Defensive Attribution

Defensive Attribution Definition

Defensive attributions are explanations of behaviors that serve to defend an individual’s preferred beliefs about self, others, and the world.

Defensive Attribution Background

Defensive AttributionSigmund Freud, at the beginning of the 20th century, first popularized the idea that people’s desires can bias their explanations of events. Freud proposed a variety of defense mechanisms people use to avoid threatening interpretations of their own and other people’s behavior. For example, rationalization involves constructing false explanations for one’s own actions that avoid negative interpretations of them.

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The term defensive attribution combines the Freudian notion of psychological defense with the attribution theory of Fritz Heider. Attribution theory posits that people understand their social worlds as comprising causes and effects. The individual typically decides an action was caused either by an attribute of the individual (internal attribution) or by an aspect of the situation (external attribution). Like Freud, Heider proposed that because the cause of a behavior can never be known for certain, individuals’ desires can easily influence their attributions.

Types of Defensive Attribution

A variety of causal attributions serve a defensive function. When researchers began studying causal attributions in the 1960s, they found that people generally attribute their successes internally to their own abilities, but failures to external factors such as bad luck. This pattern of attributions, known as self-serving attributions, serves to defend or bolster individuals’ positive view of themselves (their self-esteem). People even sometimes set up an impediment to success prior to difficult evaluative situations so that they can have a ready defensive attribution should they subsequently fail. If they fail, they can then blame the impediment. For example, a student can go out drinking the night before an important exam, or procrastinate and only begin studying the night before the exam. Should the student then do poorly, he or she can defend against the self-esteem threatening possibility that he or she lacks the ability to do well by blaming a hangover or lack of preparation. This well-documented phenomenon, known as self-handicapping, demonstrates that people are often motivated to engage in defensive attribution to protect their self-esteem.

Similar defensive attributions are made for other people whom individuals like, such as friends, relatives and members of their own groups. For example, if a well-liked male friend treats his girlfriend badly, one is likely to be biased toward believing the girlfriend must have provoked the poor treatment. In contrast, people also generate defensive attributions to maintain negative views of people they don’t like and members of rival groups. A success by a member of a disliked group will tend to be attributed to luck or perhaps cheating.

Defensive attributions have also been shown to protect an individual’s beliefs about the world. Many people live with difficult circumstances such as poverty, disease, and physical handicaps. Yet, as Melvin Lerner’s just-world theory has proposed, individuals want to believe that the world is a just place and that they will not be victims of such circumstances. Research shows that to preserve such beliefs, people often blame others who experience misfortunes for their own fate. By defensively attributing negative outcomes to the person’s immorality, stupidity, or laziness, people can maintain the belief that the world is just and they themselves will be spared such a fate; this can lead to overly harsh judgments of others who are living in poverty or who have been victimized by diseases, accidents, or violent crimes such as rape.

Similarly, defensive attributions can be used to maintain faith in virtually any belief. They can help sustain faith in one’s religion, the righteousness of one’s nation, and the validity of one’s own theories. By using defensive attributions, people can tenaciously cling to their preferred beliefs even in the face of what would seem to be clear discrediting evidence. In the mid-1950s, Leon Festinger and colleagues documented this by studying a doomsday cult that predicted the world was going to end on a certain day. When that day arrived without incident, the members of the group explained that their own prayers and faith had saved the world.

The Importance of Defensive Attributions

As these examples suggest, defensive attributions often lead people toward biased and inaccurate views of themselves, other people, and the world around them. These views are often psychologically comforting; it feels good to have positive views of oneself and those one likes and relieves guilt and makes one feel safe to believe that the world is just and that people suffering misfortune are responsible for their problems. Indeed, some theory and research suggest that defensive attributions can help people function successfully in the world. For example, self-serving attributions seem to be prevalent in well-functioning people and lacking in depressed people.

However these attributions also contribute to failures, unjust treatment of others, prejudice, and interpersonal and intergroup conflict. They lead people to overlook aspects of themselves they need to improve, and to pursue career paths for which they are not suited. Minority groups within nations are almost always lower in socioeconomic status, and so defensive attributions to support belief in a just world are likely to contribute to negative stereotypes and prejudice against such groups.

In the interpersonal realm, defensive attributions often contribute to “finger pointing” or reciprocal blaming, leading to dissension within organizations and conflict within relationships. For example, in a failing marriage, a man may blame his dissatisfaction on his wife’s constant nagging, whereas the wife may blame her dissatisfaction on his neglect of her and the relationship. The truth may be that both need to change, but the defensive attributions lead to such divergent, unrealistic views of the problems that a positive resolution is unlikely.

Finally, defensive attributions can also contribute to political and international conflicts. For example, many Americans attributed the 2003 invasion of Iraq to a moral effort to remove a dangerous dictator and spread democracy. In contrast, many in the Middle East attributed the invasion to American immorality, arrogance, and greed. This is only one of many historical examples in which defensive attributions have had global consequences.


  1. Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (1987). Toward an integration of cognitive and motivational perspectives on social inference: A biased hypothesis-testing model. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 20, pp. 297-340). New York: Academic Press.
  2. Shaver, K. G. (1985). The attribution of blame: Causality, responsibility, and blameworthiness. New York: Springer.