Attribution in Relationships

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Attribution in Relationships

The term attribution refers to the interpretation of an event by inferring what caused the event to occur. This interpretation may also extend to inference of responsibility for an event and judgment about the trait qualities of another person, or of oneself. As an illustration of a common situation involving attribution activity, a husband may ask why his wife left the room with a sudden burst of tears in the middle of what he perceived to be an innocent conversation about their respective days at the office (i.e., where does responsibility lie?) or whether her emotional display pertains to something about her personality (i.e., her trait to readily exhibit emotional outbursts).

The concept of attribution was developed by Fritz Heider (1958) and articulated into testable theories by Edward Jones and Keith Davis (1965) and Harold Kelley (1967). Also, in his self-perception theory, Daryl Bem (1972) extended attributional theorizing to encompass self-attributions. Bem posited that people take some meaningful form of action and then, in forming a perception about that action, use their own behavior and the context in which it occurs to judge their attitudes, beliefs, and other internal states. For example, a husband whose wife has suddenly, and in tears, ended their conversation may look back at his behavior and conclude, "I was being insensitive in those remarks I made about our friends. No wonder she was upset."

For the situation involving a wife's sudden emotional outburst, these theories suggest that observers infer the bases for the wife's behavior by logical analysis of such information as: (1) her behavior in previous similar situations (i.e., consistency information—is it common for her to show her emotions in this way?); (2) the husband's insensitive behavior toward his wife (i.e., consensus information—does she often become upset in talking with him?); (3) any specific events that distinguish this circumstance for her (i.e., distinctiveness information—something unusual and highly embarrassing happening a the office that day); and/or (4) the wife's intention to show her hurt about some past concern, or the husband's intent to upset his wife, and whether either type of intention reveals something about the wife's or husband's personality.

Attribution theory in social psychology became a prominent topic for examination in the 1970s. As early as the mid-1970s, an extension of attributional theorizing focused on heterosexual, close relationships (relationships in which two people's lives reflect strong and regular interconnections in their thoughts, feelings, and behavior). A major theoretical analysis that contributed to this extension was Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett's 1972 divergent perceptions hypothesis. This hypothesis pertains to a situation in which an actor and an observer come to different explanations for the same action. It stated that the actor would attribute her behavior to the forces in the situation, while the observer would attribute the same behavior to personality characteristics of the actor.

Jones and Nisbett's explanation for why the divergent perspective tendency occurs emphasized cognitive-perceptual dynamics, namely that: (1) the actor perceptually views the situation as central in his or her field of thought and perception, whereas the observer views the actor as central, and (2) the actor will have evidence that she has shown variation in behavior across different situations, whereas the observer often will not have access to that evidence. Another type of explanation, one that is quite germane to the situation that couples often encounter, is that actors are motivated to protect their self-esteem in situations in which their behavior leads to questionable outcomes. Actors may be inclined to attribute their behavior to the situation to better protect their self-esteem, while observers may be motivated to attribute bad outcomes to the actor's personality as a means of punishing or controlling the actor. Heider's (1958) conception of attributional phenomena emphasized this type of integration of cognitive and self-esteem or motivational elements.

Extending Attribution Research to Close Relationships

The first investigation to study connections between attributions and close relationships was conducted by Bruce Orvis, Harold Kelley, and Deborah Butler (1976). They asked college-age couples to list examples of behavior, for oneself and one's partner, for which each had a different explanation. Several categories of behavior yielded divergent attributions (e.g., "Actor criticizes or places demands upon the partner"). More generally, for behavior resulting in negative outcomes, respondents exonerated themselves and blamed their partners. Later work suggests that this egocentric bias in attribution by close relationship partners holds mainly for couples experiencing distress. For those who are less distressed, they attribute bad outcomes to the situation and good outcomes to their partner or to their collaboration with their partner (see below).

An important implication of the results of Orvis and colleagues' investigation is that attributions made directly to one's partner, or indirectly in public and available to one's partner, may represent an attempt to influence the partner about why problematic events are occurring. For example, a spouse may say, "Our problems have been caused mainly by his inability to break the controlling influence his parents have over what he does." Whether or not the spouse believes that this control factor is critical, she may be making the attribution in an attempt to influence the partner to sever the control his parents have in his life. Helen Newman (1981) elaborated on attribution as a form of persuasion and ongoing communication in close relationships.

This early work by Orvis and colleagues confirmed the value of Jones and Nisbett's (1972) divergent perspectives hypothesis, with the important qualification that attributions often reflect self-esteem motivation when couples are making attributions about their relationships. Another amplification of this hypothesis was revealed in a study by John Harvey, Gary Wells, and Marlene Alvarez (1978). They showed that relationship partners who are distressed not only diverge in their attributions about relationship problems, but also cannot readily predict one another's attributions about the sources of the problems.

