Responsibility Attribution

Responsibility Attribution Definition

A responsibility attribution relates to beliefs about the cause of an event, or outcome, or state. The event in question may be positive (success) or negative, but responsibility is used more in association with aversive outcomes. Hence, a responsibility attribution is linked with terms such as fault and blame, with the individual held accountable for an unwanted experience. In addition, a responsibility attribution may apply to the self or to others. This paper focuses on social perception and judgments about others, rather than on self-perception.

Responsibility AttributionResponsibility attributions are of central importance in studies of thinking, feeling, and behavior (motivation). Social psychologists therefore have devoted much attention to this topic, and that interest remains central.

How Does One Know If Another Is Responsible?

If an earthquake leveled a house, then it is unlikely that a particular individual will be held responsible. A responsibility attribution presumes that a person brought about the outcome. But responsibility implies more than an attribution to a person. It also embraces a guilty mind and the belief that it could have been otherwise. Hence, although effort and ability are person characteristics, lack of effort resulting in failure elicits judgments of responsibility, whereas this is not the case given lack of aptitude as the cause, which is presumed not to be subject to volitional control and change. In a similar manner, obesity caused by love of eating or HIV/AIDS caused by promiscuous sexual behavior gives rise to responsibility ascriptions, whereas obesity because of a thyroid disorder or HIV/AIDS traced to a transfusion with contaminated blood results in beliefs of nonresponsibility. The former are “sinners,” the latter are “sick.”

These can be difficult judgments, prone to influence by biases and affected by a variety of information. For example, situational causes of behavior tend to be underestimated in comparison with personal causes, so that an individual may be blamed for a car accident on a rainy day because the severity of the road conditions is underestimated (what is called discounting).

Judgments of responsibility embrace complex issues at the intersection of law, philosophy, and psychology, and scholars with these interests often pose odd dilemmas to tease apart the essence of responsibility. Consider the following: Robber #1 is about to rob a bank when Robber #2 enters that bank, holds a gun to the head of Robber #1, and demands that he help rob the bank or else he will be shot. Is Robber #1 responsible for the robbery? Similarly, when a severely abused woman intentionally kills her abusive spouse when he is asleep, is she fully responsible for this action? Judgments of responsibility are lessened given mitigating circumstances, such as mental state at the time of the behavior. Hence, the abused spouse is likely to receive a more lenient sentence than is one who has not been victimized.

Consequences of Responsibility Beliefs

Responsibility attributions affect emotions. Some psychologists contend that feeling is directly determined by thinking, that is, what is thought determines what is felt. The task for this group of emotion theorists is to specify the key thoughts linked with emotions and identify the feelings they generate. Perceived responsibility for an aversive event gives rise to anger and related emotions such as annoyance. For example, you are mad when a roommate fails to clean up the kitchen or when a friend misses an appointment. Furthermore, the greater the perceived responsibility is, the more intense the anger is. Hence, an intentionally missed appointment gives rise to greater anger than does one forgotten (an unintentional cause revealing a less guilty mind). On the other hand, nonresponsibility for a negative event or state gives rise to sympathy and pity. People feel sorry for the mentally handicapped person who cannot complete an academic task and for the physically handicapped individual who cannot compete in an athletic event. Thus, responsibility judgments provide one key to thinking-feeling linkages.

In addition, responsibility judgments and their linked feelings give rise to important behavioral reactions. For example, charity is more likely to be endorsed for those considered not responsible for their plights. Hence, it is easier to solicit financial assistance for the blind than for drug abusers. This is one reason why so many have contributed charity to those suffering from hurricane damage in New Orleans and other southern cities. Similarly, welfare payments are denounced by individuals who see these recipients as lazy rather than unemployed because of harsh economic conditions. Political ideology affects these judgments and how the political parties perceive one another and themselves. Democrats (liberals) accuse Republicans (conservatives) of holding others responsible when this is not the case—for example, blaming those in need of welfare for being lazy, when their poverty is caused by the minimum wage being too low or by some other uncontrollable factor. Conversely, Republicans accuse Democrats of being bleeding hearts, giving out public funds to those who are truly responsible for their plights, and not differentiating between the deserving and the undeserving needy. There are kernels of truth in both positions, but of greater importance here is that this debate illustrates the central role responsibility beliefs play in political life.

Responsibility attributions and their consequences are pervasive in other aspects of everyday life as well. For example, teachers and parents are likely to punish failure because of lack of studying but not if this failure is attributed to lack of aptitude; spouses in distressed marriages are more likely to fault their partners for aversive events than are partners in successful marriages; caregivers blame the mentally ill more for passive symptoms (e.g., apathy) than for active symptoms (e.g., hallucinations); and on and on. Thus, responsibility judgments and their linked affects loom large in people’s lives.

Altering Responsibility Beliefs

Inasmuch as being held responsible for a negative event has great personal costs, individuals strive to reduce such judgments. Impression management techniques are available to meet this goal, including denial of the event; providing an excuse (ex = from, cuse = cause) that is external to the person or uncontrollable (“I am late because the subway broke down”), giving a justification so that the punishable behavior is regarded as serving a higher goal (“I missed the appointment to take my mother to the hospital”), or confessing, which has the paradoxical effect of maintaining responsibility yet reducing punishment. This is likely because the act and the actor are separated—the confessor is perceived as a good person who happened to perform a bad act.


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