Attribution Definition, Meaning, Types, Distortions

Table of Contents:-

  • Attribution Meaning
  • Attribution Definition
  • Types of Attribution
  • Attribution Theory of Perception
  • Factors of Attribution
  • Distortions in Attribution

Attribution Synonym – Ascription, Authorship, Credit, Give, Authorial, Assignment, and Imputation.

Attribution Meaning

Attribution is the method through which perception exercises its impact on behaviour. This process evaluates perceived causes for any event. People tend to give an account of their observations and events that occur in their lives. Attribution is a psychological process through which people explain the cause of their own or someone else’s behaviour.

Attribution is a concept used for understanding perception as it pertains to judging the causes of others’ behaviour. An inaccurate attribution can result in an inaccurate perception. Our interpretations of events in the environment heavily rely on the attributions we make.

Attribution Definition

According to Kelly, “Attribution is defined as an explanation for an event or action causes or both in terms of reason or

According to Jones and Davis, “An attribution is defined as an inference one makes as to why a person behaves (or responds) to a stimulus or situation in a particular way”.

Types of Attribution

Based on social perception, there are two types of attributions that people generally make.

1) External (Situational) Attribution

This states that the external situations or events faced by the person determine his behaviour. In other words, it means blaming the environment for certain behaviour. In external attribution, an individual’s behaviour is fully influenced by factors that are out of his control. 

So, he does not blame himself for different happenings. A few examples of situational factors are good weather, good friends, family support, and supportive teachers.

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2) Internal (Dispositional) Attribution

Certain personality traits are unique in a person and are responsible for his behaviour. In this case, the cause of behaviour exists within the target and he has full control over it. 

An individual’s behaviour is not influenced by any external force that is outside his control. Hence, such a person feels accountable for his behaviour. 

Examples of dispositional factors can be motivationemotional intelligence, and effort put in by an individual.

Attribution Theory of Perception

Attribution theory describes how individuals when observing behaviour, seek to determine whether it is internally or externally caused. Internally caused behaviour is believed to be under the individual’s control, while externally caused behaviour is perceived as resulting from outside causes over which the individual has no control.

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We largely focus on their behaviors and effects while interacting with people in our social surroundings. However, we are also interested in the reasons behind others’ behaviours. It requires making inferences ahead of our general observations of behaviours. For example, if we see someone being very aggressive in public, we want to know why he is doing so. Is the person aggressive by nature? Or is he using aggression as an instrument to achieve some hidden goal? Is there something in the environment stimulating the person to be involved in aggressive behaviour? We are concerned with understanding the reasons behind the behaviours primarily because it helps us predict the future behaviour of people around us to act effectively in the social environment.

This process is called attribution, by which we try to infer the causes behind other persons’ behaviours. We infer the causes behind others’ behaviours regarding persons’ intentions, abilities, traits, motives, and the situational factors that lead them to some specific behaviour. Various attribution theories discuss the process by which we interpret behaviours in order to infer their causes.

The theory of attribution was founded by Heider. This theory tries to analyze how people understand their surrounding world, and what they feel about others, and themselves. 

It is a process by which an individual assigns causes to the behaviour he conceives. People are interested not only in observing behaviour in organizations but also in determining its causes. Their evaluations of and reactions to others’ behaviour may be heavily influenced by their perception that others are responsible for their behaviour.

Attributions theory has extended our understanding of how perception affects behaviour in organizations. It suggests that we observe behaviour and then attribute causes to it i.e., it attempts to explain why people behave the way they do. The process of attribution is based on perceptions of reality, and these perceptions may vary widely among individuals.

According to Heider, “People need to understand that events are either a result of the target’s temperament or traits of his surroundings. Attribution theory studies how people casually make decisions based on performance. It also states that when we observe a person’s behaviour we immediately analyze if the cause of that behaviour is internal or external”. 

