Attribution Theory in Sport

Attributions are explanations about why particular performances  or  behaviors  have  occurred.  When faced  with  important,  negative,  novel,  or  unexpected  events,  individuals  search  for  meaningful explanations for the causes of those events. In this regard, it is widely acknowledged that attributions are  an  area  of  importance  in  the  field  of  applied psychology because of their implications for motivation  and  emotion.  This  entry  discusses  the  historical theories that have provided the framework for  research  into,  and  application  of,  attribution theory  in  sport  and  exercise  settings,  then  moves on to highlight recent theoretical advances, assessments of attributions, empirical evidence for attribution  theory,  and  the  application  of  attribution theory.

Historical Theories

If a particular individual were to be singled out as the founder of the scientific study of attributions, it would be Fritz Heider. He proposed that people explore  explanations  for  events  or  behaviors  to increase  their  control  over  the  environment  and to satisfy a desire to understand and gain knowledge  about  the  world.  His  insights  provided  the impetus for numerous theories and investigations. Three  of  the  most  well-known  are  Edward  Jones and Keith Davis’s correspondent inference theory, Harold  Kelley’s  covariation  model,  and  Bernard Weiner’s attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion.

Correspondent  inference  theory  proposes  that people infer dispositions and intentions of others, as  a  result  of  observing  their  behavior.  That  is, behavior is seen as corresponding to or reflecting an underlying disposition of the actor. In general, correspondence  is  high  when  behavior  is  atypical and has clear implications. In other words, behavior  is  informative  to  the  extent  that  it  is  seen  to involve  choice  among  alternatives.  Whereas  correspondent  inference  theory  focused  mainly  on person  perception  (or  attributing  to  others),  the covariation  model  made  contributions  to  our understanding  of  self-perception.  The  covariation model  suggests  that  people  arrive  at  a  cause  for an event by processing information about whether accompanying  conditions  and  circumstances  vary or  not  as  the  event  changes.  According  to  the model,  people  use  three  types  of  information— consistency,  distinctiveness,  and  consensus—to verify  whether  they  have  correctly  linked  causes and effects.

The  approach  that  has  had  most  influence  on attribution research in sport and exercise psychology  is  the  attributional  theory  of  achievement motivation  and  emotion.  A  central  premise  of this  theory  is  that  there  is  a  dimensional  structure  underpinning  the  explanations  people  give for  events.  Building  on  previous  works  in  this field,  Bernard  Weiner,  a  key  figure  in  conceptualizing  the  attributional  categories  into  dimensions,  initially  identified  four  main  attributions (or  attribution  elements),  namely,  ability,  effort, task  difficulty,  and  luck;  these  were  then  classified  into  two  dimensions,  locus  of  causality  and stability.  Locus  of  causality  refers  to  whether  the cause is inside (internal) or outside (external) the person;  stability  refers  to  whether  the  cause  will (unstable)  or  will  not  (stable)  change  over  time. Later deductive theorizing led to the identification of  a  third  dimension,  controllability,  referring  to whether the cause could be viewed as controllable or uncontrollable.

Recent Theoretical Advances

Despite warnings by a number of researchers that the three dimensions of locus of causality, stability, and controllability may not be appropriate for all types of situations (e.g., sport and exercise), until recently,  there  has  been  little  effort  to  examine alternative approaches. In 2005, Tim Rees, David Ingledew,  and  Lew  Hardy  published  an  article that  examined  the  congruence  between  theory, research, and practice of attributions in sport. On the  basis  of  their  observations,  they  proposed  a broader  conceptual  approach  to  our  understanding  of  attributions.  They  encouraged  (a)  a  focus on the controllability dimension, (b) an expanded conceptualization  of  generalizability  attributions (in  addition  to  stability,  examining  globality  and universality  attributions),  and  (c)  exploring  interactive effects of controllability and generalizability attributions upon performances or behaviors.

The focus on controllability is based on empirical  and  theoretical  grounds.  Empirically,  studies in a wide array of domains have shown that perceived  personal  control  is  an  important  psychological  predictor.  For  example,  within  general social  psychology,  perceived  personal  control  has been shown to affect a person’s level of depression, loneliness,  and  shyness,  and  in  sport  an  athlete’s level  of  subsequent  self-efficacy.  Theoretically, the  need  to  exert  control  over  future  events  was foundational  to  early  attribution  theorizing,  with Harold   Kelley   commenting   that   the   purpose of  causal  analysis  is  effective  control.  Further, drawing  upon  attribution  theory,  the  expectancy of  future  uncontrollability  is  at  the  heart  of  Lyn Abramson, Martin Seligman, and John Teasdale’s reformulation  of  the  learned  helplessness  model: The  expectancy  of  future  uncontrollability  is  the most direct determinant of helplessness.

The second proposal is that, in addition to the stability  dimension,  attribution  research  in  sport and  exercise  should  examine  the  dimensions  of globality  and  universality.  The  addition  of  globality  refers  to  whether  the  cause  affects  a  wide range of situations with which the person is faced (a  global  attribution)  or  a  narrow  range  of  situations  (a  specific  attribution);  universality  refers to  whether  the  cause  is  common  to  all  people  (a universal  attribution)  or  unique  to  the  individual (a personal attribution). This leads to an expanded conceptualization  of  generalizability:  In  addition to  whether  causes  generalize  across  time  (stability), attribution research should examine whether causes generalize across situations (globality) or all people (universality).

The  final  proposal  is  that  researchers  need  to move  beyond  testing  solely  main  effects  of  attributions  to  exploring  interactive  effects  of  controllability  and  generalizability  attributions  upon performances  or  behaviors.  Until  recently,  the focus of much attribution research had been upon main or independent effects of attribution dimensions. To model generalizability, however, implies the need to consider interactive effects. Interactions of  attribution  dimensions  may  well  be  important because  attributing,  for  example,  less  successful  performances  to  uncontrollable  causes  may only lead to negative effects when causes are also considered  to  be  stable  (unlikely  to  change  over time), global (likely to affect a wide range of situations), or personal (unique to the individual). For example, an athlete attributing poor performance to  poor  concentration  might  say,  “There  was nothing  I  could  do  about  it”  (an  uncontrollable attribution),  together  with  “and  this  will  never change” (a stable attribution), or “and this affects a lot of situations I find myself in” (a global attribution),  or  “and  this  only  happens  to  me”  (a personal attribution). In this instance, the athlete might well be expected to experience poorer subsequent performance. Conversely, higher levels of performance would be expected if the athlete were to  combine  this  uncontrollable  attribution  with “but  this  will  change”  (an  unstable  attribution), or  “however,  this  only  affects  a  few  situations I  find  myself  in”  (a  specific  attribution),  or  “but this  affects  everyone,  not  just  me”  (a  universal attribution).

Assessing Attributions

Various  methods  have  been  employed  in  the measurement  and  categorization  of  attributions. Open-ended  methods  involve  the  researcher  categorizing the oral replies of participants to openended  questions.  Derived  score  methods  require the participant to rate reasons for a success or failure on five-point scales for different elements (e.g., ability,  effort,  task  difficulty)  related  to  the  attribution  dimensions.  Problems  can  arise,  however, when  researchers  try  to  summarize  attributions along dimensions or otherwise assume the dimensional  categories  of  attributions.  Recent  attribution measures, such as the Causal Dimension Scale (CDS), the Causal Dimension Scale II (CDSII), and the Measure of Controllability, Stability, Globality, and  Universality  Attributions  (CSGU),  have  used direct rating methods. These methods require the participants to state their reasons for the event and then  map  those  reasons  onto  items  referring  to attribution dimensions.

