The term attribution has several distinct meanings. In the 1920s, Austrian philosopher and psychologist Fritz Heider originally referred to attribution as a central process in human perception that helped solve a philosophical puzzle of the time. According to this puzzle, the mind perceives objects that exist in the world, but the perception itself exists in the mind; how, then, can people experience objects as “out there” rather than “in here,” in their own minds? Heider argued that humans engage in a psychological process of attributing their subjective experiences to objects in the world. That is, the objects are cognitively reconstructed to be the causal sources of perceptual experiences. By contrast, when people try to imagine (rather than perceive) an object, they attribute this experience to their own minds.
The second meaning is also based on Heider’s theorizing. In the 1940s, Heider became interested in social cognition, the processes by which people perceive and make judgments about other people. Here attributions are also causal judgments, but judgments about the causes of people’s behavior. Heider distinguished between two types of causal attributions. Attributions to personal causes refer to beliefs, desires, and intentions that bring about purposeful human behavior (e.g., writing a letter with the desire of impressing a potential employer); attributions to impersonal causes refer to forces that don’t involve intention or purpose (e.g., the wind drying out a person’s eyes). Thus, in the domain of social perception, social psychologists speak of causal attributions for behavior, that is, people’s attempts to explain why a behavior occurred.
A third kind of attribution is dispositional attribution. Beginning with Edward E. Jones in 1965, researchers became interested in a particular judgment people sometimes make when they observer another person’s behavior: inferences about the person’s more stable dispositions such as traits, attitudes, and values. For example, Dale sees Audrey flutter her eyelashes and concludes she is flirtatious. Sometimes people are too eager to make such dispositional attributions even when the behavior in the particular context does not warrant the inference; in that case, people are said to display the correspondence bias or fundamental attribution error.
Finally, social psychologists speak of responsibility attributions and blame attributions, which are judgments of a moral nature. When a negative outcome occurs (e.g., a window is shattered), people try to find out who is responsible for the outcome, who is to blame. Often such responsibility attributions rely directly on causal attributions (e.g., whoever shattered the window is responsible and is to blame), but sometimes they are more complex. When the window is shattered because the neighbor’s dog tried to chase a cat teasing him behind the window, the neighbor will be responsible, and if a strong wind causes the damage, the insurance will be responsible. Responsibility attributions, then, are based both on causality (who brought about what) and on people’s obligations (who ought to do what).
Attributions are thus judgments in which an experience, behavior, or event is connected to its source: the underlying object, cause, disposition, or responsible agent.
- Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.
- Weiner, B. (1995). Judgments of responsibility: A foundation for a theory of social conduct. New York: Guilford Press.