Dresel, Markus, Barbara Schober, and Albert Ziegler. “Nothing more than dimensions? Evidence for a surplus meaning of specific attributions.” The Journal of Educational Research 99.1 (2005): 31-45. Print.

Hareli, Shlomo, and Ursula Hess. “When does feedback about success at school hurt? The role of causal attributions.” Social Psychology of Education 11.3 (2008): 259-272. Print.

Harvey, John and Gifford Weary. Attribution: Basic issues and applications, New York: Academic, 2005. Print.

Kelley, Harold H., and John L. Michela. “Attribution theory and research.” Annual review of psychology 31.1 (2008): 457-501. Print.

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