Attribution and Social Psychology

In social psychology, attribution is the process of inferring the cause of an event or behavior. In real life, attribution is something we do every day, often unaware of the underlying processes and biases that lead us to infer.

For example, in a typical day, you may attribute your actions and the actions of those around you multiple times.

When your test scores are poor, you may blame the teacher for not fully explaining the material and completely deny the fact that you did not study. When classmates get good grades in the same test, you may attribute their good grades to luck and ignore the fact that they have good study habits.

How does behavioral attribution affect your life? The attributions you make every day will have an important impact on how you feel, how you think and how you relate to others.


Why do we attribute some things internally and externally attribute others? This part is related to the type of attribution that we may use under certain circumstances. Cognitive bias usually also plays an important role.

The main types of attribution you may use in your daily life include the following.

Interpersonal attribution

When telling a story to a group of friends or acquaintances, you might tell the story in a way that puts you in your best shape.

Predictive attribution

We also tend to attribute things in a way that allows us to make future predictions. If your car is damaged, you may blame the crime on parking your car in a specific parking garage. Therefore, you may avoid that parking lot in the future.

READ ALSO:  Priming and memory psychology

Explanatory attribution

We use explanatory attribution to help us understand the world around us. Some people have an optimistic interpretation style, while others tend to be pessimistic.

People with an optimistic style attribute positive events to stable, internal, and overall reasons, while negative events attribute to unstable, external, and specific reasons. People with a pessimistic style attribute negative events to internal, stable, and overall reasons, and positive events to external, stable, and specific reasons.


Psychologists have also introduced many different theories to help further understand how the attribution process works.

Communication Reasoning Theory

In 1965, Edward Jones and Keith Davis suggested that people make inferences about other people when the behavior is intentional rather than accidental. When people see other people behaving in a certain way, they look for the correspondence between the person’s motivation and their behavior. People then make inferences based on the degree of choice, the expectations of the behavior, and the impact of the behavior.

Hyde’s “common sense” theory

In his book “The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations” published in 1958, Fritzhead suggested that people observe others, analyze their behavior, and provide their own common-sense explanations for their behavior.

Hyde divides these explanations into external attribution or internal attribution. External attribution is attributed to situational power, while internal attribution is attributed to individual characteristics and traits.

Prejudice and error

The following biases and errors can also affect attribution.

READ ALSO:  What is extrinsic motivation?

Actor-observer bias

Interestingly, when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to have the opposite bias towards basic attribution errors. When things happen, we are more likely to blame external forces rather than our personal characteristics. In psychology, this tendency is called actor-observer bias.

How do we explain this trend? One possible reason is that we know more about ourselves than others. When it comes to explaining your own behavior, you have more information about yourself and the contextual variables that are at work. When you try to explain another person’s behavior, you are a bit at a disadvantage; you only have information that is easy to observe.

Not surprisingly, people are unlikely to be the victims of actor-observer differences with people they know very well. Because you know more about the characters and behaviors of people close to you, you are better able to stand on their perspectives and are more likely to be aware of the possible contextual reasons for their behavior.

Basic attribution error

When talking about other people, we tend to attribute the reasons to internal factors such as personality traits, while ignoring or minimizing external variables. This phenomenon is often very common, especially in individualistic cultures.

Psychologists call this tendency a fundamental attribution error. Even if contextual variables are likely to exist, we will automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

Fundamental attribution errors explain why people often blame others for things they usually do not control. Social psychologists often use the term “blame the victim” to describe a phenomenon in which people attribute their misfortune to innocent crime victims.

READ ALSO:  How is a low IQ score determined

In this situation, people may accuse the victim of failing to protect themselves from the incident by acting in a certain way or failing to take specific precautions to avoid or prevent the incident from happening.

Examples of this include accusations that rape, domestic violence, and kidnapping of survivors somehow angered the attackers. Researchers believe that hindsight bias can lead people to mistakenly believe that victims should be able to predict future events and therefore take steps to avoid them.

Self-service bias

Think about the last time you got a good grade in an exam.Chances are you attribute your success to Internal Factors such as “I do well because I am smart” or “I do well because I learn and prepare well.”

But what happens when your grades are poor?Social psychologists have found that in this case, you are more likely to attribute the failure to External Strength, such as “I failed because the teacher asked some technical questions” or “The classroom is too hot for me to concentrate.” Please note that both interpretations attribute the blame to external forces, rather than personal responsibility.

Psychologists call this phenomenon selfish bias. So why are we more likely to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and to attribute our failure to external variables? Researchers believe that blaming external factors for failure and disappointment helps protect self-esteem.