Heider’s Naive Psychology

Although we are concerned about understanding and inferring the personality traits of people we deal with during our social interactions, their behaviour may be caused by both their personality attributes and by the environment in which behaviour takes place. Thus, people’s actions do not always originate from their personality; they may also originate from the situation. Heider (1958) opined that causal attribution is the process by which we infer the causes behind other people’s behavior. While doing causal attribution, we deduce which of the two causes the behavior originated from.

Fritz Heider (1944, 1958) proposed that in regular social interactions, people try to find out the causes behind other people’s behavior by using commonsense reasoning. The process and method of finding out the causes of behavior is performed by” naive scientists” and is similar to the scientific method. Therefore, Heider argued that to understand the process by which people do causal attribution, social psychologists must focus on commonsense reasoning employed by common people.

Heider proposed that, during causal attribution, individuals are primarily focused on determining whether the behavior is attributed to the person’s internal state, known as dispositional attribution, or to environmental factors, referred to as situational attribution. For example, attributing a person’s aggressive behaviour to internal states or characteristics, such as irritability, bad temper, and hostility, is an instance of dispositional attribution.

On the other hand, judging the aggressive behaviour originating from situational factors, such as being aggressive under provocation, refers to situational attribution. As perceivers, our decision to attribute behaviour to personal dispositions or situational factors is based on our evaluation of the strength of situational pressures on the actor. Under strong situational pressure, we typically lean towards situational attribution.

Correspondent Inference Theory

Correspondent inference theory (Jones & Davis, 1965) proposes that in order to make the inference that a person’s behaviour originated from personal dispositions, we first focus on the intention behind the particular behaviour. Then, we attempt to determine whether such intentions were influenced by personal dispositions or not. However, making such inferences becomes difficult because any particular behaviour may produce a number of effects.

Therefore, to be convinced by our attributions, we try to discern which of the effects the person actually intended and which were simply incidental. As a perceiver, our decision about which of the several effects of the person’s behaviour was actually intended depends on the factors that include the extent to which the effects were socially desirable, the extent to which the effects were common, and the extent to which the behaviour complied with the normative perspective (Jones & Davis, 1965).

Firstly, the principle of non-common effects refers that we infer a person’s behaviour corresponding to an underlying disposition when the behaviour has an exceptional or non-common effect that any other behaviour could not produce.

Secondly, we tend to infer that a person’s behaviour corresponds to an underlying disposition when the outcomes consequent to the behaviour are socially undesirable. Being engaged in socially desirable behaviours indicates our tendency to appear normal and similar to other people and does not specify any personal disposition. However, behaviors perceived as low in social desirability are inferred to be a result of a personal disposition.

Finally, the perceiver evaluates the normativeness of the behaviour in order to infer that the behaviour is resultant of the person’s disposition. Normativeness refers to the behaviour which is normally expected from a person in a given social situation. When a behaviour does not conform to the social norms in the situation, the behaviour seems to have been freely chosen and not forced on the person in question. Jones and Davis (1965) further argued that behaviours complying with social norms generally do not reveal individual dispositions.

Alternately, the behaviours that contradict social norms are attributed to personal dispositions. Thus, correspondent inference theory states that we are most likely to conclude that others’ behaviour reflects their stable traits and dispositional factors (i.e., we are likely to reach correspondent inferences about them) when that behavior is freely chosen, produces distinctive, uncommon effects, and is low in social desirability.

Covariation Model

The theories discussed in the preceding sections primarily focus on making attribution of behavior on a single instance. However, in real-life situations, we make attributions of a person’s behaviour based on information obtained from several instances. Such multiple behavioural observations and comparisons not only facilitate the process of causal attribution but also increases the accuracy of attribution. Kelley (1967, 1973) proposed that we process and analyse the information regarding a person’s behaviour obtained from several observations in the same way a scientist does. Kelley argued that there might be various possible factors or causes of behaviour. In order to identify these causes, the covariation principle is applied. We attribute the behaviour to the factor that is both present when the behaviour occurs and absent when the behaviour fails to occur, the cause that co-varies with the behaviour.

