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.
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.
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)..
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:
- the person must perceive or observe the behavior,
- then the person must believe that the behavior was intentionally performed, and
- 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.
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.
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.
Ekman considers that emotional expressions are crucial to the development and regulation of interpersonal relationships. His studies demonstrated that facial expressions play an important role in the formation of attachments and are involved in the formation, acceleration or deceleration of aggressive behaviour.
Sigmund Freud is regarded as the father of psychodynamic theories, the founder of psychoanalysis and the creator of psychosexual stages theory of human development. Regardless of the acceptance or disapproval of his ideas about human development, his influence over psychology was enormous. During a puritan era he managed to construct a theory of unconscious motivation, of human sexuality and instinctual aggression.
Erikson was a stage theorist who took Freud’s controversial theory of psychosexual development and modified it as a psychosocial theory, as he rejected the central importance of the sexual drive in favour of the progressive emergence of identity. Like Freud and many others, Erik Erikson maintained that personality develops in a predetermined order, and builds upon each previous stage. This is called the epigenetic principle.
In Jungian psychology, also called analytical psychology, individuation is the process where the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious – seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become, if the process is more or less successful, integrated over time into a well-functioning whole. Other psychoanalytic theorists describe it as the stage where an individual transcends group attachment and narcissistic self-absorption.
The term collective unconscious was originally coined by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) and has been elaborately explained in his book Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. It represents a form of the unconscious ( the part of the mind containing memories and impulses of which the individual is not aware) common to mankind as a specie and it originates in inherited structures of the psyche, passed on from generation to generation.