Discounting in Attribution

Discounting in Attribution Definition

Discounting in AttributionAttribution is the way in which people explain the causes of events or behaviors. At times, individuals must choose among different possible causes as explanations for a particular event or behavior. When people can see more than one reason for something happening, they discount, or minimize, the importance of each reason because they are unsure what the real cause actually is.

Background, History, and Evidence

Harold Kelley introduced the discounting principle in 1971 in his writings on attribution. He demonstrated how people use discounting to explain how job candidates present themselves to interviewers. When candidates act ideal in every way, observers explain that they may be showing their true personalities or may be simply conforming to what the situation demands. However, if they reveal themselves as not ideal for the job, observers conclude that they are showing who they truly are, since they could not have acted that way to try to get the job. Multiple causes make for uncertainty: For instance, how can you know if a politician’s promises are because of his or her beliefs or because of the potential for obtaining your vote? Given the strong situational demands upon their behavior, you might discount their beliefs.

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The discounting principle has been confirmed by many experiments since Kelley, with both adults and children. As children grow older, they become more sophisticated at differentiating when a person’s behavior is due to a single cause or multiple causes and at explaining the behavior in terms of these causes.

Importance and Implications of Discounting in Attribution

Discounting can be seen as a set of tradeoffs between two explanations; if one is present, people discount the other. For instance, the person/situation tradeoff can be seen in Kelley’s initial demonstration of explaining a job candidate’s behavior. Interestingly, observers seem prone to correspondence bias, in which they explain another’s behavior in terms of the individual’s corresponding personal qualities rather than in terms of situational factors that adequately explain the behavior. This bias is seen less in Eastern cultures, where people are more apt to discount the impact of the person’s disposition when there are reasonable situational explanations for their behavior.

Another tradeoff is whether people explain someone’s success by their effort or their inherent ability. As children get older, they become better at understanding that effort and ability are different, concluding that if someone works hard to succeed, they might not be smart. Some people create or claim obstacles in the way of their own success, such as drinking or not studying the night before a test; this is called self-handicapping. By doing this, they create multiple explanations for their failure at something. If they fail, they can discount the role of their own ability or intelligence, instead blaming the obstacle. If they succeed, they can attribute their success to their own ability. The implications of strategic discounting are quite profound in that individuals can skillfully keep ambiguous the explanations for the behavior of themselves, other individuals, or other groups, exploiting this uncertainty for their own purposes.


•          Kelley, H. H. (1971). Attribution in social interaction. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 1-26). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.