Self-attribution refers to the process through which people determine the antecedents and consequences of their behaviors. Because people do not have access to their internal states—attitudes, beliefs, emotions, motives, traits—they must infer these from observations of their own behaviors and the situational contexts in which they occurred.
Historical Background of Self-Attribution
Theoretical and empirical accounts of the self-attribution process developed from attribution theory, which addressed how individuals infer the internal states of others from observable behaviors. The theory was derived from the work of Fritz Heider, who suggested that behavioral perceptions are a function of how observers make attributions for the causes of behavior. According to Heider, behavioral causes can be attributed either to the person who performed the behavior (i.e., internal cause) or to the environment in which the behavior occurred (i.e., external cause). If an attribution is made to an internal cause, intentionality can be assigned to the person, and thus both stable and temporary characteristics of the actor can be inferred. More recently, Daryl Bem developed self-perception theory as an account of how people determine their own internal states. Bem suggested that people determine their own internal states by inferring them from observations of their own behavior and the situational context in which the behavior occurred.
The Process of Self-Attribution
Theoretically, self-attribution occurs in a manner that is similar to the process of person perception. Specifically, individuals observe their overt behavior, assign intentionality through an attribution to either internal or external causes, and infer their own internal states from their behavioral observations. For example, some students often read about social psychology, enjoy the topic, and even read when not studying for an exam; from this, they can make internal attributions of causality. Thus, they can infer that they hold favorable attitudes toward social psychology.
Errors in Self-Attribution
The process of self-attribution is far from perfect. One exemplary error is known as the self-serving bias, which suggests that people tend to attribute positive outcomes to internal causes but negative outcomes to external causes. For example, if students receive an A, they are likely to attribute the good grade to their own abilities; in contrast, if they receive a D, they are likely to attribute the poor grade to the difficulty of the assignment or to the harshness of the professor.
Implications of Self-Attribution
Errors in self-attribution may be responsible for poor psychological health. For example, depression is widely viewed as a function of a maladaptive style of self-attribution that is opposite to the self-serving bias. Specifically, depressed people often attribute positive outcomes to external causes but negative outcomes to internal causes. As a result, depressed people view positive outcomes as the result of chance or fate and view themselves as personally responsible for negative outcomes.
- Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.
- Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82, 213-225.