Suppose you observe a road accident while heading towards your office. There are at least two potential causes to which the accident may be attributed: internal causes (personal attributes of the person involved in the accident, such as rough driving) and external causes (abrupt driving by others, sudden exposure to the damaged road). Kelley (1967) proposed that, when applying the principle of covariation to determine whether internal or external causes led to the behavior, people focus on three types of information:

  1. Consensus,
  2. Consistency, and
  3. Distinctiveness.


Consensus refers to the extent to which people react to a given stimulus or event in the same manner. It refers to whether all individuals behave in the same way or if only a few people exhibit that behavior. For example, it considers whether all persons driving on that side of the road experience an accident (high consensus) or if the person is the only one who has encountered an accident while driving on that side of the road (low consensus).


Consistency refers to the extent to which a person behaves consistently on different occasions and in various situations. If the person consistently meets with an accident on many different occasions, their behavior is highly consistent. On the other hand, if they have never experienced a road accident before, their behavior is low in consistency.


Distinctiveness refers to the extent to which a person behaves in a unique or distinctive way in response to various stimuli or events. The individual will exhibit low distinctiveness if they behave similarly in all situations, whereas high distinctiveness exists when the individual displays the behavior in specific situations only. For instance, if a person consistently gets involved in a road accident whenever they drive, even on different roads, their behavior (getting involved in the accident) is low in distinctiveness. Conversely, if the person avoids accidents on other roads, their behavior is high in distinctiveness.

The causal attribution for the behaviour depends on the specific combination of consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness information associated with that behavior. People typically attribute behaviour to internal causes (personal characteristics of the person, the driver) when the behaviour is low in consensus, low in distinctiveness, and high in consistency. In contrast, people usually attribute behaviour to external causes (rough driving by other drivers, the context/damaged road) when the behaviour is high in consensus, high in distinctiveness, and high in consistency.

Factors of Attribution

Kelly’s Theory of Causal Attribution explains that, in determining whether others’ behavior primarily stems from internal or external causes, we focus on three types of information:

The following are the factors affecting this determination:

1) Distinctiveness

Distinctiveness refers to how a person behaves similarly in other contexts. If someone behaves similarly in other situations, distinctiveness is low; if the behavior varies, distinctiveness is high. Unusual behavior receives an external attribution, while non-unusual actions may be considered internal.

Distinctiveness is the extent to which behaviour is unique to a particular setting or is much like what occurs in many other settings. 

For example, if a student fails in mathematics, then the student can assess distinctiveness by considering whether his or her grades are low only in maths or if they are low in all the subjects. These factors tell us whether the cause of a person’s behaviour is internal or external.

It refers to whether an individual displays different behaviour in different situations. Is the employee who is late, also the source of complaints by co-workers for being a “goof-off”? We want to know whether his behaviour is unusual. If it is, the observer is likely to give the behaviour an external attribution. If this action is not unusual, it will probably be judged as internal.

2) Consensus

This measures how others behave similarly to the person being judged. High consensus indicates that others behave similarly, while low consensus suggests otherwise. High consensus leads to an external attribution, while low consensus results in an internal attribution.

Consensus is the extent to which other people act in the same way when facing a similar situation. 

For example, if all the students in the class failed in mathematics, then this is consensus. On the other hand, if only a few students fail in mathematics then this act denotes low consensus. 

If everyone who is forced into an identical situation responds in the same way, we can say that behaviour shows consensus. The late employee’s behaviour should meet these criteria if all employees who took the same route to work were late. If consensus is high, external attribution is given to the employee’s sluggishness, whereas if other employees with the same route made it to work on time, your conclusion as to causality would be internal.

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3) Consistency

This represents the tendency to respond the same way over time, which can be high or low. The more consistent the behavior, the more likely observers attribute it to internal causes, and vice versa.

Consistency is the assessment of behaviour in similar situations in the past. 

For example, if a student always fails in mathematics, this is consistent behaviour. But if he fails only on rare occasions like in a particular class or school, then it is a low consistent behaviour.

