What is attribution?
Attribution refers to our intuitive attempts to infer the causes of human behaviour. One of the major attribution tasks we face is determining whether an observed behaviour reflects something about the person or something about the situation in which we observe the person. We attribute as we seek to make sense of the world, assign people’s action/behaviour to either internal or external causes. Generally we attribute in a fairly logical way.
Attributions also implies the ways in which people come to understand the causes of their own and others’ behaviour. In essence, the attribution process reflects people’s need to explain events through deliberate actions of others rather than viewing them as random events.
People make attributions in an attempt to understand why people behave as they do and to make better sense of their situations. Individuals do not consciously make attributions all the time although they may do it unconsciously most often. However, under certain circumstances, people are likely to make causal attributions consciously. For example, causal attributions are common in the following situations:
The perceiver has been asked an explicit question about another’s behaviour (Why did she/he do that?
An unexpected event occurs (I have never seen him behave that way. I wonder what is going on?
The perceiver depends on another person for desired outcomes. (I wonder why my boss made that comment about my expense account?)
The perceiver experiences feelings of filaure or loss of control. (I can’t believe, I failed in my public lecture assignment despite so much of preparation.
There are three steps involved in attribution process:
Antecedent –Factors internal to the perceiver: Information, Beliefs, Motivation
Attribution –made by the perceiver: Perceived causes of behaviour (such as internal versus external causes)
Consequences –for the perceiver: Behaviour, Feelings, and Expectations
Types of Attribution
There are two types of attributions: dispositional/internal and situational/external. In case of dispositional or internal attribution, we tend to attribute an observed behaviour to person’s beliefs, attitudes, and personality characteristics. On the other hand, we attribute any observed behaviour to a situation in case of situational/external attribution. Indeed, there is always some external cause leading to a particular behaviour. However, we overlook causal power of situations in our day-to-day reasoning. An individual’s behaviour is so compelling to us that we take it as a face value representation of a person and give insufficient weight to the circumstances surrounding it. We underestimate the situational causes of behaviour, jumping too easily to conclusions about the person’s disposition. If we observe someone behaving aggressively, we instantly assume that he or she has an aggressive personality.
The scenario when we underestimate the situational influence on behaviour and give credence to one’s personality leads to fundamental attribution error. We make fundamental attribution error so often because it is an over-learned, automatic process that frequently occurs outside our conscious awareness. We can correct our initial, automatic dispositional attributions with reference to plausible situational causes only when we have the cognitive resource to think deliberately and carefully.
Besides fundamental attribution error, another significant issue is that of self-serving bias. People readily accept credit when told that they have succeeded (attributing the success to their ability and effort), yet often attribute failure to such external situational factors as bad luck, or the problem’s inherent impossibility.
Harold Kelley’s Model of Attribution
Kelley’s model is based on three broad concepts:
Consistency: the extent to which the person perceived behaves in the same manner on other occasions when faced with the same situation.
Distinctiveness: the extent to which the person perceived acts in the same manner in different situations.
Consensus: the extent to which others, when faced with similar situation behave in the manner similar to that of the perceiver.
Kelley provides a framework to adjudge whether the cause of poor performance can be attributed to internal or external factors.
Kelley has explained his model through an example of poor performance of a subordinate
Co-workers are also performing poorly—High Consensus
The subordinate performed poorly only during this time—Low Consistency
The subordinate does well on other tasks—High distinctiveness
Co-workers are performing very well on this particular task—Low consensus
The subordinate does not do well on this task at any time—High consistency
The subordinate does poorly on other tasks as well—Low distinctiveness
Following inferences can be made by using Kelley’s model of attribution