Attributional Biases in Relationships

During the 1980s and 1990s, the predominant research on attributions in close relationships has focused on attributional biases of partners. The aforementioned egocentric bias has been repeatedly found in different relationship situations (e.g., Fincham 1985). Theorists have suggested that this bias may have affect satisfaction in relationships, or it could serve as a secondary indicator that the relationship is already distressed. In an impressive program of research, Frank Fincham, Thomas Bradbury, and colleagues (e.g., Bradbury and Fincham 1992) have presented evidence that attributions play a causal role in both the development and the breakdown of close relationships. Their theoretical analysis, referred to as a contextual model, emphasizes that context always must be taken into account in understanding relationships. They argue that behaviors exchanged in an interaction can have different meanings, depending on other events occurring in the interaction.

Another interesting track for work on attributions in relationships concerns gender differences. Amy Holtzworth-Munroe and Neil Jacobson (1985) found that in general during the course of relationships, women tend to do more processing and analyzing of the causes of issues and events than do men. In contrast, men appear to become quite active in their analysis when the relationship begins to encounter serious turmoil. This finding, therefore, suggests that a man's involvement in extensive attributional work in a relationship may be a good barometer of the seriousness of distress being jointly experienced in the relationship. It also is consistent with earlier work on possible gender differences in how women and men experience relationship breakdown (e.g., Weiss 1975).

New Directions

Later work has extended attributional perspectives to a variety of relationship phenomena, including: (1) linking attributions, communications, and affect in ongoing relationships (Vangelisti 1992); (2) the types of attributions made by violent men regarding their marriages (Holtzworth-Munroe 1988); and (3) attributions made by women who are victims of marital violence (Andrews 1992). A primary conclusion of these extrapolations is that attributions play a key role in relationship events, often being implicated in causal sequence.

A further new direction that shows promise views attribution as part of people's natural stories, narratives, or accounts relating to their relationships. According to this approach, in their daily lives, people often form understandings and make attributions about their relationships in the form of storylike constructions that usually are privately developed initially and then are communicated to other people. Such diverse writings as those of Robert Weiss (1975) and John Harvey, Ann Weber, and Terri Orbuch (1990) may be interpreted as embracing this approach. Illustrative research stresses the collection of people's naturalistic attributional accounts and the linking of those accounts to relationship behavior.

In the early twenty-first century, a blossoming area of work concerned the interface of close relationships, attribution, and communication behavior. A recent edited book by Valerie Manusov and John Harvey (2001) documents work at this interface. An interesting line of work that illustrates this area was carried out by Manusov and Koenig (2001). They have examined the attributions that couples provide for nonverbal interaction behaviors as the meanings that these couples have ascribed to the communication cues. These authors are operationalizing the attribution as the message. In a similar research program, Alan Sillars, Linda Roberts, Tim Dun, and Kenneth Leonard (2001) also focus on attributions as communication. In their extensive coding of real-time interactions, Sillars and colleagues accessed the attributions that people gave to what they or their partners were likely thinking at the time of the interaction. Individual members of couples stated what they thought that they and their partner were attempting to communicate or what was probably going on in their minds as they interacted. Thus, the attributions reflected the couples' assessments of the meanings for the communication behaviors in which they or their partner engaged.

As Manusov (2001) argues, attributions may be seen as a form of communication that involves explanations for behaviors or events. Attributions may be viewed as necessary for communication cues (i.e., causal or other explanations are given for why someone communicated what or how he or she did). Attributions may be seen as an important part of the communicated message itself, with causal explanations becoming the meaning ascribed to or communicated by behaviors.

A plethora of other strands of work are evolving with attribution as a central construct. As Catherine Surra and colleagues have shown, attributions and communications help establish relational identity (Surra and Hughes 1997). Individuals in close relationships have identities connected to those relationships that presumably are cultivated over time through interaction and attributions held in private and sometimes communicated to the partner. These identities are fashioned and refined in accounts people develop about relationships and their own personal relationships in particular. Accounts, or storylike constructions containing attributions, remain a viable way for studying attributions in relationships.

A new theory of how relationships are maintained and enhanced argues that people take care in making attributions about their partners, emphasizing positive attributions but moreover accurate attributions (Harvey and Omarzu 1999). This theory, called minding the close relationship, also embraces the idea that a mutual, never-ending knowing process, involving self-disclosure and soliciting self-disclosures from other, is critical to relationship enhancement. Minding is the act of using one's mind purposefully in thinking and acting relevant to one's close relationship. Attributions about one's partner and the events unfolding in the relationship are assumed to be pervasive in ongoing flow of close relationships. Since this theory pivots around the attribution concept, we will outline aspects of the theory below.

According to minding theory, attributional activity is a central way in which we develop a sense of meaning about our relationships. Attributional activity reflects our trust and belief in our partners. When we attribute our partners' negative behaviors, such as rudeness or insensitivity, to outside causes we are essentially telling ourselves that they are not really insensitive; it is the situation. We believe better of them. However, if we attribute our partners' positive, caring acts to outside events or to self-interest, we are convincing ourselves not to believe in their love, not to trust their sincerity.

