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Attribution Theory

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Attribution Theory

Have you ever wondered why we, as humans, perceive things in a certain way? This question is the basis of attribution theory in social psychology. The goal is to explain human behaviors – why we have certain perceptions and act in a specific way.

Explaining Attribution Theory

Fritz Heider was the first person to ask such questions in psychology formally. According to Heider, "people measure others' behaviors by either their internal disposition or the external situation that they're in" (Thompson, 2021). There is also a heavy influence on self-perceptions to understand how or why we react to a situation. Attribution theory focuses on explaining our behaviors and actions. This theory focuses on questions such as, "Does a person react in a certain way based only on what's inside their psyche or also on environmental factors?" Is shouting, anger, laughing, or crying a reaction based on internal or external factors? Attribution theory of psychology is an umbrella field covering many categories such as attribution theory in organizations, politics, and everyday life.

Attribution Theory angry emotions StudySmarterAngry emotions, flaticons.com Attribution Theory  laughter StudySmarterLaughter, flaticon.com

Factors Affecting Attribution

Attribution theory focuses on three important factors or attributes to define a personality; locus of control, stability, and controllability. You can find their definitions in the Salem Press Encyclopedia (2021). Let's have a look into how these factors influence behaviors.

Locus of Control

Locus of control has both external and internal factors. It emphasizes whether a person thinks that the reasons for success or failure are based on external circumstances or personal attributes. Let's use the example of a student who is studying for a test. Internal factors in this example would be the time the student spent studying and the student's efforts into studying. The internal control factor can be measured by the effort and time the student puts forth in the task. But what about external factors? A great example of an external factor is the idea of luck playing a part in the outcome of the test results.

"I passed my test because I am lucky." (external)

"I can achieve my goals through my hard work." (Internal)

Attribution Theory student learning StudySmarterStudent studying, flaticon.com

Stability

Next is the stability (changeable/stable) attribute that focuses on changing the sources of success or failure. Continuing with our example of the student who is preparing for a test, the abilities and difficulties of this task are considered to be stable. But how are ability and difficulty stable or changeable factors? According to Attribution Theory (2021), students who understand that ability changes with effort quickly learn that durability is excellent motivation to push forward and persist. Let's say that the student failed the test. Some things that may run through their mind might be, "I should have studied more and gone to bed early." This is changeable because the student would have been able to make an effort to change the reason for failing.

On the other hand, the following example is stable. Perhaps the student fails the test and says, "It is because my teacher does not like me." This would be considered stable because, according to this thought process, the student can not change the fact that the teacher does not like them, and therefore that is why they did not pass the test.

sleeping studentsleeping student, pixabay.com

Controllability

The last of the three attributes is controllability (not controllable/controllable). This attribute focuses on another question, "Can we change and control the circumstances and behaviors or are these entirely out of our control?" In the case of our student, the task's difficulty level and the student's abilities are considered not controllable. The amount of effort needed for studying is the only controllable factor.

Fundamental Attribution Error

"Never judge a book by its cover." You may have heard this phrase before, and, as you know, this means that we should be careful not to make quick assumptions or generalizations. The fundamental attribution error explains a common habit of overestimating a person's natural personality and "underestimating the position that they are in" (Myers, 2010). An example of this would be our student is late for the class, and the teacher chastises them. The next day, the teacher is late but makes excuses they found justifiable.

Attribution Theory student in trouble StudySmarterAngry teacher, pixabay.com

The fundamental attribution error exists because of the multiple perceptions we as humans have all over the world. This theory suggests that you might know what is happening in your life. However, you do not know the same for those around you. You can see this if you look closely at the theories and ideas of social psychology. One of the examples is comparing the cultural responses and ideals of someone from the east and someone from the west. Have you ever traveled to a different part of the world with different cultural understandings and expectations?

Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Psychology

Of course, actions can affect attitudes in many ways. When we realize that our actions and attitudes collide, there may be a degree of uncomfortable feelings. This is called cognitive dissonance. Many psychological experiments have showcased this theory in people's actions and words. A person may try to justify their thoughts and actions by thinking, "If I said/did it, it must be because it is how I actually feel." The conclusion is that the more responsibility we give to the actions and words that we commit to, the more dissonance will occur.

