The Essence of Attribution Theory

There are many reasons why an individual behaves in a particular way. Correspondingly, there are numerous guesses a person makes about the behaviors and characteristics of another. This is the essence of attribution theory. Since its development, attribution theory has been applied to an array of disciplines. This facet of cognition is not only of interest to social psychologists, but also to educators, sociologists, marketing professionals, management personnel, and those in the medical field.
Attribution theory states that humans ‘tend to give a causal explanation for someone’s behavior, often by crediting either the situation or the person’s disposition’ (Myers, 644). As such, it requires three components: an actor, behavior, and observer. For example, if a driver swerves in front of another’s car, what is the explanation the latter will provide for the former’s action? The observer may conclude that there was an obstacle in the road or that the actor has fallen ill. These two explanations credit situational causes to the behavior.
What is more likely, however, is for the observer to attribute the actor’s behavior to disposition, such as being a clumsy driver. The way in which an individual perceives another has important implications as it can alter subsequent attitudes and behaviors. Naturally, there are several possibilities why a person acts in a certain manner. Building on the example above, the actor’s behavior may be due to drunkenness or automobile malfunctioning. There is a curious phenomenon in attribution theory.

As alluded to above, research indicates a high occurence of undamental attribution error, which is ‘the tendency for observers, when analyzing another’s behavior, to underestimate the impact of the situation and to overestimate the impact of personal disposition’ (Myers, 644). An internal attribution claims that the actor was responsible for the event. Using the ongoing example then, the observer will attribute the actor’s behavior to internal, stable characteristics, such as being an aggressive driver.
This is true even when other variables are introduced that clearly indicate situational influences. If the observer spots a deer quickly running to the periphery of the road, he is still likely to attribute the actor’s behavior as Attribution theory includes providing explanations for one’s own behaviors. An individual who receives a failing grade on an examination may attribute this outcome to several reasons, most of which will be situational. He may believe the teacher is incompetent, the examination obscure, or the textbook poorly written.
This is an illustration of self-serving attributional bias which indicates ‘a tendency to attribute successful outcomes to dispositional factors and unsuccessful outcomes o situational factors’ (Cardwell, 221). Self-serving attributional bias often helps an individual to rationalize an otherwise threatening situation. For example, if the individual who did not pass the examination admitted that he does not understand the material, this will likely lead him to feel uncomfortable about his intelligence or capabilities.
To avoid this, he attributes the failure to circumstances beyond his control, which relieves his ego of admitting a personal incompetency. It is nteresting to note that humans usually view another’s behavior as stemming from dispositional attributes, regardless of outcome or observable environmental variables, but then conversely attribute their own behaviors to dispositional influences in times of success and situational influences when the outcome is negative.
Attribution theory has its origins in the 1950’s with the pioneering work of Fritz Heider; his book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relationships was instrumental in the development of this social psychology theory (Brown). He coined the term ‘naive psychology’ which describes the way in which laypeople utilize pieces of information to construct explanations of others’ behaviors. Edward Jones and Keith Davis’ ‘systematic hypotheses about the perception of intention was published in 1965 in the essay ‘From Acts to Dipositions” (Brown, 1).
Expanding on Heider’s work, Harold Kelley stated that ‘people attempt to function as naive scientists’ (Aronson, 118) and he added ‘hypotheses about the factors that affect the formation of attributions: consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus’ Brown, 1). ‘Kelley published ‘Attribution in Social Psychology’ in 1967′ (Brown, 1). During the 1970’s ‘the field of social psychology was dominated by attribution theorists and researchers’ (Brown, 1).
In the 1980’s Bernard Weiner added to the knowledge and scope of attribution theory with his focus on achievement. He identified ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck as the most important factors affecting attributions for achievement’ (Attribution Theory, 1). Weiner added locus of control, stability, and controllability to the lexicon of attribution theory. Weiner’s theory has been widely applied in education, law, clinical psychology, and the mental health domain’ (Attribution Theory, 1). Schank’s work on the structure of knowledge, particulary ‘in the the context of language understanding’ (Script Theory, 1) is intimately tied to attribution theory.
In the 1990’s attribution theory was applied to the health care field with the works of Lewis and Daltroy (Attribution Theory). Additionally, ‘attribution theory applied to career development is provided by Daly (1996) who examined the attributions that employees held as to why they failed to receive romotions’ (Attribution Theory, 1). Most recently, this influential theory has been utilized in studying phenomena such as consumer behavior and advertising Naturally the applications of attribution theory, due to its pervasive and pliability, are limitless.
Understanding why people behave in one way over another and how an individual perceives others can lead to important developments in a variety of disciplines. Researchers have studied the different attribution attitudes of females and males. One’s attribution style and his corresponding projection during counseling has been investigated. Seligman proposed an attribution model, which provides an explanation of learned helplessness (Schultz & Schultz).
Even the children of holocaust survivors have not escaped the grasp of attribution Law is affected by attribution theory in that it comes into play when judges, lawyers, and jurors attempt to understand why a person committed a crime. Marketing and advertising specialists wish to know why consumers behave in a particular way and how their perceptions influence their consumption. Prudent managers seek insight into their employees’ perspectives and consequent behaviors. Sociologists study how attributions affect the development of prejudices. The health care practices and attitudes of patients are of obvious importance to medical professionals.
It appears the application of attribution theory to information technology is a newly developing area of interest. With a growing movement of educational reforms, it seems attribution theory will be increasingly directed toward this area of humanity. In fact, educational professionals are eager to examine and apply the principles of attribution theory to the learning process. Of particular interest to both educators and researchers are high- and low-achievers. ‘Since 1960, hundreds of studies have contributed to understanding why some are highly motivated to achieve and and others are not’ (Tucker-Ladd, 1).
Researchers have found that ‘high achievers will approach rather than avoid tasks related to succeeding because they believe success is due to high ability and effort which they are confident of’ (Attribution Theory, 1). This means that failure is typically attributed to external variables, hich leaves their self-esteem intact. Low-achievers, on the other hand, ‘avoid success-related chores because they tend to (a) doubt their ability and/or (b) assume success is related to luck or to ‘who you know’ or to other factors beyond their control’ (Attribution Theory, 2).
Therefore, when low-achievers experience success they tend to find it less rewarding than high-achievers because there exists no sense of personal influence over the outcome. Within the gifted and talented population of students, there is a segment of under-achievers. Under-achievers are those individuals in which a discrepancy between ability and performance exists. Educators are oftentimes unable to effectively manage such students who exhibit above average intelligence and capabilities but who are, for whatever reason, not performing at levels that correspond to such abilities.
Research indicates that attributions which then affect motivation are a common cause of such under-achievement. It is an intuitive statement to say that modifying one’s attributions will then create changes in one’s motivation. It logically ollows that increased motivation will lead to increased efforts. These psychological phenomena are of particular interest to educators of gifted and talented under- achieving students as they can utilize such findings to increase performance.
While some research has attempted to shed light on this particular educational occurrence, more investigation is necessary to obtain a fuller understanding. Furthermore, how such findings apply to the learning process is of utmost importance to educators that serve this subpopulation. Particular attention to the ttributional style differences between female and male gifted and talented students will enable educational personnel to more accurately attend to the needs of such learners.
More specifically, the attributional style differences between middle school female and male gifted and talented under-achieving students and how this contributes to poor academic performance is valuable area of educational and psychological research. The findings of such research will undoubtedly enable school personnel to more effectively attend to the needs of this subpopulation with the ultimate end of aligning their performance with that of their ability.

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