Minding theory stresses relationship-enhancing attributions. Relationship-enhancing attributions tend to be those that attribute positive behaviors to dispositional causes: "He came home early to spend time with me." "She called me at work because she cares about me." Negative behaviors, in contrast, are attributed more often to external causes: "She yelled at me because she's stressed at work." "He is late for our date because his car broke down." Attribution theorists such as Heider recognized that people's attributions of causality and responsibility often are mixtures of internal and external attribution. For example, the husband in the foregoing example may emphasize his wife's stress at work, but also attribute part of her temper display to her susceptibility to such stresses. In well-minded relationships, these attributional activities will be carefully carried out, which includes working to develop fair mixtures of internal and external attributions.

In well-minded relationships, partners will recognize how easy it is to be mistaken about a partner's behavior, feelings, intentions, and motivations, and how important it is to feel firm about attributions regarding behavior of their partner in different situations. Flexibility and willingness to reexamine attributions about one's partner and the relationship characterize well-minded relationships. Partners also will understand the value of honest, carefully developed attributions about their partner and relationship events. Not all attributions about one's partner or the relationship can be positive. On occasion, negative attributions can be used in redressing relationship problems and negotiating stronger relationships.

Partners who are minding well can use the knowledge that they have gained about each other to help ensure that they do not blindly attribute all good, or all bad, to their partners. Parts of the minding process build on each other. The knowledge and attribution components work together to help couples build trust and positive beliefs that are based in real knowledge and that they can feel confident about relying on.

Another prominent program of work on maintenance of close relationships that emphasizes attributions is being implemented by Benjamin Karney and colleagues. Benjamin Karney, James McNulty, and Nancy Frye (2001) pinpoint a specific mechanism at work in the maintenance and enhancement of close relationships that involves the extent to which individuals hold positive beliefs about their partner. Karney and his colleagues make the intriguing suggestion that relationship satisfaction may not necessarily result from the content of cognitions, but it may be more related to the manner in which the valence of cognitions at various levels (e.g., global vs. specific) are integrated. Because couples are likely to experience some adversity in their relationship, it is posited that their relationship satisfaction can be maintained to the extent to which individuals can separate cognitions associated with specific events from global beliefs about their partner. Attributions, the most widely studied cognitive process in the literature about close relationships, are proposed to affect relationship satisfaction by influencing the extent to which perceptions of specific behaviors modify global beliefs about one's partner. In all, Karney and his colleagues constructed an impressive model of the interplay between cognitive content, process, and structure. They believe that it will be important to link such results with other important variables, such as personality and life stress, to formulate a comprehensive model to characterize satisfaction in close relationships over time.

International Research

Increasingly, attribution is being applied in understanding close relationships by scholars who represent diverse countries and cultures. A small sampling of representative work will be reviewed here.

In one study, seventy-four French-Canadian couples reported on attributions for global marital conflict and marital adjustment (Sabourin, Lussier, and Wright 1991). It was found that the more likely individuals were to attribute their marital conflicts to global or stable causes and to assign blame to their partners, the more likely they were to report marital dissatisfaction. Global attributions for marital conflicts were the most consistent predictors of marital satisfaction scores.

A study of attribution and marital distress in China and the United States was carried out by Daniel Stander, Donald Hsiung, and Donald Mac-Dermid (2001). In this work, thirty-six couples from China and thirty-two couples from the United States reported attributions associated with various types of conflict they had indicated to be occurring in their relationships. It was found that marital attributions were correlated with marital distress for both groups. However, the Chinese spouses tended to report more relationship-enhancing causal attributions than did spouses in the United States. There also were some differences in attributions of responsibility and blame across cultures.

Garth Fletcher (1993) has carried out a substantial program of work in New Zealand concerned with attribution and close relationships. He argues that the standard close relationship attribution model, which is concerned with connections between relationship satisfaction and causal attributions, is silent about the information processing involved in the links between dispositional structures, such as relationship satisfaction, and cognition, affect, and behavior. His model encompasses the outcomes when eliciting events during an interaction between partners are subjected to automatic/controlled processing. He studies close relationships beliefs, specific relationship knowledge structures, affect, and behavioral interactions in his program. Fletcher's work has not suggested major differences in information-processing tendencies for attributions in relationships across comparisons of couples in New Zealand, the United States, and Europe.

Other representative work has focused on attributions and self-serving biases in attributions among persons in relationships in India (Higgins and Bhatt 2001) and attributional style and self-concept among people in relationships in Hong Kong (Poon and Lau 1999). These studies showed that people in India and Hong Kong used attributions in ways found in previous studies in the United States (e.g., higher self-esteem for respondents shown for the Hong Kong study if the respondents attributed relationship problems to outside forces affecting their relationships).

More work is necessary to investigate attribution-relationship linkages in cultures not influenced by Western mores. A major difficulty facing this type of cross-cultural work is to be able to translate standardized instruments into different languages in a way that is both meaningful to the respondents and, at the same time, consistent with the intent of the questions and measures used.


As is clear in theories such as minding theory, attributions increasingly are seen as mediators of relationship events. Attributions are often seen as representing the process activities between social perception of close others and behavior directed toward them. This view of attribution is wed with a vibrant field of work on social cognition, or how people perceive others. In the early twenty-first century, attribution is alive and well, but mainly plays a major role in interdisciplinary work, such as that occurring in relationship theory and research.

See also:Self-Esteem; Therapy: Couple Relationships


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hyungshim jang

john h. harvey