PSY 220 CH.5
SocialAttribution: Explaining Behaviour
• Observers are more likely to attribute actions to properties of a person. The person is
more inclined to attribute the same action to situational factors.
• Attribution theory: 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 casual
From Acts to Dispositions: Inferring the Causes of Behaviour
• Casual attribution: Linking an event to a cause, such as inferring that a personality trait
was responsible for a behaviour.
The Pervasiveness and Importance of CasualAttribution
• Attributions are a constant part of life.
• Systematic research on casual attribution has shown that people’s explanations have
tremendous consequences in a number of areas, including health and education.
Explanatory Style andAttribution
• Explanatory style: A person’s habitual way of explaining events, typically assessed along
3 dimensions: internal/external, stable/unstable, and global/specific.
• Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman asks groups to pick 6 different good and bad
situations and answer questions about the causes (Is it due to something I did, will it
happen again, and will it influence other aspects of our lives?) The answers are all
combined to form an overall explanatory style index, which is then correlated with an
outcome variable of interest.
• They also tested to see if there was a correlation between an explanatory style and health.
Explanatory style during young adulthood is a significant predicator of physical health
later in life.
Attributions about Controllability
• People can be trained to adopt more productive attributional tendencies for academic
outcomes. Doing so has beneficial effects on subsequent academic performance.
Gender andAttribution Style
• Boys are more likely than girls to attribute their failures to lack of effort, and girls are
more likely to attribute their failures due to lack of ability. This is partly due to the way
things are laid out in school (boys being told that is messy where as girls being told that is
• Argued that girls learn that criticism means that they aren’t lack intellectual ability,
whereas boys learn that criticism means they haven’t worked hard enough or paid enough
attention to detail.
The Processes of CasualAttribution
• 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.
• Aparticularly important focus of attributional analysis is determining whether an
outcome is the product of something within a person (internal or dispositional cause) or a
reflection of something about the context/circumstances (external or situational cause). • Determining whether certain actions are the product of internal versus external causes
requires assessments of whatmost people are like and what most people are likely to do.
Attribution and Covariation
• Covariation principle: The idea that behaviour should be attributed to potential causes
that co-occur with the behaviour.
• Psychologists believe that there are 3 types of covariation information that are
particularly important: Consensus, distinctiveness, and 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.
• All else being equal, the more an individual’s reaction is shared by others, the less it is to
say about the individual.
• Distinctiveness: What an individual does in different situations – that is, whether the
behaviour is unique to a particular situation or occurs in all situations.
• The more someone’s reaction is confined to a particular situation, the less it says about
the individual, and the more it says about the specific situation.
• Consistency: What an individual does in a given situation – that is, whether next time
under the same circumstances, the person would behave the same or differently.
• The more an individual’s reaction is specific to a given occasion, the harder it is to make
a definite attribution either to the person or the situation.
• Asituational attribution is called for when all these sources are high.Adispositional
attribution is called for when consensus and distinctiveness are low, but consistency is
Attribution and Imagining AlternativeActors and Outcomes
• Sometimes we base our judgements on what we imagine might happen.
The Discounting andAugmentation Principles
• 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.’
The Influence of WhatAlmost Happened
• Counterfactual thought: Thoughts of what might have, could have, or should have
happened ‘if only’something had been done differently.
Emotional Effects of Counterfactual Thinking
• 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.
• Our emotional reaction to an event tens to be more intense if it almost did not happen.
• Pain or joy gotten from an event tends to be proportional to how easy it is to imagine that
event not happening.
• Guy gets in plane crash. Survives. Hikes 75km and dies from exposure. He was ¼ km
away from safety. People asked whether his family should get more compensation for being 1/4km from safety or being 75 km from safety suggested larger amounts for the
guy that almost made it. (Miller and McFarland).
• People who win Silver medal at Olympics more upset than those who win bronze.
Triumph of many lost over the defeat by one.
The Influence of Exception versus Routines
• Man goes shopping and is severely injured while it is robbed. People more inclined to
give the man more compensation for his troubles if he only visited that store for a change
of pace versus being his normal every week shopping store. (Miller and McFarland).
• Influenced ourselves when we debate a change of line in a grocery store and our new line
slows down, while the old sped up.
Errors and Biases inAttribution
• Our casual attributions are occasionally subject to predictable error and biases.
The Self-ServingAttributional Bias
• Self-serving attributional bias: The tendency to attribute failure and other bad events to
external circumstances, but attribute success and other good events to oneself.
• People exhibit a self-serving bias in their attributions because doing so makes them feel
good about themselves, or at least prevents them from feeling bad.
• Self-serving attributional bias is then a motivational bias – motivated by the desire to
maintain one’s self esteem.
• Though it isn’t motivation to feel good about themselves that drives these attributions
sometimes. Imagine a student who needs help. Gets tutored and does poorly on first
examination. Tutor doubles efforts and the student goes on to either do poorly or
improve. Teachers may say their efforts helped the student improve and that in the other
case, the student did not make an effort.Analysis of the data though, proves this to be
correct. The teacher’s efforts improved student performance.An attribution to the teacher
would therefore be fully justified.
• 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 purely rational
The FundamentalAttribution Error
• Milgram experiment looked at through covariance would attribute the outcome to the
situation because 2/3 of all people went to the end of the experiment (consensus is high).
• The tendency to attribute people’s behaviour to elements of their character or personality,
even when powerful situational forces are acting to produce the behaviour, is known as
the fundamental attribution error.
Experimental Demonstrations of the FundamentalAttribution Error
• Participants were told to read a pro-Castro or anti-Castro essay with the topic being ‘write
a short, cogent essay, either defending or criticizing Castro’s Cuba as if you were giving
the opening statement in a debate.” Participants then rated the writer’s views on Castro.
Those who read a pro-Castro essay assumed the writers