What is Attribution Theory? Definition, Types, Errors, and Biases (Explained)

What is Attribution Theory?

Attribution theory is concerned with how we respond to the causes behind other’s behavior. It is a person’s perception of observing the behavior of people and the world around us, either it is because of their internal or external factors.

We can not live for ourselves. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads with others. Social psychologists explore these connections by scientifically studying how we think, influence, and relate to one another. People have beliefs, motives, or intentions, which let them observe, explain to behave in a certain way. Person perception is the subject matter of social psychology. It is a cognitive aspect of an individual. People make observations of others through the information they obtain about them, and the attribution (interference) about the causes for their behavior.

Fritz Heider’s Attribution Theory

Social psychologists have begun to show interest in describing the meaning of other’s people’s behavior after Fritz Heider’s (1958) theory, called attribution theory. This theory was concerned with how we attempt to understand the meaning of other people’s behavior. It concerns particularly the causes of their actions. For example, why Ravi is so friendly toward me? Why Ram arrived late? Why someone is anxious, social, etc. people try to find out answers to such questions based on their cognitive framework.

Fritz Heider categorized causes of behavior into two main forces: personal forces and environmental forces. Personal, subjective, dispositional, or internal forces are characterized by the ability or effort of the individual factors and are predictive for the future with stable dispositions.

Environmental, objective, situational, or external force of behavior is caused by luck or the difficulty of the task to be done. For example, if you are walking and somebody bumps into you. You might attribute it to the environmental forces, because of the obstacle of the road. You will not feel bad. But if you draw inference from the personal cause that the person intentionally bumped into you, will cause you pain. The personal cause can be predictive for the future in his personality while the environmental cause can not be.

Harold Kelley’s Attribution Theory

On this basis, Harold Kelley (1967, 1973) developed the attribution theory. In his attribution theory, he explains whether an observed behavior or event is caused by internal or external factors. Internal factors originate from within the individual such as personality traits, efforts, abilities, motivation, beliefs, or intentions. Internal behaviors are under the personal control of the individual. It is the individual himself responsible for the behaviors he does.

External factors originate from the environment, such as physical facilities, resources, supportiveness of co-workers, adverse situations, difficulties, luck, etc. These are the situational or external factors the person experiences while dealing with behavior. Often these forces combine when the behavior is seen. For example,

  • Rama earned an A grade on her exam. Was her grade due to effort (internal cause) or an easy test (external cause)?
  • An automobile was stolen from the parking area of a supermarket. Did the theft result from a set plan (internal cause) or peer pressure (external cause)?
  • A person made a large donation to the orphanage. Was the desire to help (internal cause) or by the need to deduct his taxes (external cause)?

Attribution theory suggests, in making these attributions, people rely on three types of information such as consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness.


Consensus refers to the way most people respond in the same way to a similar situation. It is the general agreement, opinion about an event, object, thought, or person.

For example, if everyone agrees that the roommate is messy, there would be a high degree of consensus. If the roommate is the only person who accuses him to be messy there would be a low level of consensus. When a consensus is high and everyone views the behavior or object in the same manner, we tend to make external attributions, when it is low and no one agrees about the behavior or object we tend to make internal attributions.


Consistency refers to the extent to which a person always responds in the same way to the same stimulus. It is a regular pattern or style of individual behavior.

For example, if a boss is frequently angry, the employee will likely make an internal attribution about his personality. Internal attributions are made when the individual behaved similarly in the past. If behaved angrily only on that occasion it will be external attribution. He behaved angrily due to certain factors maybe because he arrived late, did the work wrongly, teased his fellow workers, etc.


Distinctiveness refers to the extent to which a person’s responses vary from situation to situation. It is displaying different behavior in different situations. The greater the variability in the behaving pattern, the greater the distinctiveness.

For example, if the boss treats people furiously always, the employees are likely to conclude that angriness is an aspect of his personality (internal) rather than an indication of his attitude toward him (external). If this action is strange it will probably be judged by external factors.

Errors and Biases In Attribution Theory

People are not as objective as needed when they make attributions about the causes of behaviors, events, or situations. Various biases can influence attributions, some of these biases are fundamental attribution error and self-serving bias, and the actor-observer effect.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fritz Heider, in his attribution theory, pointed out that people pay more attention to the behavior and characteristics (internal factors) than to the situation in which the behavior occurs. This tendency biases them toward making internal attributes. Thus there is a tendency to attribute the behavior of others to internal factors more than external factors.

For example, the person who is trying to get a job is often judged to be lazy (internal) when he may be really unable to find work (a situational attribute).

Self Serving Bias

In attribution theory, self-serving bias explains that people often deny responsibility for failures and take credit for success. They attribute first to situational and second to dispositional (internal factors).

For example, a badminton player explains a loss, by complaining that his serve was off and that sun was in his eyes but takes a win as proof of his ability and stamina. Similarly, a student who fails blame the teacher, says that the exam was unfair, and happened to cover just those parts of the course that was not covered in the class or had not studied for (external), but believes that a good grade is a result of talent and hard work (internal).

The Actor Observer Effect

The actor-observer effect is a tendency where something happens we try to blame the environment around us (external factors) rather than our behavior and characteristics (internal factors). If we fall on the ground is attributed to roads, mud, slippery things (external factors) while to others we level to internal factors (e.g. does not look properly on the ground while walking, he has a bad walking style, etc.).

Generally, we are fast to accept credit for our success and equally quick to blame our failures on factors beyond our control. In self-serving bias, there is a tendency to attribute our favorable outcomes to internal factors and our failures to external factors. In an organizational setting, researchers (Bettman and Weitz, 1983) found that management strategy, workforce qualities, and research or development effort related to success are attributed to internal factors whereas bad weather, strong competition, and inflationary pressures are related to our failures are attributed to external factors.

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