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Fritz Heider’s The psychology of interpersonal relationships, published in the United States in 1958, has had a great impact on the development of social psychology. Heider develops the idea of cognitive balance: the perceptions individuals have of interpersonal is organised so as to provide them with a balanced vision of their environment (Heider, 1946), which lead to the emergence of attribution theory.

However, the organization of such a structured field of representation implies that the individual gives a significance to the elements and data of his environment. This is what we call attribution.

Attribution is the process through which man perceives reality and  which makes it possible for him to control it.

The choice to invoke attribution theory when it comes to motivation is based on the idea that an individual’s engagement in an activity comes as an answer not to a stimulation, but to a kind of explanation, constructed in terms of internal and external causality which has been produced from observing a fact.

Consideration of attribution theory is relevant for a symposium on motivation in several respects. The theory describes processes that operate as if the individual were motivated to attain a cognitive mastery of the causal structure of his environment.

Defining Attribution Theory

Attribution enables the individual to explain his own behaviours and those of others, to interpret what is happening around him and to search for plausible causes that determine an event or action. Attribution Theory must explain the occurrence of certain cognitions using inference, thus reaching a conclusion on the basis of evidence and reasoning, using behaviour as a starting point.

Fritz Heider (buy his books from Amazon) stated that attribution theory concerns the process by which an individual interprets events “as being cause by particular parts of the relatively stable environment”.

Dispositional & Situational Attribution

Heider believes that people facing a great variety of conducts and situations will be tempted to analyze them and will make two distinct types of attributions:

  • internal attributions – which place the responsibility of the situation or behaviour on the individual. This is called dispositional attribution
  • external attributions – which place the responsibility of the situation or behaviour on the factors that influence the environment. This is called situational attribution

Some people have a general tendency towards internal attribution, assuming responsibility for almost everything that is happening to them, while others make more external attributions, usually blaming the situation.

Hetero-attribution & Auto-attribution

People make bot hetero-attributions – trying to understand the behaviour of other individuals, as well as auto-attributions – looking to understand their own behaviour. The vast research done in the field have systematically proven that people analyse and evaluate differently the causes of their own and others conducts. 

It has been demonstrated without a doubt that we have a tendency of judging other people’s behaviour – hetero-attribution – based significantly more on internal factors, rather than external ones, meaning that we tend to see others as being responsible for what they do and their own fate. At the very core of this tendency of biased inferencing when it comes to others is what L. Ross (1977) called the fundamental error of attribution. When it comes to judging one’s own behaviour – auto-attribution, one tends to blame more the situation, thus making more external atributions and less dispositional ones.

The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people's behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context.

Bernard Weiner's Contribution

Bernard Weiner (1979) proposes a model for analysing the attributions individuals make when they are attempting to explain success or failure. The causes people invoke for explaining their or others successes or failures can be organised on two dimensions: internal-external (or dispositional-situational), stable-unstable.  By combining these dimensions we obtain four categories of possible causes (pictured in the below table)..

Weiner's Attribution Theory

Bernard Weiner (buy his books from Amazon) and colleagues (e.g., Jones et al, 1972; Weiner, 1974, 1986) developed a theoretical framework that has become a major research paradigm of social psychology. Attribution theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do, i.e., attribute causes to behavior. A person seeking to understand why another person did something may attribute one or more causes to that behavior.

A three-stage process underlies an attribution:

  1. the person must perceive or observe the behavior,
  2. then the person must believe that the behavior was intentionally performed, and
  3. then the person must determine if they believe the other person was forced to perform the behavior (in which case the cause is attributed to the situation) or not (in which case the cause is attributed to the other individual).

Weiner focused his attribution theory on achievement (Weiner, 1974). He identified ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck as the most important factors affecting attributions for achievement.

Attributions are classified along three causal dimensions:

The locus of control dimension has two poles: internal versus external locus of control.

The stability dimension captures whether causes change over time or not. For instance, ability can be classified as a stable, internal cause, and effort classified as unstable and internal. 

Controllability contrasts causes one can control, such as skill/efficacy, from causes one cannot control, such as aptitude, mood, others’ actions, and luck.

A Version of Weiner's Attribution Theory
A simplified version of Weiner's theory

Application of Attribution Theory

Attribution theory has been widely applied in education, law, clinical psychology, and the mental health domain. There is a strong relationship between self-concept and achievement.

Causal attributions determine affective reactions to success and failure. For example, one is not likely to experience pride in success, or feelings of competence, when receiving an ‘A’ from a teacher who gives only that grade, or when defeating a tennis player who always loses…On the other hand, an ‘A’ from a teacher who gives few high grades or a victory over a highly rated tennis player following a great deal of practice generates great positive affect.

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The framework described by Paul Ekman is influenced by Charles Darwin and Silvan Solomon Tomkins, although he himself stated that he did not accept in tot what either of them said. Ekman sustained there are three meanings for the term “basic” as you can read his argumentation in the article.

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