The  CDS  was  developed  to  reflect  Weiner’s three-dimensional  model  of  attributions.  A  number of methodological criticisms have been leveled at the CDS, in particular concerns over the nature of  the  controllability  subscale,  which  contains items  referring  to  controllability,  responsibility, and  intentionality.  The  revision  of  the  CDS  (the CDSII)  focused  on  changes  to  the  controllability items, with all six of the items from the locus of causality  and  stability  subscales  left  unaltered. In  the  CDSII,  the  controllability  dimension  was subdivided  into  personal  control  (control  by the  actor)  and  external  control  (control  by  others).  Based  upon  recent  proposals  in  the  sport and  exercise  psychology  literature,  measures  of attributions  should  include  four  scales  for  controllability  and  the  generalizability  dimensions of  stability,  globality,  and  universality.  Following this, researchers developed the CSGU, a 16-item, 4-factor  measure  of  attributions  that  assesses  the four  dimensions  of  controllability,  stability,  globality, and universality.

Empirical Evidence for Attribution Theory

A number of research articles have been published, exploring  the  following  key  propositions  of  the attributional  theory  of  achievement  motivation and emotion: (a) the locus-of-causality dimension affects intrapersonal emotions including pride and shame;  (b)  the  stability  dimension  affects  expectations  of  future  success  and  feelings  of  hopefulness;  and  (c)  the  controllability  dimension  affects interpersonal  emotions  including  blame,  anger, and  pity.  Despite  empirical  support,  these  propositions  are  limited  to  the  extent  they  explore  the effects  of  attribution  dimensions  in  isolation.  In other words, the proposals focus solely upon main effects of attribution dimensions upon outcomes.

Recent  research  has  reported  the  interactive effects  of  attribution  dimensions  upon  outcomes. Collectively,  the  research  demonstrates  that  the independent effects of attribution dimensions upon outcomes—such  as  emotions,  self-efficacy,  and performance—may  be  conditioned  by  interactive effects.  For  example,  research  has  demonstrated that,  following  failure,  higher  levels  of  perceptions of controllability may only lead to beneficial effects if causes are also considered to generalize, such  as  across  time  (interaction  of  controllability and stability).

Application of Attribution Theory

Attributional   retraining   involves   attempts   to change  maladaptive  explanations  for  outcomes (attributing  failure  to  uncontrollable  or  stable causes)   toward   more   adaptive   explanations (attributing  failure  to  controllable  or  unstable causes).  Although  there  is  discrepancy  in  the  literature  regarding  whether  negative  behaviors  or outcomes  should  be  perceived  as  inside  the  individual  (internal  locus  of  causality)  or  outside  the individual  (external  locus  of  causality),  there  is agreement  in  regard  to  the  need  to  perceive  such causes  as  controllable.  For  example,  following failure like a loss in sport or a relapse from a positive behavior like smoking a cigarette following a period of abstinence, an individual is encouraged to  attribute  the  negative  outcome  or  behavior  to causes that are within one’s control. In situations where  such  causes  are  perceived  as  outside  one’s control (i.e., a maladaptive attribution), the procedure of attributional retraining involves practitioners manipulating causes toward aspects that are within one’s control.


Attribution  theory  has  a  rich  history  in  general (social)  psychology,  and  has  significantly  influenced  applied  practice  in  sport  and  exercise  settings.  Recent  theoretical  advances,  supported  by empirical evidence, suggest a promising future for attribution theory to continue as a principal theory in sport and exercise psychology.


  1. Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49–74.
  2. Biddle, S. J. H., Hanrahan, S. J., & Sellars, C. N. (2001). Attributions: Past, present, and future. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 444–471). New York: Wiley.
  3. Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.
  4. Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965). From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 219–266). New York: Academic Press.
  5. Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine, Nebraska symposium on motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 192–240). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  6. Rees, T., Ingledew, D. K., & Hardy, L. (2005). Attribution in sport psychology: Seeking congruence between theory, research and practice. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 6, 189–204.
  7. Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. New York: Springer.

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