So, what is attribution?
Attribution describes the tendency for humans to attribute causal explanations to our own behaviour and that of others (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). Essentially, when we perceive the behaviour of someone, we automatically assign a reason or cause to their behaviour. This allows us to form a general idea of a person as a whole, which in turn can help us predict their future behaviour (McArthur, 1972). For example, if someone is limping down the street whilst wearing strange clothes and muttering to themselves wildly, we will probably cross the street for our safety – their behaviour is odd and unfavourable.
There are numerous attribution theories (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 1979), but I will focus on explaining the main two theories. The first, and perhaps one of the most used is that of Jones and Davies (1965). They proposed the correspondent inference theory, which explains correspondence as reflecting how much someone’s behaviour is perceived to be as a result of their personality rather than situational causes. If we look at an example, it will be easier to explain:
If we consider the picture to the above, you can see two men asleep on a bench. For the sake of this example, let’s assume they’re both on holiday and had a heavy night out the night before.
There are many correspondent inferences we could make about these gentlemen. A highly correspondent inference would be: “Look at them! What a couple of alcoholic wasters!” A low correspondent inference would be: “They’re on holiday – everyone gets wasted on holiday!” or “maybe someone drugged their drinks?”
In the highly correspondent example, we are attributing their behaviour to a stable, underlying personality trait – or disposition. In the low correspondent example, we are attributing their behaviour to a situational factor/a context.
So how do we judge correspondence?
We look at the behaviour of the “average” person. What would the average person do in this situation? If the behaviour of the person is far from average, we tend to make more correspondent inferences. So, on the average holiday you’d expect people would not fall asleep on a park bench because of being so drunk. Therefore, the subject’s behaviour is far from average, and a correspondent inference is made – we attribute the behaviour to their personality. This also applies to out-of-role behaviour.
Research from Jones, Davis & Gergen (1961) highlights the effect of this out-of-role behaviour. They asked participants to look at job applications for submariners or astronauts. They suggested the ‘ideal’ submariner is social and outgoing as they will be working in a team with other members. The ‘ideal’ astronaut is socially independent and works well alone as they’ll be in space with only a small team and will spend much time alone. The applications for the jobs were either in role (a social submariner or independent astronaut) or out of role (a sociable person applying for the astronaut job, or a quiet, independent person applying for the submariner job). Results showed that participants were more confident at attributing behaviour with out of role applications: “If they’re showing this strong, out of role behaviour, they MUST be a really independent/social person!”. When behaviour was in role, they were only moderately confident: “Well, submariners are MEANT to be like this, so I can’t tell much more about them…?”
That is the basic concept for the correspondent inference theory. Now for the second theory:
Kelley’s co-variation model (1967).
Kelley also suggested that we attribute behaviour to either internal (personality/dispositional) or external (situational) causes. However, it was suggested this is on the basis of three different pieces of information:
- Consensus: what other people also in the situation are doing. For example, other audience members at a cinema.
- Consistency: Whether the person acts in a similar manner when the situation occurs again.
- Distinctiveness: Whether the person acts the same way in other situations.
To summarise when certain attributions are made in an easy-to-read manner – here’s a table I made:
I apologise, but it won’t fit with the layout of the blog. Just click the table and it will make it full size.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.
Hogg, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2008). Social psychology. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965). From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. II, pp. 219-266). New York: Academic Press.
Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1-24.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Hogg, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2008). Social psychology. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.
Ross, L. (1977) The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Volume 10, pp. 173-240), Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 3-25.