Attribution Theory Essay

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Attribution Theory

In general terms, attribution theory explores and sheds light on aspects of the psycho-social perception of reality. More specifically, this theory refers to the way that individuals make decisions and judgments about the actions and behavior of others, as well as their own actions and emotions. This theory provides a method of understanding social and individual perception and refers to the important aspect of control that attribution facilitates in the life of the individual. The significance of this psycho-social theory also extends to the field of education and has contributed to the understanding of motivation and the way that attribution relates to high and low levels of achievement. An overview of this theory also sheds light on health- related issues, such as depression and low self-esteem.

In simple terms, attribution theory deals with the way that people make judgments or assessments of their own behavior or the behavior of others. However, in broader terms, attribution theory refers to how people perceive their world and the actions of others. In this sense, attribution theory is a means of understanding and cognitively comprehending the external world that impinges on us, as well as our internal psychological world that responds to the external environment. A succinct definition of attribution theory is as follows: "Attribution theory is concerned with how individuals interpret events and how this relates to their thinking and behavior" (Attribution Theory: B. Weiner).

Attribution theory was developed by Fritz Heider in 1958. This was further developed by Weiner and others and has become an important paradigm in social psychology (Attribution Theory: B. Weiner).

At a fundamental level this theory is concerned with the way in which people "attribute" causes to events and behavior. The basis of the theory becomes clear when we examine the meaning of the word attribute; which means "…to explain by indicating a cause" (ATTRIBUTION THEORY. Shippensburg University). In other words, it is a theory that examines human motivation and the way that the individual in society "…constructs the meaning of an event based on his/her motives to find a cause and his/her knowledge of the environment" (ATTRIBUTION THEORY. Shippensburg University).

The centers thesis that will be explored in this paper is that attribution theory is an extremely useful theory for understanding how human beings achieve meaning and maintain control in their lives. These two aspects -- establishing meaning and control- form the central trajectory of this theory. In other words, plainly stated, this theory "…looks at how people make sense of their world; what causes and effects inferences they make about the behaviors of others and of themselves" (ATTRIBUTION THEORY. Shippensburg University). As many researchers state, there is a need in the individual human psyche to understand the world and the behavior of others. In terms of attribution theory, this understanding is achieved to a great extent by attributing events and actions to "… the actor's disposition or to stable characteristics of the environment" (ATTRIBUTION THEORY. Shippensburg University).

The issue of cognitive control is important in this theory as well as it refers to the fact that making attributions about the world around one is necessary to achieve a sense of "…cognitive control over one's environment "; and in order to create a sense being able to understand"… "the causes behind behaviors and environmental occurrence" (ATTRIBUTION THEORY. Shippensburg University). Coupled with this is the view that attribution enables us to understand and direct the emotional driving forces in the human psyche. As one commentator notes,

Our attributions are also significantly driven by our emotional and motivational drives. Blaming other people and avoiding personal recrimination are very real self-serving attributions. We will also make attributions to defend what we perceive as attacks. We will point to injustice in an unfair world. (Attribution Theory: Changing minds)

The Significance and Functioning of Attribution Theory

In order to understand the significance of attribution theory one first has to bear in mind that it is both a sociological as well as a psychological theory of human perception. In other words, it deals with the inner perceptions and emotions of the individual in relation to external social events, actions and emotions.

As one study notes;

Social perception is concerned with how individuals perceive one another. The primary factors that lead to social perception are the psychological processes that lead to attribution, stereotyping and halo effect. Attribution refers to the way in which people explain the cause of their own behavior or others' behavior. (Introduction to Organizational Behavior)

Furthermore, the significance of this theory lies in the fact that perceptions of oneself and others play a vital role in the process of decision making in life and work. Decision making is a complex process which involves aspects such as the intake of data and the interpretation of this data. It is in this area that attribution theory is especially applicable.

A Central assumption that underlies this theory is that it is based on the view that "…attributes cause behavior" (Attribution Theory: B. Weiner). The way that an individual attributes certain reason or causes, affects or influences his to her behavior. "A person seeking to understand why another person did something may attribute one or more causes to that behavior" (Attribution Theory: B. Weiner).

This leads to three stages in the theory of attribution. These are summarized as follows:

(1) the person must perceive or observe the behavior, (2) then the person must believe that the behavior was intentionally performed, and (3) then the person must determine if they believe the other person was forced to perform the behavior (in which case the cause is attributed to the situation) or not (in which case the cause is attributed to the other person). (Attribution Theory: B. Weiner)

The above can be understood as forming the basic principles of attribution. The first principle refers to the view that behavior is observed. The second principle is that it is assumed that the behavior observed is deliberate and intentional. Thirdly, the behavior is attributed to either external to internal causes.

An example of this theory in real life serves to elucidate these principles. In terms of understanding a certain behavior, people tend to attribute various causes and reasons to that behavior. The following example is drawn from the educational field, where attribution theory has been shown to extremely useful.

…. students are more likely to respond to a classmate's request for help if they believe that the classmate needs help because of a temporary uncontrollable factor (such as getting hurt in a basketball game) than if they believe that help is needed because of a controllable factor (such as failure to study).

(Motivation and Attribution Theory, 2009)

Therefore, in the above example, the response and the actions taken by the students is determined on the basis of certain perceived attributes of the other individual's behavior.

This theory has also been applied to understanding motivational and achievement levels among student. In terms of the theory, "There is a strong relationship between self-concept and achievement "(Attribution Theory: B. Weiner). Weiner ( 1974) provides further explanation of this point.

Causal attributions determine affective reactions to success and failure. For example, one is not likely to experience pride in success, or feelings of competence, when receiving an 'A' from a teacher who gives only that grade...On the other hand, an 'A' from a teacher who gives few high grades or a victory over a highly rated tennis player following a great deal of practice generates great positive affect." (Weiner, 1974, p.362)

Therefore, it follows that those who have high levels of self-esteem will usually attribute their success to internal factors such as ability and hard work. On the other hand, these students will be more likely to attribute failure to external factors that are outside of their control; such as poor teaching or badly phrased exam questions. This type of analysis helps us to understand the way in which self-perception and the internalized perceptions of the external world influences motivation through different types of attribution.

In this light, behavior that is attributed to internal criteria, such as personality traits and ability are known as dispositional attribution. Attribution that focuses on external factors is known as situational attribution (Introduction to Organizational Behavior). The style of attribution is often referred to as a distinguishing aspect. In general the optimistic style of attribution refers to the way in which the individual explains negative events and action in terms of external causes and reasons. In this style, positive events and outcomes are attributed to internal and stable causes. The pessimistic style of attribution on the other hand tends to explain negative events in terms of internal or personal attributes, which are usually related to low-self-esteem; while positive events are attributed to external factors and criteria.

The issue of control and order in life is also a facet of this theory. The ability to make attributions about causes and reasons for events and circumstances provides a sense of order and predictability for the individual. In other… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Attribution Theory.  (2010, March 23).  Retrieved January 20, 2020, from

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"Attribution Theory."  March 23, 2010.  Accessed January 20, 2020.