Chapter 5 – Social attribution
The observer is inclined to attribute actions, especially highly distinctive ones, to properties of the
actor, such as personality trait and abilities.
The actor is more inclined to attribute the same action to situational factors.
Causal attribution: the ways that people try to understand why others, as well as they themselves,
do the things they do.
People engage in causal attribution because they need to draw inferences about others and
themselves based on their behaviour, but the true meaning of an action may not be clear.
Attribution theory: the study of how people assign causes to the events around them and the
effect that people's causal assessment have.
From acts to dispositions: inferring the causes of behaviour
Causal attribution: linking an event to a cause, such as inferring that a personality trait was
responsible for a behaviour (the process people use to explain both their own and others'
Understanding causal attributions is crucial to understanding everyday social behaviour because
we all make causal attributions many times a day, and the attributions we make can greatly affect
our thoughts, feelings, and future behaviour.
• The pervasiveness and importance of causal attribution
Systematic research on causal attribution has shown that people's explanations have tremendous
consequences in a number of areas, including health and education.
Eg: someone won't go out with you => emotional reactions => she finds you unappealing.
Bad grade on an exam => lack of ability => unhappiness and withdrawal
Bad grade on an exam => lack of effort => more vigorous attempts to study harder
• Explanatory style and attribution
Explanatory style: a person's habitual way of explaining events, typically assessed along three
dimensions: internal (cause implicates the self) / external (cause does not implicate the self),
stable (things will never change) / unstable (things may improve), and global (something that
affects may areas of life) / specific (applies to only a few).
Seligman & Peterson study 1
- The impact of attributions on academic success by relating a person's explanatory style to long-
term academic performance.
- the 3 dimensions of internal/external, stable/unstable, and global/specific are combined to form
an overall explanatory style index, which is then correlated with an outcome variable of interest,
such as student's GPAs.
=> Students with a pessimistic explanatory style (tendency to explain negative events in terms of
internal, stable, and global causes) tend to get lower grades than those with a more optimistic
Peterson & Seligman study 2 - The relation between different explanatory styles and health: whether a person's explanatory
style as a young adult could predict physical health later in life (longitudinal study on Harvard's
graduating classes from 1942 to 1949)
=> Explanatory style during young adulthood is a significant predictor of physical health in later
life (not at 30 to 40 => most of them are healthy)
Explanation => the tendency to make extern, unstable, and specific attributions for failure
presumably makes us less prone to despair and encourages more of a can-do outlook that
promotes behaviours that can lead to longer life (flossing our teeth, exercising, and visiting the
Attributions about controllability
Anderson & Weiner study
- people's attributional tendencies have a powerful affect on their long-term outcomes
- what's important: an attribution implies that an outcome is controllable or not (vs global or
=> attributions for failure that imply controllability make perseverance easier because we can
always try harder or try e new strategy. Outcomes beyond our control, tempting to simply give
People can be trained to adopt more productive attributional tendencies for academic outcomes
(attribute failure to a lack of effort).
Making people believe that can exert control over events that the formerly believed to be outside
their control restores hope and unleashes the kind of productive energy that makes future success
Gender and attribution style
- Elementary school in US
- Boys are more likely than girls to attribute their failures to lack of effort, and girls more likely
than boys to attribute their failures to lack of ability
- Because they are being subtly taught different ways to interpret both their failures and their
success - because of teachers' feedback patterns
Negative evaluations of girl's performance: intellectual inadequacies
Negative evaluations of boy's performance: referred to non-intellectual factors
Girls learn that praise is unrelated to the intellectual quality of their performance
Boys learn that praise means their intellectual performance was excellent
=> Girls learn that criticism means they may lack intellectual ability, whereas boys learn that
criticism means they haven't worked hard enough.
