Attributional Ambiguity

Attributional Ambiguity Definition

Attributional ambiguity is a psychological state of uncertainty about the cause of a person’s outcomes or treatment. It can be experienced with regard to one’s own outcomes or treatment or those of another person, and with regard to positive as well as negative outcomes or treatment. It occurs whenever there is more than one plausible reason for why a person was treated in a certain way or received the outcomes that he or she received.

Antecedents of Attributional Ambiguity

Attributional AmbiguityA variety of factors may contribute to attributional ambiguity. Most research on this topic has examined a particular form of attributional ambiguity: that which arises in social interactions between people who differ in their social identities or group memberships and in which there is uncertainty about whether an individual’s treatment is based on his or her personal deservingness (such as abilities, efforts, personality, or qualifications) versus on aspects of his or her social identity (such as family wealth, appearance, ethnicity, gender).

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Attributional ambiguity arises in such interactions when a particular social identity or group membership is associated with a set of stereotypes or beliefs that are valenced, that is, that make a person more or less valued in society. Simple differences among people are not sufficient. Thus, for example, it is unlikely that a student majoring in art would experience attributional ambiguity in his or her interactions with students majoring in psychology unless he or she believed that psychology majors held positive or negative stereotypes about art majors. For individuals to experience attributional ambiguity in their interactions with others, they must suspect that others have some ulterior motive for responding in a particular way. This is more likely to occur when they believe that others are aware of their social identity, are aware of others’ stereotypes about their social identity, and have some knowledge of the content or valence of these stereotypes.

People who have a stigmatized social identity (such as members of devalued ethnic groups and the overweight) experience more attributional ambiguity in their everyday encounters than do those who are not stigmatized. Those who stigmatized are aware that others hold negative stereotypes about, and prejudicial attitudes against, their social identity. For some individuals, their stigmatized identity plays a central role in how they see themselves and in how they interpret others’ reactions to them. Hence, when they are treated negatively by someone who is aware of their social identity, they may be unsure whether it is due to something about them personally or due to prejudice against their social identity.

Positive outcomes also can be attributionally ambiguous for the stigmatized. When there are strong social sanctions against expressing prejudice, those who are stigmatized may become suspicious of positive feedback. They may wonder, for example, whether an evaluator’s positive feedback on their essay accurately reflects the quality of their work or reflects the evaluator’s desire not to appear prejudiced. Social programs designed to remediate past injustices, such as affirmative action programs, can introduce attributional ambiguity when they are seen as providing an explanation for positive outcomes based on social identity. When such programs make it clear that advancement is based on merit as well as social identity, such ambiguity diminishes. Those who are stigmatized may also find unsolicited kindnesses or offers of help attributionally ambiguous. They may wonder whether these responses reflect genuine caring for them as individuals or feelings of sympathy or pity because of their stigma.

Individuals who possess a statistically deviant but culturally valued social identity (such as extreme wealth, beauty, or fame) also may experience attributional ambiguity, particularly in response to positive treatment or outcomes. Like stigmas, culturally valued attributes are associated with valenced stereotypes, in this case generally positive stereotypes. These individuals may be uncertain whether others’ favorable reactions to them are genuine or reflect ulterior motives. Similarly, they may be unsure whether they have earned their positive outcomes through their personal efforts or talents or were accorded them because of their culturally valued mark. In sum, attributional ambiguity is more likely to be experienced when one believes others hold negative or positive attitudes toward one’s social identity and when one believes there are strong social norms against individuals expressing their true attitudes.

Consequences of Attributional Ambiguity

Attributional ambiguity has important affective, self-evaluative, interpersonal, and motivational implications. Uncertainty about the cause of one’s social outcomes threatens a sense of predictability and control and is affectively distressing. Uncertainty about the cause of positive outcomes can undermine self-esteem by preventing a person from taking credit for his or her successes or internalizing positive feedback. Uncertainty about the cause of negative outcomes also can undermine self-esteem. When negative outcomes are, in fact, due to prejudice, ambiguity can mask this fact and lead people wrongly to doubt their ability. People who are rejected report higher self-esteem and less stress when they know for sure that the rejection was due to discrimination than when they are unsure of its cause. However, attributional ambiguity can also provide an opportunity for self-esteem protection. When alternative causes for an event are present (such as another’s bias), the contribution of other causes (such as one’s own ability) is discounted. Thus, attributional ambiguity may buffer self-esteem from negative outcomes if it enables individuals to discount internal, stable aspects of themselves as causes of those outcomes. Indeed, research shows that among individuals who experience negative feedback, the more they blame the feedback on prejudice rather than on themselves, the higher their self-esteem.

Attributional ambiguity can have negative implications for self-knowledge. When alternative attributions for both negative outcomes and positive outcomes are present, individuals may come to regard feedback as not particularly diagnostic of their true ability. Consequently, people who chronically experience attributional ambiguity and who feel vulnerable to being treated on the basis of their stigma find it more difficult to accurately assess their abilities, gauge their potential, and select tasks of a difficulty level that is appropriate to their ability.

Attributional ambiguity can interfere with cognitive performance when it leads people to devote cognitive resources to trying to figure out why they were treated in a particular way rather than focusing on the task at hand. Attributional ambiguity can undermine motivation when it leads people to question the extent to which their outcomes are under their personal control (such as their own effort) as opposed to outside of their control. Attributional ambiguity can damage relationships by undermining trust and engendering suspicion. Finally, attributional ambiguity may lead to physiological changes in the body, such as increased blood pressure and decreased production of antibodies, which have negative implications for health.


  1. Aronson, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2004). The ups and downs of attributional ambiguity. Psychological Science, 15, 829-836.
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