It is important to understand why things happen in order to control outcomes or prevent future undesirable occurrences. Attributions answer the question of “why” something happens. People tend to seek attributions for unexpected events, and generally infer that things happen either because of factors internal to the actor (personality or dispositional factors) or because of situational influences.
This distinction between situational and personality attributions can be traced to Fritz Heider’s seminal book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958). Heider further identified a stability dimension of attributions. That is, stable situational forces, such as test difficulty, can cause outcomes—but so too can unstable forces, such as a chance opportunity for cheating. Personality can be conceptualized similarly. Stable personality factors include such forces as ability or intelligence. Examples of unstable personality factors are motivation and effort, both of which can change over time and across situations.
Inspired in part by Heider’s ideas, Edward Jones and Keith Davis (1965) developed correspondent inference theory (CIT) to predict whether observers of an event will make personality or situational attributions for the actor’s behavior. According to CIT, the more clearly a person has freely chosen to do something unexpected, and the more clear the intended effects of the activity are, the more likely perceivers are to make personality attributions. When free choice of behavior is limited, when the behavior is not perceived to depart from the norm, and when the intention of the behavior is unclear, perceivers are less likely to make personality attributions.
Another early attribution theory based on Heider’s work is Harold Kelley’s covariation theory (1967). This theory explains that effects are attributed to causes with which they “covary.” That is, perceived causes will differ, depending on whether or not an effect is associated uniquely with a particular object, a class of objects, or other people. If a person were happy after seeing a movie, one would attribute the happiness to the person’s liking of that particular movie. However, if one knew this person was happy after most movies, one would attribute the happiness to the person being a movie buff.
Given the complexity of the reasoning involved in making attributions in accord with Jones and Davis’s and Kelley’s notions, it is not surprising that attributions do not always follow theoretical predictions. Such departures often are referred to as attributional biases. Well-known biases include the fundamental attribution error (FAE)—the tendency to overestimate personal, and underestimate situational, causes for behavior—and the actor-observer effect, or the tendency to commit the FAE more strongly when explaining others’, rather than one’s own, behavior. Additionally, the self-serving bias, identified by Gifford Weary Bradley in 1978 as reflecting self-esteem concerns, is the tendency of people to attribute good outcomes to causes that are internal, do not change over time, and have global implications for success in other areas. When bad things happen, however, people tend to invert this pattern. They attribute failures to external, temporary causes that have few implications outside of the specific context they take place in. All together, much research has focused on attributional biases. Together with an understanding of past theories, new findings permit ever more accurate models of how people ask “why?”
SEE ALSO Causality; Kelley, Harold
Gilbert, Daniel T. 1998. “Ordinary Personology.” In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., vol. 2, eds. Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, 89-150. New York: McGraw Hill.
Aaron L. Wichman