AP Psychology Study Resource: Attribution Theory

AP Psychology Study Resource: Attribution Theory

Why is that person angry?

Is it because something awful has happened to them or because they’re bad-tempered?

Attribution theory explores how we give meaning to our own and others’ behavior. It is concerned with why and how we explain events and behaviors in the way we do.

Essentially, we make these attributions in order to understand the things we experience and these attributions have a huge influence on how we interact with others.

Below, we’ll explore the origins of this theory before moving on to look at the different types of attributions.

The Origins of Attribution Theory

Man Reflecting Origins of Attribution Theory through a Photo
Image: CC by 2.0, Michael Beaton, via Flickr

The theory was originally developed by a well-known psychologist, Fritz Heider.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1896, his career spanned over 60 years and saw him exploring how people interpret their own behavior and that of others.

Much of this was gathered in his book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, which was published in 1958.

He believed that we attribute how others behave to our own perceptions and that these perceptions can be determined by long-held beliefs or specific situations.

While it isn’t an overly-complicated concept, it has led to many questions about how people relate to one another and why.

The Definition of Attribution Theory

Discussions on the Definition of Attribution Theory
Image: CC by A-SA 4.0, Thelmadatter, via Wikipedia Commons

In layman’s terms, attribution theory explores the means we use to attribute how others behave. Sometimes, it may be attributed to disposition. We can take an example when someone donates money to charity as this attributes to altruism.

In other cases, someone’s behavior may be attributed to a particular situation. So in the above example, perhaps the person donating the money has done so because they feel pressured by society.

Heider’s belief was that people often gave more attribution to personality than they should, meaning they placed less emphasis on situations. This means that when it comes to behavior, personality as an indicator isn’t as consistent as people may believe.

Through his philosophies, Heider developed certain themes that other psychologist explored in more detail. And there were two key ideas that became influential:

1. Internal Attribution

Whereby someone assigns the action of a behavior to an internal characteristic, rather than an outer factor. So when we are looking to justify the behavior of someone, we’re looking for internal attributions.

It comes in form through personality traits like altruism. In essence, we’re attributing how they are behaving to their motives, personality, or beliefs.

2. External Attribution

This occurs when we assign the cause of someone’s behavior to an event or situation that’s out of their control, rather than to their own internal traits.

When we’re trying to justify our own behavior, we’ll often make external attributions, such as environmental or situational factors.

For example, Jesse’s car breaks down. She suggests that it’s happened because she knows nothing about cars. This comes as a proof for internal attribution. But if she suggests that it’s because her car is old, this is classed as an external attribution.

The Correspondent Interference Theory – Jones & Davies

Proof of Correspondent Interference Theory on a lady getting a bottled water
Image: Public Domain, Shane T. McCoy, via Wikipedia Commons

Jones and Davis (1965) believed that people were particularly focused on intentional behavior, as opposed to unthinking or accidental behavior.

This theory helps us make more sense of how we make an internal attribution to someone’s behavior. They suggest that our tendencies to do this are higher when someone’s motive and behavior corresponds.

For example, when we see someone behaving in an ill-mannered way when they’re an ill-mannered person, this creates a correspondence between the two.

These internal attributions allow us to make assumptions about someone’s future behavior because they give us more information. This theory is what leads to us making these dispositional attributes toward this “intentional” behavior.

Davis used this term to refer to a time when someone suggests a person’s behavior corresponds with or matches their personality.

Correspondent inference methods

Jones and Davis suggest we draw upon 5 different information sources:

  • Choice: This internal factor appears as something freely chosen by someone without being forced by someone else.
  • Accidental or Intentional Behavior: If someone’s behavior appears to be intentional, we’re likely to attribute this to their personality, but if it seems accidental, we’re more likely to suggest an external cause has led to this behavior.
  • Social Desirability: If someone behaves in a non-conforming manner, this often leads to us making internal inferences. For example, if you saw someone in a fine-dining restaurant eating with their fingers, this is non-conforming behavior that’s likely to correspond with the individual’s personality.
  • Hedonistic Relevance: The intention of harm or benefit refers to the specific behavior.
  • Personalism: If someone’s behavior seems to intentionally have an impact on us, we assume this isn’t a cause of the situation we’re in but that it is “personal.”