Coming in 10 minutes late for work is not perceived in the same way for the employee for whom it is an unusual case, as it is for the employee for whom it is part of a routine pattern. The more consistent the observer is prone to attribute it to internal causes.

To start the process, we observe behaviours, either our own or someone else’s. We then evaluate that behaviour in terms of its degrees of consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness. Consensus is the extent to which other people in the same situation behave uniformly at different times. 

Distinctiveness is the limit to which the same individual behaves in the same way in different situations. We form impressions of attributions as to the causes of behaviour based on various combinations of consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness. We may believe the behaviour is caused internally or externally.

For example, 

A manager observes one of his subordinates being rowdy, disrupting others’ work and generally making a nuisance of himself. If the manager can understand the causes of this behaviour, he may be able to change it. If the employee is the only one engaging in disruptive behaviour (Low consensus) if he behaves like this several times each week, and if the manager has seen him behave like this in other settings, a logical conclusion would be that internal factors are causing his behaviour.

The attribution model has been depicted which shows that the attribution process involves observing behaviours and then attributing causes to them. Observed behaviour is interpreted in terms of its consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness. 

The interpretations result in behaviour being attributed to either internal or external causes. Internally caused behaviour is one that is believed to be under the control of the individual. But externally caused behaviour is seen as resulting from external factors, i.e., the person is seen as having been forced into the behaviour by this situation.


When making judgments about others’ behavior, there is a tendency to underestimate the influence of external factors and overestimate the impact of internal factors, especially in the case of suboptimal performance by others. This phenomenon is known as the fundamental attribution error. Additionally, individuals tend to attribute their successes to internal factors such as ability or effort while blaming failure on external factors such as luck. This tendency is referred to as the self-serving bias.

Distortions in Attribution

Attribution errors influence our point of view about who or what was responsible for an action or event. Some attribution errors are as follows: 

1) Fundamental Attribution Error

This is also called correspondence bias or over-attribution effect. It shows that people tend to overemphasize dispositional or personality-based clarifications and underemphasize situation-based clarifications. In simple words, people unjustly tend to believe that their actions are a result of what they are, rather than the impact of circumstances and surroundings on them.

2) Self-Serving Attribution Bias

People tend to give credit to internal attributions for their success and blame external attributions for their failure. 

For example, if a student performs well in his examination he believes that it is due to his intelligence and hard work, but if fails then he blames the teacher for the failure.

Unlike other attributional biases like actor-observer bias, self-serving attributional bias has a motivational basis. It helps a person to view himself in a positive light and increases his self-respect. 

Attributing success to internal factors increases confidence and attributing failure to external factors saves one from being disheartened after performing poorly. 

For example, athletes while discussing their victories usually acknowledge themselves for the efforts they had put in but may attribute the losses to other reasons like bad weather, inefficient management, or the extra effort put in by the opposition.

3) Actor-Observer Bias

Actor-observer bias happens when people attribute their actions to external causes and others’ actions to internal causes. It means people make different attributions as per their position (i.e., either actor or observer) in a current situation. This business generally occurs in conditions where results are negative. 

For example, if something negative happens to a person, he blames it on the situation. But if negative happens with others, then he blames that particular person for his wrong choice or wrong decision.

4) False Consensus Effect

It is a type of biasness in which people assume that their own opinions, beliefs, attitudes, etc., are common and correct with the intention that others must also believe in the same manner. 

For example, if a person believes that it is important to save the environment, he also believes that all people should think the same.

5) Egocentric Bias

This type of attributional bias occurs when individuals claim that they are more responsible for the outcome of a  group task than any other person. 

These individuals not only take responsibility for the positive result (self-serving bias) but also take responsibility for any negative result produced by the group.

6) Group Serving Bias

This kind of attributional error is similar to self-serving attributional bias. The only difference is that this occurs among different groups rather than between individuals. 

When the group succeeds, its success is attributed to its capabilities. Whereas, the failure of the group is attributed to situational factors. 

For example, if the business succeeds, credit is given to employees’ efforts, effective advertising, etc. But if it fails, it is due to the competitor’s tactics.

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