Attribution Theory: A Complete Guide (With Different Types)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Individuals try to understand the cause of events and behaviours regularly and establish causal relationships using the information they have at their disposal. While some attributions may be based on a person's characteristics and personality traits, others are based on the situation and external factors beyond one's control. Irrespective of your professional background, learning about attribution theory can help you understand how people make attributions in daily life. In this article, we discuss the meaning of attribution theory, discover the types of attribution, explore different attribution theories and explore their applications in different professions and in the workplace.

What Is Attribution Theory?

Attribution theory is a psychological term that talks about how individuals explain various events and behaviours happening around them and form their judgements regarding the causes of the events. It explains how people gather different pieces of information and make correlations between them to arrive at conclusions. They make use of the information available to them and often attribute the behaviours to internal characteristics or external factors.

Types Of Attribution

The different types of attribution that people use in daily life are as follows:

Internal attribution

Internal attribution, also known as dispositional attribution, happens when people attribute the cause of an event or behaviour to an internal reason, such as personality traits, beliefs, feelings and motives. Most often, when an adverse event happens to others, people attribute it to internal characteristics. For example, two friends, Ram and Naresh, are going to their office in a car. If Ram crashes the car into a pillar, Naresh is most likely to attribute the accident to Ram's carelessness, inability to drive and other internal characteristics.

Related: Guide: 16 Personality Types

External attribution

External attribution is when people attribute the cause of an event to an external factor outside their control. When events occur with oneself, one generally attributes it to external factors instead of internal characteristics. For example, while going to the office, if Naresh crashes the car into the pillar instead of Ram, he is most likely to attribute it to a problem in the car's engine, slippery roads or another driver.

Interpersonal attribution

Interpersonal attribution occurs when the cause of an event may involve two or more people. While making attributions to the event, the narrator tries to show themselves in the best possible light. Interpersonal attribution also happens when someone questions a person's intentions. For example, when Rita and Mahesh get into a fight, while explaining the situation to his friends, Mahesh is most likely to show himself as the peacemaker and Rita as the cause of the problem.

Predictive attribution

Predictive attribution occurs when people try to make attributions by connecting different events and making predictions for the future. For example, Anisha does not drink tea one day and feels energetic, but the next day when she drinks tea, she suffers from a headache. Anisha makes a conclusion that she suffered from a headache because of the tea and decides that she cannot drink tea if she wants to feel energetic.

Explanatory attribution

Explanatory attribution refers to the way in which people explain certain events in their lives. While some people may associate a positive cause with an event, others may attribute a negative cause. Some people may also establish a positive causal relationship with a negative event. This can also indicate a person's outlook towards life events and determine whether they are an optimistic or pessimistic person.

Different Attribution Theories

Here are several theories that can help you understand how the attribution process works:

Common sense theory

Common sense theory is the oldest attribution theory proposed by Fritz Heider. According to this theory, people base their judgements about the cause of events on simple common sense. He categorised this theory into external and internal attribution. When people blame the cause of an event on external factors, he categorised it as external attribution. When the cause of the event is an internal characteristic, he categorised it as internal attribution.

Covariation model

The covariation model, developed by Harold Kelley, is of the most well-known theories of attribution. According to this model, people judge the cause of an event or behaviour by attributing it to a person's actions across different situations in separate contexts. Based on these observations, they try to determine if a person's behaviour is internally or externally motivated. This model takes into the following three factors while making an attribution:

  • Consensus: It refers to the situation in which an event or behaviour occurs. If many people act in a similar way and there is a consensus, people are more likely to make situational attributions rather than making an internal attribution about a particular person.

  • Distinctiveness: This model considers a person's behaviour in different situations. If a person behaves distinctly in only a specific type of situation, people make attributions to the situation rather than a person's internal characteristics.

  • Consistency: This model checks whether a person behaves in the same way in similar situations. If the behaviour remains consistent across similar situations, people make situational attributions.

The three-dimensional model

The three-dimensional model of attribution proposed by Bernard Weiner focuses on the theory of achievement. According to this theory, people can classify attributions into the following three categories:

  • Locus of control: It tests whether an event occurred because of a person's internal or external locus of control. In the internal locus, a person's success or failure occurred because of a personal characteristic, while in the external locus, an individual's success or failure is because of an external factor.

  • Stability: This dimension tests the duration of the attribution. If the cause of success or failure is a temporary factor, like illness, it is an unstable attribution, while factors like intelligence quotient are stable attributions.

  • Controllability: This dimension tests whether an individual can influence their success or failure. If a person can control the outcome through their actions, it is a controllable attribution, while an outcome that is out of their control is an uncontrollable attribution.

Related: 10 Key Factors To Success (And Tips For Measuring Success)

Correspondent inference theory

Proposed by Edward E. Jones and Keith E. Davis, this theory states that it is appropriate to attribute a person's behaviour to a person's personality traits. There are two factors that are considered while attributing a person's behaviour to their personality. If a person acts in a socially acceptable way in a particular type of situation, people are more likely to make a situational attribution instead of a dispositional attribution. When a person acts in a way that is socially unacceptable way, like showing their anger at being rejected, people are likely to make dispositional attributions about the person.

Applications Of Attribution Theory

Individuals make assumptions and judgements about the cause of events or behaviours on a daily basis knowingly or unknowingly. Here are some applications of attribution theory in different professions:

  • Clinical psychology: Clinical psychologists apply attribution theories in their day-to-day practice while trying to understand the cause of their patient's behaviours. They may also use the theories to understand the causes of their success or failures.

  • Law: Judges apply attribution theories to determine whether the factors that result in crimes are internal to the accused or external factors beyond their control. They may also apply the theories to determine socially acceptable or unacceptable events and behaviours.

  • Advertising: Advertisers can use the attribution theory to understand how people react and respond to their advertisements or other advertisements in general. This can help them design advertising campaigns that can evoke the desired actions.

Related: How To Become A Psychologist: A Complete Guide (With Steps)

Attribution Theory In The Workplace

Attribution theory is important in the workplace because it can affect the decisions and the actions of the management. These actions can then affect the morale of employees and it may affect them positively or negatively. For example, if a manager attributes the poor performance of an employee to a lack of motivation or interest, the employee may lose their job or the manager may demote them to a lower rank.

Instead, if a manager attributes an employee's poor performance to mental health issues or lack of training, they may encourage the employee to take a vacation or undergo counselling and training. Employees may also make attributions about their coworkers and managers when there is a promotion in the organisation. If an employee gets promoted, their coworkers may perceive it as a result of their hard work or attribute it to being the manager's favourite employee. Some employees may also believe that their success is outside their locus of control and may lose motivation or interest in their work.

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