Kelley’s Covariation Model

Classroom Set-up Proof for Kelley’s Covariation Model
Image: CC by A-SA 3.0, David Shankbone, via Wikipedia Commons

Introduced in 1967, this model is one of the most well-known attribution theories. Kelley developed a logical model that helped us judge whether a specific action should be attributed to an external or internal factor. –

What does covariation mean? It means that the person making the judgment has made multiple observations in different situations and at different times to garner their information.

They are able to identify the covariation of an effect they’ve observed and its causes. Kelley argued that we’re acting like scientists when we try to uncover what causes people to behave in certain ways.

Evidence for the Use of Model

The usage of three different types of evidence makes this assumption relevant to the Attribution Theory:

  • Consensus: To what extent someone else would behave in this same way if they were in a similar situation. For example, Judy drinks wine when she goes out for lunch with her friend. If her friend drinks wine too, this is highly consensus behavior – but if Judy’s the only one drinking wine, it’s low.
  • Distinctiveness: To what extent this person will behave in this way in similar situations. For example, if Judy only drinks wine when she’s out with her friends, this is a highly distinctive behavior. If she drinks wine anywhere and at any time, it’s low.
  • Consistency: To what extent the person acts like this each time a situation occurs. For example, if Judy only drinks wine when she’s out with her friends, this is highly consistent. But if she only drinks on a singular special occasion, it’s low.
Woman Multitasking as an Example of Kelley’s Covariation Model
Image: CC 0 by Public Domain, geralt, via Pixabay

Examples for Model Use

So how does this work? Let’s take a look at an example.

Meet Sally – she’s laughing at a comedian, which means her behavior is laughter.

  1. Consensus – If everyone else who’s watching the comedian is laughing, there’s a high consensus. If Sally’s the only one laughing, it’s low.
  2. Distinctiveness – If Sally only ever laughs at this comedian, there’s high distinctiveness. If Sally laughs at everyone and everything, it’s low.
  3. Consistency – If Sally always laughs when she sees this comedian, there’s high consistency. Lower chances happen when she has seen it before.

So, if everyone’s laughing at this comedian but they’re not laughing at the warm-up act, and if this particular comedian always gets his crowd laughing, then we’re going to make an external attribution. Sally is laughing at this comedian because they’re very amusing.

Alternatively, if Sally is the only one laughing but she laughs at other comedians yet always laughs when she sees this comedian, we’d make an internal attribution. Sally is the type of person who laughs at everything.


This leads to people making their assumptions based on correlation – they’ve seen two things together and assume one’s causing the other.

But what if we haven’t got enough information to make this kind of assumption? What if we don’t know Sally very well and we don’t know how she acts on a day-to-day basis?

According to Kelley, we revert back to past experience, looking for:

  • Multiple necessary causes: The win of a driver in a race founts from the high motivation to do so. We can also say an incredibly adept driver at driving and have trained hard to get to where they are. They must have all of these qualities in order to win.
  • Multiple sufficient causes: The driver’s vehicle fail the test prior to the race because of the modification. We also assume that they’re trying to cheat. Probably, the sponsors modify the car may for a special trick. Likewise, some other people ordered these sponsors. Any of these reasons would suffice.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental Attribution Error through Pacific Partnership among Instructor and Students
Image: Public Domain, Petty Officer 1st Class Elizabeth Merriam, via Wikipedia Commons

This relatively straightforward idea is something that many attribution theorists have observed over time.

Essentially, it means that, when you’re successful, you attribute this success to dispositional factors. You’ve worked hard and you’re talented, which is why you got the promotion.

But when you fail, you relate this to situational factors. Your opposition got lucky or you weren’t feeling well during your interview.

What’s more, we tend to attribute the exact opposite cause when other people are successful. So if your colleague gets a pay rise, it’s because they’ve been brown-nosing. If they miss out, it’s because they’re not good enough for the job.

Applying the Attribution Theory to Everyday Life

These are just some of the many different interpretations of Heider’s attribution theory. You’ll no doubt observe these behaviors and attributions all around you.

For example, when it comes to the fundamental attribution error, one needs to only look at a group of sports fans when they’re watching their team play. If they win, it’s because they’ve been working hard all season. Also, they’ve got the best players around. But if they lose, it’s because the referee is an idiot and completely biased.