Distinctiveness in Attribution

Distinctiveness in Attribution Definition

Distinctiveness in AttributionDistinctiveness, in attribution, refers to the extent to which a specific action engaged in by an individual is unusual or uncommon for that particular individual. The judgment of whether an action is high in distinctiveness, that is, uncommon for the individual who engaged in it, or low in distinctiveness, common for that individual, depends on knowledge of that individual’s past behavior. Such information is referred to as distinctiveness information.

Distinctiveness in Attribution Background

The concept of distinctiveness developed out of attribution theory, which was originated by Fritz Heider. Heider began by noting that to understand people, one needs to understand how they view their own social world—their naive psychology. Heider proposed that people understand their social worlds largely in terms of cause and effect. When observing a given action, the individual typically decides the action was caused either by an attribute of the individual(i.e., an internal attribution) or by an aspect of the individual’s situation (i.e., an external attribution). Heider further argued that the attribution for the action would depend on the observer’s knowledge of both the individual and the situation.

Distinctiveness and Attribution

In 1967, Harold Kelley formalized some of Heider’s ideas into a model of attribution which labeled the different judgments people use to infer causal attributions for another individual’s behavior. He proposed that knowledge of the individual’s past actions, that is, distinctiveness information, would affect the likelihood of making an internal attribution. If this information suggests that the individual has engaged in similar behavior in the past in a variety of situations, the behavior would be judged low in distinctiveness, and an internal attribution, to some aspect of the individual, would be more likely. In contrast, if the information suggests the individual has rarely engaged in similar behavior in other situations, the behavior would be judged high in distinctiveness, and an internal attribution would be less likely.

Consider a hypothetical example. If John gets into a fight, information suggesting that John has often got into fights likely would lead to an internal attribution to his aggressive nature. Alternatively, information suggesting that John had never previously fought would be unlikely to lead to an internal attribution.

The Importance of Distinctiveness in Attribution

As this example suggests, and research generally confirms, distinctiveness plays a significant role in attributions, and attributions affect the impressions people form of others. This is important not only in daily social life but in other domains of life, such as legal settings, as well. In an assault case, if jurors decide that the defendant’s action was a result of his violent nature, a guilty verdict would be likely. In contrast, if they decide that the action was caused not by the defendant’s violent nature, but rather by severe provocation from the victim (an external attribution), a not guilty verdict would be likely. United States courts are so aware of the role of distinctiveness information that judges are very careful in determining whether information concerning the defendant’s past behavior is admissible in court.


  • Kelley, H. H. (1973). Processes of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28, 107-128.