Chapter 5 Social Attribution: Explaining
The attribution theory is an umbrella term used to describe the set of theoretical accounts of
how people assign causes to the events around them and the effects that people’s causal
FROM ACTS TO DISPOSITIONS: INFERRING THE CAUSES OF BEHAVIOUR___________________
Causal attribution is the process people use to explain both their own and other’s behaviour.
People may infer that a personality trait was responsible for their behaviour. For example, you
might wonder if a volunteer goes to a senior’s home because she cares for the elderly or
because she needs community service hours.
Attributions can greatly affect our thoughts, feelings, and future behaviour. Attributing a bad
grade on a test to a lack of ability leads to unhappiness and withdrawal, but attributing a bad
grade to a lack of effort may lead to more vigorous attempts to study harder.
An explanatory style refers to a person’s habitual way of explaining events, and it is assessed
along three dimensions: internal/external, stable/unstable, and global/specific.
o Internal causes implicates attributions towards the self (ex. “There I go again”)
o External causes implicates something in the outside world that you have no control over
(ex. “The professor made the test too hard”)
o A stable cause implies things will never change (ex. “I’m just not good at this”)
o An unstable cause implies things may improve (ex. “I took cold medicine which made
me groggy, so I couldn’t focus on my test”)
o Global causes affect many areas in life (ex. “I’m stupid”)
o Specific causes only affect a few (ex. “I’m just not good at math”)
The tendency to explain negative events with an internal, stable, and global cause is considered
a pessimistic explanatory style, whereas the tendency to explain negative events with an
external, unstable, and specific cause is optimistic. A positive look on life presumably makes us
less prone to despair and encourages a healthier lifestyle.
Boys are more likely to attribute their failures to a lack of effort, while girls are more likely to
attribute it to lack of intelligence. This is because of the subtle differences in the way they are
taught in school.
o Negative evaluations for girls include comments that are related to intellectual
inadequacies (ex. “this is not right, Lisa”), whereas for boys, the comments were related
to non-intellectual factors (ex. “this is messy, Bill”).
o It is argued then that girls learn criticism means they lack intellectual ability, and boys
learn that it means they haven’t worked hard enough. Similarly, girls are likely to expect
that praise is unrelated to the intellectual quality of their performance, and boys expect
that praise means their intellectual performance was excellent. THE PROCESS OF CAUSAL ATTRIBUTION_____________________________________________
When we know the cause of a particular event, we have a better understanding of what has
happened and what to anticipate next. For example, our perception of how much control
another person has over his or her actions is one important factor in how we judge that person.
If someone provides an excuse for their behaviour, it usually yields more pity and forgiveness if
it involves something out of that person’s control (“I’m late because there was an accident on
the highway”) rather than something controllable (“I woke up late because I stayed up
Another important factor of attributional analysis is determining whether an outcome is the
product of something within the person (internal/dispositional), or a reflection of something
about the context (external, situational).
There are three factors that you must look for in a situation:
o Is the behaviour freely chosen? Did you do something because you wanted to (you stay
at home on a Friday night because you wanted to read a book) or because you were
forced to (you stayed at home on a Friday night because you were grounded)?
o Is the behaviour inconsistent with your social role? We can learn more about a person if
their behaviour is inconsistent with what they are supposed to be doing. Do you stand
up in the middle of class and beat your chest, or do you sit at your desk and quietly
listen? If you sit quietly, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a quiet person, you might
just be quiet in the situational setting of a classroom.
o Is the behaviour socially desirable? We know more about a person if their behaviour is
not desirable in everyday society. During an interview, do you curse and make a scene,
or are you polite and respectful like the average person? Again, if you’re polite, it might
be because of the situation.
If behaviour is freely chosen, out of sync with your social role, and socially undesirable, then you
make an internal attribution. If these conditions are not met, you either make an external
attribution or the attribution remains ambiguous.
The covariation principle is the idea that behaviour should be attributed to potential causes that
co-occur with the behaviour.
There are three types of covariation information:
o Consensus: do other people respond the same way in this situation?
o Distinctiveness: does this person act this way only in this situation or does it occur in all
o Consistency: does this person always act this way in this situation?
Attribution Consensus Distinctiveness Consistency
An external attribution High in consensus High in distinctiveness High in consistency
is likely if the behaviour
An internal attribution Low in consensus Low in distinctiveness High in consistency
is likely if the behaviour
is: People use their general knowledge of the world to infer how most people would behave in the
situation, and they combine that knowledge with logic to arrive at an attribution.
o The discounting principle is the idea that people should assign reduced weight to a
particular cause of behaviour if other plausible causes might have produced it. For
example, someone could act polite during an interview because they have a nice
personality or because they really need the job. An accurate conclusion can’t be made in
o The augmentation principle is the idea that people should assign greater weight to a
particular cause of behaviour if other causes that are present would normally
discourage the behaviour. For example, if someone supports a belief despite being
threatened with shame and public ridicule, then we can safely conclude that this person
truly supports this belief.
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 the past and by our counterfactual thoughts – thoughts of what might have,
could have, or should have happened “if only” something had been done differently.
o Our emotional reaction to an event tends to be more intense if the event almost didn’t
happen. This is caused by a phenomenon known as emotional amplification, which
states that the pain or joy we derive from an event tends to be proportional to how easy
it is to imagine the event not happening.
Ex. if someone you knew died in an airplane crash after switching her flight at
the last minute, you would feel worse. The last-minute switch makes the loss
harder to bear because of the thought that it “almost” did not happen.
Ex. Olympic athletes who won silver medals seemed less happy than those who
one bronze medals, because the silver medalists have an “I was so close to
winning gold” mentality, whereas the bronze medalists have an “at least I won a
o 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.
Ex. A man usually goes to the same grocery store, but wanted to try shopping at
another store for a change. While he’s at the store, a robber enters and the man
gets injured. People rate this story to be more tragic because it seems the event
could have been so easily avoided if he didn’t go to a different store.
ERRORS AND BIASES IN ATTRIBUTION______________________________________________
The self-serving attributional bias is the tendency to attribute failure and other bad events to
external circumstances, but to attribute success and other good events to internal
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to underestimate situational
influences and to overestimate a person’s character/personality on other people’s behaviour. The actor-observer difference is a difference in attribution based on who is making the causal
assessment: the actor (the person doing the behavi