What is Attribution Theory?

Attribution theory is a prominent and widely researched theory of motivation that was developed  by  Bernard Weiner  and  colleagues  from  the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s and 1980s. The focal point of attribution theory is the general human tendency to ask “why” an outcome occurred, especially outcomes that are negative, unusual, or unexpected. For example, imagine a third grader who gets an F on a spelling test. According to attribution theory, the student would then implicitly or explicitly ask: “Why did I fail this test?” Depending on his or her performance on previous tests and the performance of classmates, the student might variously perceive that the poor grade was due to poor preparation, to bad luck, to the teacher not liking him, or, most disastrously, to his own low academic ability. Although any number of attributions can be enlisted to explain achievement outcomes, ability and effort appear to be the most dominant. In Western cultures at least, individuals attach the most importance to their perceived competencies and how hard they tried. That is, when students succeed, they often say, “I worked hard” or “I am smart.” And if they fail, they are likely to conclude, “I didn’t work hard” or “I am not very smart.”

Dimensional Theory

Because there are so many possible causes of success and failure in so many different domains, attribution theory has focused on the underlying properties of causes, which are labeled causal dimensions. Weiner defines three primary dimensions: locus of causality, stability, and controllability. Locus refers to the location of a cause, either internal or external to the subject; stability describes whether the cause is permanent (stable) or temporary (unstable); and controllability reflects whether the cause can be regulated by the individual. For example, low ability (aptitude) as a cause of failure is typically perceived as internal to the person, stable over time, and uncontrollable. Lack of effort, in contrast, is also internal, but more often perceived as unstable and controllable. That is, effort can fluctuate from situation to situation, and people have control over how hard they try. Among the other prominent attributions for failure, task difficulty is external, stable, and uncontrollable and bad luck is external, unstable, and uncontrollable.

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Consequences Of Causal Ascriptions

Each dimension of causality relates to certain psychological consequences. The locus dimension relates to self-esteem and pride. When subjects make internal  attributions after failure experiences, they tend to experience decreased self-esteem, but when they make internal attributions after success experiences, they feel greater pride and self-esteem. Because pride and self-esteem have been shown to foster achievement strivings, internal causal ascriptions are desirable and generally motivating following success experiences.

The dimension of stability influences expectancy of future success. When individuals experience success and attribute the cause of their success to stable factors such as ability, they are likely to expect future success, but when they encounter failure and make similar stable attributions, they perceive that future success is unlikely or impossible. Making unstable causal attributions in the face of failure (e.g., “this happened because of bad luck or poor effort”) has been shown to increase subject persistence.

The dimension of controllability relates to emotions such as anger, guilt, pity, and shame. Individuals tend to experience anger when success is thwarted owing  to  factors  controllable  by  others,  and  guilt when failure seems due to internal controllable causes such as lack of effort or neglectfulness. Pity is felt when the failure experiences of others are perceived as caused by uncontrollable factors (e.g., lack of ability or handicap), and shame or embarrassment is felt when failure seems due to internal uncontrollable causes such as low ability. When guilt is experienced, goal-directed activity is increased, but shame tends to lead to task withdrawal.

Applications Of The Theory

Self-Serving Bias

Individuals constantly make attributions in their efforts to understand their environment. Yet even the most competent people are not immune to biases or errors in the way that they perceive their causal world. One such error, labeled the self-serving bias, is the tendency to take credit for success but blame others for failure. For example, when a fan returns from a sporting event and a friend inquires, “How was the game?” the person is likely to respond, “We won,” which linguistically evidences a measure of personal triumph for the winning team’s accomplishment, or “They lost,” which squarely places external blame on the losing team’s defeat. Similarly, parents of children with academic problems tend to provide external explanations for their children’s difficulties (e.g., the teachers are inadequate, the curriculum is subpar), but parents of gifted children tend to claim personal responsibility (e.g., their good genetic contribution, use of effective child-rearing techniques). Self-serving biases are often adaptive and are correlated with good mental  health. They  can  become  dysfunctional  when they lead to poor interpersonal relations, ineffective problem solving, or undue hostility toward others. For example, one of the precursors of child and spousal abuse is a low threshold for blaming family members for negative events.