The processes of causal attribution
Rules of how we assess the causes of observed or reported behaviour: help us understand the past,
illuminate the present, and predict the future. (only by knowing the cause of a given event can we
grasp the true meaning of what has happened and anticipate what is likely to happen next)
Eg: Our perception of how much control another person has over his or her actions in one
important factor in how we judge that person. When a person offers an excuse for problematic behaviour, it typically yields more pity and
forgiveness if it involves something beyond the person's control than if it involves something
Determining whether an outcome is the product of something within the person (internal,
dispositional cause) or a reflection of something about the context or circumstances (external,
(Was it primarily because that's who he is, or largely because of the situation he faced?)
Eg: You might win at poker because you are a better player (internal cause) or because you were
lucky (external cause).
Determining whether certain actions are the product of internal vs external causes requires
assessments of what most people are like and what most people are likely to do.
Eg: You become a rock-and-roll guitarist because of love of the instrument (internal cause, it is
not something shared by most people) or because of the desire of fame and fortune (external
cause, shared by most people)
• Attribution and covariation
Covariation principle: the idea that behaviour should be attributed to potential causes that co-
occur with the behaviour. Determine what causes covary with the observation or effect we are
trying to explain
3 types of covariation information: consensus, distinctiveness & consistency
Consensus: what most people would do in a given situation, that is whether most people would
behave the same way or few or no other people would behave that way.
Eg: everyone raves (+) about the class vs. hardly anyone raves about the class
The more an individual's reaction is shared by others (when consensus is high), the less it says
about that individual and the more it says about the situation.
Distinctiveness: what an individual does in different situations, that is, whether the behaviour is
unique to a particular situation or occurs in many situations.
Eg: your friend does not rave about many other classes vs your friend raves about all classes
The more someone's reaction is confined to a particular situation (when distinctiveness is high),
the less is says about that individual and the more it says about the specific situation.
Consistency: what an individual does in a given situations on different occasions, that is, whether
next time under the same circumstances the person would behave the same or differently
(whether the behaviour is the same now as in the past or whether it varies).
Eg: your friend frequently raves about the class vs. your friend has raved about today's class only
The more an individual's reaction is specific to given occasion (when consistency is low), the
harder it is to make a definite attribution either to the person or to the situation. The effect is
likely due to some less predictable combination of circumstances. Situational (external) attribution: when consensus, distinctiveness and consistency are all high
Dispositional (internal) attribution: when consensus and distinctiveness are low, but consistency
• Attribution and imagining alternative actors and outcomes
The judgements people make are not always based on what has actually happened; sometimes we
also base them on what we imagine would happen under different situations or if a different
individual were involved
The discounting and augmentation principles
Sometimes the information available to us suggests that either of two (or more) causes might be
responsible for a given behaviour.
When we have not had the opportunity to see how this person behaves in others situations or to
witness how other people behave in exactly the same situation, we are not well equipped to make
=> in these situations, we typically use our general knowledge to infer how most people would
behave in the situation in question, and we combine that knowledge with a bit of logic
(discounting principle) to arrive at an attribution. Extending the logic just a bit leads to a
complementary augmentation principle.
Discounting principle: the idea that people should assign reduced weight to a particular cause of
behaviour if other plausible causes might have produced it.
Augmentation principle: the idea that people should assign greater weight to a particular cause of
behaviour if other causes are present that normally would produce the opposite outcome.
One important implication of the discounting and augmentation principles is that it can be
difficult to know what to conclude about someone who behaves "in role", but easy to figure out
what to think about someone who acts "out of role".
job interview (astronaut vs submariner, introverted vs. extraverted)
Results: when the behaviour fit the situation, it is difficult to judge whether the behaviour truly
reflected the person being interviewed. When the behaviour varied from what the situation called
for, it is seen as a clear reflection of the interviewee's true self.
The influence of what almost happened
In making causal assessments, people sometimes consider whether a given outcome is likely to
have happened if the circumstances were slightly different. Our attributions are thus influenced
by our knowledge of what has actually happened in the past as well as by our counterfactual
Counterfactual thoughts: thoughts of what might have, could have, or should have happened "if
only" something had been done differently.