Attribution Theory a girl thinking StudySmarter"If I think it", flaticon.com

Attribution Theory - Key takeaways

  • The goal of the attribution theory is to explain human behaviors - why we have certain perceptions and act in a specific way.
  • Attribution theory focuses on explaining our behaviors and actions and is an umbrella field covering many categories, such as attribution theory in organizations, politics, and everyday life.
  • Attribution theory focuses on three important factors or attributes to define a personality; locus of control, stability, and controllability.
    • Locus of control has both external and internal factors. Its focus is on whether a person thinks that the reasons for success or failure are based on external circumstances or personal attributes.
    • The stability (changeable/stable) attribute focuses on changing the sources of success or failure.
    • Controllability (not controllable/controllable) focuses on another question, "Can we change and control the circumstances and behaviors or are these entirely out of our control?"
  • The fundamental attribution theory error explains a common habit of overestimating a person's natural personality and "underestimating the position that they are in" (Myers, 2010).
    • The fundamental attribution theory exists because of the multiple perceptions we as humans have all over the world.

Frequently Asked Questions about Attribution Theory

According to Heider, "people measure others' behaviors by either their internal disposition or the external situation that they're in" (Thompson, 2021). There is also a heavy influence on self-perceptions to understand how or why we react to a situation. Attribution theory focuses on explaining our behaviors and actions.

The fundamental attribution error explains a common habit of overestimating a person's natural personality and "underestimating the position that they are in" (Myers, 2010). An example of this would be our student is late for the class, and the teacher chastises them. The next day, the teacher is late but makes excuses they found justifiable.

Attribution theory believes that the fundamental attribution error exists because of the multiple perceptions we as humans have all over the world. This theory suggests that you might know what is happening in your life. However, you do not know the same for those around you. You can see this if you look closely at the theories and ideas of social psychology.

Studying for a test and passing. Do you think it is because you are lucky? Or because you worked hard? 

The goal of attribution theory is to explain human behaviors – why we have certain perceptions and act in a specific way.

Final Attribution Theory Quiz

Question

Who created the attribution theory?

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Answer

Fritz Heider

Show question

Question

What are the three factors associated with the attribution theory?

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Answer

Locus of control, stability, and controllability.

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Question

​Locus of control has both _____ and _____ factors. 


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Answer

internal and external

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Question

Stability has two states: _____ and _____.

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Answer

Changeable and stable.

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Question

Controllability has two factors: ______ and _______.


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Answer

Controllable and not controllable.

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Question

The fundamental attribution error refers to overestimating our personal thoughts and assumptions and ______ situational possibilities.

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Answer

underestimating 

Show question

Question

People measure someone's behaviors by either the _______ or _____ situation.


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Answer

internal or external

Show question

Question

The stability attribute focuses on whether what causes _____ or ____ can be changed easily or not. 

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Answer

success or failure

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Question

Controllability focuses on whether a person believes _____ or _____ can be changed and controlled or not.

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Answer

circumstances or behaviors

Show question

Question

The fundamental attribution theory exists because of the multiple _______ we as

humans have all over the world.

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Answer

perceptions

Show question

Question

Molly got a low grade on her test. She says that it is because her teacher does not like her. The situational attribute in this example is _______ and _______.

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Answer

external and uncontrollable

Show question

Question

"I passed my test because I am lucky." This statement is an example of external or internal locus of control?

Show answer

Answer

External

Show question

Question

"I can achieve my goals through my hard work." This statement is an example of external or internal locus of control?

Show answer

Answer

Internal

Show question

Question

"I should have studied more and gone to bed early". This statement is an example of changeable or stable stability?


Show answer

Answer

Changeable 

Show question

Question

"It is because my teacher does not like me". This statement is an example of changeable or stable stability?

Show answer

Answer

Stable

Show question

Question

How do self-fulfilling prophecies work? 


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Answer


  1. A person holds a certain belief. 
  2. The person behaves according to what they believe. 
  3. Their actions then lead to their belief coming true. 
  4. The prophecy has been self-fulfilled.
  5. Repeat. 



Show question

Question

What are the 4 stages of self-fulfilling prophecy? 

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Answer

  1. A person holds a certain belief 
  2. The person behaves according to what they believe 
  3. Their actions then lead to their belief coming true 
  4. The prophecy has been self-fulfilled

Show question

Question

Define Attribution Theory?

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Answer

This theory asserts that there are two methods that our brain uses to account for how someone behaves: the person's personality, or their circumstance in life.

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Question

What are self-fulfilling prophecies?

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Answer

Self-fulfilling prophecies are used to describe the notion that people act on behavior that supports a certain belief, and when those behaviors lead to that belief coming true, the person's "prophecy" has been self-fulfilled. 

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Question

What are other-imposed prophecies?