In Teaching

Many studies have substantiated a strong locus–esteem relationship. Investigators, for instance, have found that teachers tend to take the credit when their students perform well by making ego-enhancing attributions, but assign blame to students when they perform poorly by making ego-defensive attributions. By blaming student failure on external causes, such as poor home environment, teachers “save face” and protect their self-images. Interestingly, effective teachers tend to view student learning difficulties and behavior  problems  as  unstable,  or  temporary,  and thus  amenable  to  intervention. When  teachers  see student failure as potentially avoidable through personal intervention, expectancy for future student improvement is enhanced and teacher persistence is increased. Some have even suggested that teachers’ attributions should be assessed as part of the teacher selection process.

The dimension of controllability has been shown to be associated with certain teacher emotions and behavior intentions. Teachers are most likely to reward students when success is seen as a result of effort, a controllable cause, whereas teachers tend to exhibit more anger, rejection, and punishment when failure is seen as resulting from lack of effort. Teachers are less committed to helping students when they perceive problem causality to be controllable by the students. Teachers’ emotions and messages have also (sometimes paradoxically) been shown to act as ability cues to students. For example, when a teacher expresses pity to a child who does poorly on a test, the student is more likely to think that the teacher believes the student to possess low ability, but if the teacher expresses anger to the student, the student is more likely to internalize a high-ability message: That if the student had tried harder or studied more, they could have been more successful.

Attribution Retraining Programs

Attribution theory is guided by the belief that causal thoughts (e.g., “Why did I fail?”) guide feelings and behavior. Therefore, changing maladaptive causal thoughts to more adaptive causal beliefs should result in improvements in achievement-related feelings and behaviors. That line of reasoning has been the basis of a program of intervention research known as attribution retraining. Most of the studies have focused on teaching students to attribute their failures to unstable causes that are within their control (e.g., low effort) rather than stable causes that also are uncontrollable (e.g., low ability). Attribution retraining programs have been implemented with both children and college-age students and have proved quite successful. Retrained students have reported more attributions to poor effort than to low ability when they encountered failure, higher expectations for future success, and more persistence in the fact of challenging tasks. Although the research has focused on the change from low ability to lack of effort, any failure attribution that is both unstable and controllable would be adaptive. Furthermore, attribution retraining might also be appropriate for success. Some students have benefited from being trained to attribute their success to internal and stable causes rather than external and unstable causes such as unusual help from others or good luck.

In Peer Relations

Although attribution theory has primarily been applied to academic achievement outcomes, it also has been very useful in the study of social success and failure. In the domain of peer relations, for example, students  also  ask  “why”  they  have  no  friends  or are the targets of others’ harassment. As in the achievement domain, moreover, some kinds of attributions for social failure might be particularly maladaptive. It has been documented that when victims of peer harassment attribute their plight to internal, stable, and uncontrollable causes, they feel more depressed, lonely, and anxious than if they attributed their harassment to external or unstable factors, such as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is evident that victims of peer harassment cope much better if they do not blame themselves for those negative social experiences.

Attributional Style

Attribution theory concentrates on the situation under  study—a  person  might  endorse  one  type  of attribution  in  achievement  situations  but  another type when they confront social dilemmas or health challenges. However, some people appear to have a general propensity to explain good and bad events in a particular way. That propensity has been defined as attributional style, which allows people to be classified as either pessimists or optimists. People who explain negative outcomes as internal (“it’s me”), stable (‘things will always be that way”), and global (“it affects many areas of my life”) are judged to have a pessimistic attributional style. In contrast, those who typically attribute negative events to external, unstable, and specific events are considered to have an optimistic attributional style. Attributions for good events can also be considered pessimistic (external, unstable, specific) or optimistic (internal, stable, global). Research on attributional style has shown that optimists do better in school, enjoy greater work productivity, and have better long-term health.

Future Directions And Conclusion

Attribution research has documented how individuals’ causal ascriptions affect their emotions, motivation, and behavior in a variety of subtle and powerful ways. Most importantly, the model has provided researchers, educational psychologists, sociologists, consumer analysts, and medical professionals with a framework to describe and understand why individuals are motivated to exert effort (or avoid tasks) in a wide variety of contexts. Studies related to causal attributions and human behavior offer an array of implications for parents, students, teachers, school leaders, and employers.


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