Eg: If only I had studied harder => lack of effort was the cause of a poor test result
If only the Republicans had nominated a different candidate => the candidate (not the party)
was responsible for defeat Study
Lady allergic to wine, boss orders a dish made of wine, she convulsed and died
(Version 1: he considered ordering a different dish without wine, version 2: he had considered an
alternative dish with wine)
Results: Version 1: people view the boss's choice of meal as causally significant
Version 2: people view the boss's choice of meal as less causally significant
=> people's attribution is influenced not only by what happened in the scenario but by what
Emotional effect of counterfactual thinking
Our attributions influence our emotional reactions to event, and it therefore stands to reason that
our counterfactual thoughts do as well.
Our emotional reaction to an event tends to be more intense if it almost did not happen.
Emotional amplification: a ratcheting up of an emotional reaction to an event that is proportional
to how easy it is to imagine the event not happening.
The most common determinants of whether a counterfactual event seems like it almost happened
are time and distance. (Plane crash, survivor almost made it, death seems more tragic, more
worthy of compensation for the family)
Eg: silver medalists (focused on what they did not receive, how they could have done better) are
less happy than bronze medalists (focus on what they did receive vs 4th place, at least they
received a medal)
=> People react to events based not only on what they are, but also on what they are not.
The influence of exceptions vs routines
Another determinant of how easy it is to imagine an event not happening is whether it resulted
from a routine action or a departure from the norm.
Eg: you are injured during a robbery at a grocery store where you usually never go.
Death of a matador that served as a last-minute replacement for another matador
=> reinforce the superstition that switching spots increases the chances of disaster (tempting fate)
Errors and biases in attribution
The attributions people make are sometimes less than fully rational:
- Our hopes and fears sometimes color our judgement
- We sometimes reason from faulty premises
- We are occasionally misled by information of questionable value and validity
• The self-serving attributional bias
Self-serving attributional bias: the tendency to attribute failure and other bad events to external
circumstances, but to attribute success and other good events to oneself.
Richard Lau & Dan Russell study Newspaper accounts of the postgame attributions to one's team were much more common for
victories than for defeats.
Attributions to external element (bad calls, bad luck…) were much more common for defeats
than for victories.
=> Tendency to attribute success internally and failure externally
The self-serving attributional bias might be motivated by the desire to maintain self-esteem. But
even a fully rational individual might exhibit a self-serving pattern of attribution because success
is generally so much more tightly connected than failure to our intentions and effort.
We shouldn't be too quick to accuse others of making del-serving attributions just to make
themselves feel good. It can be difficult to tell from the pattern of attributions alone whether
someone has made an attribution to protect self-esteem; such a pattern could be the result of a
purely rational analysis.
• The fundamental attribution error
A straightforward application of the covariation principle would lead to a situational attribution in
this case and not an inference about the participants' character or personalities: they all gave high
levels of shock so their behaviour doesn't say much about the individual people involved but
rather speaks to something about the situation that made their behaviour common.
Fundamental attribution error: the tendency to attribute people's behaviour to element of their
character or personality, even when powerful situational forces are acting to produce the
Experimental demonstration of the fundamental attribution error
Duke university study
Students had to read a pro or anti Castro essay and to rate the essayist's general attitude toward
Results: they drew inferences about the essayist's attitude according to what they read (pro or
=> If individuals are assigned to write on a given topic, what they write cannot be taken as an
indication of what they really believe. In thinking that the essays reflected the authors' true
beliefs, participants showed that they were making the fundamental attribution error.
This still occurs even when the study allows plenty of room for distancing behaviours (distancing
cues that could help infer the person's true attitude).
Participants made inferences about their partner's personality based on their partner's reposes,
even when they had dictated those responses.
The fundamental attribution error and perceptions of the advantaged and disadvantaged
Inferential problem: deciding how much credit to give to those who are succeeding in life and
how much blame to direct at those who are not.
People tend to assign too much responsibility to the individual for great accomplishments and
terrible mistakes and not enough responsibility to the particular situation.
=> We often fail to see the advantages that some people enjoy in lif