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Answer

Other-imposed prophecies occur when others have expectations for us, and their expectations impact the way we behave. This could also occur when someone predicts that something will happen to us, and it comes true.

Show question

Question

What are self-imposed prophecies? 

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Answer

Self-imposed prophecies occur when we have beliefs, or expectations, about ourselves and we act according to those beliefs or expectations. Our actions then make what we were believing, or expecting, come true. 

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Question

What is the Pygmalion effect? 

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Answer

A type of other-imposed prophecy; it expresses the notion that how we treat people can shape how that person acts. 

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Question

What are stereotype threats? 

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Answer

A term used to describe the idea that through certain actions, we unknowingly confirm stereotypes that people hold.

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Question

Why is a self-fulfilling prophecy important? 

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Answer

Self-fulfilling prophecies are important because they can be used to show how we can be influenced by our thoughts or the thoughts of others. Also, it is a part of the Attribution Theory. 

Show question

Question

In social psychology, the immediate and initial perception of someone is referred to as _____.

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Answer

person perception

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Question

_____ is the study of understanding how we cognitively categorize people and their behaviors.

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Answer

Person perception

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Question

Factors or principles that we use to conclude others are ______, ________, ________.

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Answer

social categorizations, implicit personality theory, and physical attractiveness.

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Question

______ is the natural process by which we categorize people into social groups.

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Answer

Social categorization

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Question

We also rely on behaviors and characteristics of people that with think tend to happen. This is called ___ ____ theory.

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Answer

 implicit personality

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Question

______ and first impressions are like the raw data of information we use in

perceiving people.

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Answer

Observations

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Question

When using all of this gathered data, we then ____ that data with our preconceived notions of what are favorable and unfavorable attributes.

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Answer

integrate

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Question

True of False: 

Often, if we can spend more time with this individual or gain more knowledge of them, we can NOT confirm or change our preexisting notions of them.

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Answer

False

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Question

In social psychology, ____ is how we try to understand the world around us. It is how we can categorize perceptions of people who may be there to help us.

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Answer

person perception

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Question

What are some examples of a person's expression of individual qualities?


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Answer

Moral beliefs, personality traits, and appearance.

Show question

Question

Gathered data is the ___ of information we perceive in people. 

A. raw data

B. confirmation

C. integration 

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Answer

A. raw data


Show question

Question

What is the difference between self-imposed and other-imposed prophecies? 

Show answer

Answer

  • Other-imposed prophecies occur when others have expectations for us, and their expectations impact the way we behave.

  • Self-imposed prophecies occur when we have beliefs or expectations about ourselves and we act according to those beliefs or expectations. 

Show question

Question

What is the placebo effect? 

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Answer

The placebo effect occurs when someone experiences positive outcomes from a pseudo treatment because they believed they were receiving the real treatment.

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Question

Who came up with "The Pygmalion effect"? 

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Answer

The Pygmalion effect was created by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1960. 

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Question

What was "The Pygmalion effect" named after? 

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Answer

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson named it after the Greek myth of Pygmalion. 

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Question

Give one example of why self-fulfilling prophecies can have negative impacts. 

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Answer

Stereotype threats

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Question

Why are stereotype threats bad? 

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Answer

Stereotype threats help reinforce prejudice/bias that is inaccurate and can cause the other person to have a poor self-image.

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Question

What is one example of a stereotype threat? 

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Answer

A teacher believes that her Asian students will perform well on her exam because she associates Asian people with being smart. Due to this teacher's stereotype of Asian people, she does not focus too much on those students. When the test results come in, she thinks that stereotype is true because all the Asian students got As. 

Show question

Question

True or False: 

In society, those who are considered more attractive are often treated in a different matter in that they are treated or regarded as a "good person".

Show answer

Answer

True. This is due to physical attractiveness in person perception.

Show question

Question

________ are  how humans perceive everyday internal and external experiences or events.

Show answer

Answer

Attributions

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Question

When people make attributions, they are making ________ about something, oftentimes with bias.

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Answer

 conclusions

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Question

A popular psychologist that began his work in the early 1900s, ultimately leading to the discovery of the attribution theory.

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Answer

Fritz Heider

Show question

Question

Also known as dispositional attributions.

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Answer

Internal attributions

Show question

Question

Internal attributions occur when someone relates an experience to ...

Show answer

Answer

personal factors, emotions, moods, or personality traits

Show question

Question

Are also known as situational attributions.

Show answer

Answer

External attributes

Show question

Question

Happen when someone considers factors outside themselves.

Show answer

Answer

External attributes

Show question

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