Attribution Theory

Attribution theory is an older theory that was revived during the 1970s and 1980s. It was first proposed in a book called The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations by Fritz Heider in 1958. Heider said we all act like amateur scientists, in social situations. We try to understand other people by inventing theories to explain behavior. Most often, we theorize that a person is acting because of internal predispositions, or external forces...but not both.

In what way do people act like amateur scientists, according to Heider? What are attributions to "the person" versus "the situation"?

An attribution (AT-trib-U-shun) is an assignment of responsibility. It is essentially a cause-effect analysis of behavior. As Heider pointed out, we typically explain behavior in one of two ways. We attribute the behavior to the person or we attribute the behavior to the situation.

For example, suppose a friend flunked out of school. Heider would say you are likely to build a theory about what caused this event. In building this theory, you are likely to make a choice: you could blame the event on the person or you could blame it on the situation. If you blame it on the person, you will probably feel it is your friend's fault that he or she flunked out of school. If you blame it on the situation, you might feel that circumstances were overwhelming and the events are not your friend's fault. This illustrates the difference between attributing a behavior to a person or a situation.

Obviously it is an oversimplification to attribute (a-TRIB-ute) a complex event like flunking out of school to one factor or another. Surely the true explanation will often involve an interaction of the person and the situation. While we might acknowledge this intellectually, Heider's key insight was that people tend to act as if it is one or the other, not an interaction between the two, and this changes people's behavior.

How does a grade appeal process illustrate the importance of persuading people to change their attributions?

For example, at our institution, a student who disappears in the middle of a school term is assigned a failing grade. The default assumption is that such behavior is the student's fault. However, there is an appeals process by which the student can have those F's converted into less damaging W grades (which stand for withdrawal and are the same grades used if a student follows approved procedures to drop a class).

To get the F's changed into W's, the student must persuade the registrar's office that circumstances beyond the student's control were responsible for the student failing to attend class. A divorce in the family, a serious auto accident, even an emotional break-up with a former boyfriend or girlfriend can all work as excuses. However, the student must convince the registrar's office that the situation was serious enough that external forces were responsible for the student's problems.

In this appeals process, then, the challenge for the student is to convince people at the registrar's office to change their attributions from personal (blaming the student) to situational (blaming the situation). A social psychologist could probably do an interesting study of factors influencing this process.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey