Attribution Theory

What is Attribution Theory?

Imagine that while driving to work one day you notice that the driver behind you seems very aggressive: She is following your car very closely, honks her horn if you delay even a few seconds when the red light turns green, and finally swerves around to pass you. How will you make sense of, or attribute, this behavior?

Attribution theory has been proposed to explain how individuals judge people differently depending on what meaning we attribute to a given behavior.

Attribution theory emphasize people’s core social motive to understand each other and to have some control. That is, people need to have some sense of prediction about other people’s actions (understanding) and about their own impact on those actions (control).

Specifically, attribution theory suggests that, when we observe an individual’s behavior, we attempt to determine whether it was internally or externally caused.

  • Internally caused behavior is believed to be under the control of the individual.
  • Externally caused behavior results from outside causes; that is, the person is seen as having been forced into the behavior by the situation.

For example, if an employee arrived late for work today, would we think it was internally caused (e.g. as a result of sleeping late) or externally caused (e.g. by a traffic jam)?

That determination depends on three factors. We’ll spend the remainder of this entry delving deeper into each, but for now, here they are in order.

  1. Distinctiveness,
  2. Consensus, and
  3. Consistency.
Important Hint!  

Attribution theory is an approach used to explain how we judge people differently, based on what meaning we attribute to a given behavior.

1.   Distinctiveness

Distinctiveness refers to whether an individual displays a behavior in many situations or whether it is particular to one situation.

What we want to know is whether this behavior is unusual. If it is, the observer is likely to give the behavior an external attribution. If this action is not unique, it will probably be judged as internal.

Consequently, if the employee who arrived late to work today is also the person that colleagues see as lazy, we are likely to judge the behavior (resuming work late) as internally caused.

2.   Consensus

If everyone who is faced with a similar situation responds in the same way, we can say the behavior shows consensus.

Our tardy employee’s behavior would meet this criterion if all employees who took the same route to work today were also late.

If consensus is high, you would be expected to give an external attribution to the employee’s tardiness, whereas if other employees who took the same route made it to work on time, you would conclude the reason to be internal.

3.   Consistency

Finally, a manager looks for consistency in an employee’s actions.

Does the individual engage in the behaviors regularly and consistently?

Does the employee respond the same way over time?

Coming in 10 minutes late for work is not perceived in the same way, if for one employee, it represents an unusual case (she hasn’t been late for several months), but for another it is part of a routine pattern (he is late for two or three times a week).

The more consistent the behavior, the more the observer is inclined to attribute it to internal causes.

The Figure below summarises the key elements in attribution theory. It tells us, for instance, that if an employee, Michael, generally performs at about the same level on other related tasks as he does on his current task (low distinctiveness), if other employees frequently perform differently—better or worse—than Michael does on this current task (low consensus) and if Michael’s performance on this current task is consistent over time (high consistency), his manager or anyone else who is judging Michael’s work is likely to hold him primarily responsible for his task performance (internal attribution).

Diagram summarizing the key elements in Attribution Theory
Diagram summarizing the key elements in Attribution Theory

Distorted Attributions

Interestingly, findings drawn from attribution theory show that errors or biases can distort attributions. For instance, substantial evidence supports the hypothesis that, when we make judgments about the behavior of other people, we have a tendency to underestimate the influence of external factors and overestimate the influence of internal or personal factors.

This fundamental attribution error can explain why a sales manager may be prone to attribute the poor performance of her sales agents to laziness rather than to the innovative product line introduced by a competitor.

What's this?

Individuals also tend to attribute their own successes to internal factors such as ability or effort while putting the blame for failure on external factors such as luck.

This self-serving bias suggests that feedback provided to employees in performance reviews will be predictably distorted by them, whether it is positive or negative.

Perceptual shortcuts can also distort attributions. All of us, managers included, use a number of shortcuts to judge others. Perceiving and interpreting people’s behavior is a lot of work, so we use shortcuts to make the task more manageable.

Perceptual shortcuts can be valuable as they let us make accurate perceptions quickly and provide valid data for making predictions. However, they aren’t perfect. They can and do get us into trouble.

See a summary description of the perceptual shortcuts below.

SelectivityPeople assimilate certain bits and pieces of what they observe depending on their interests, background, experience and attitudes‘Speed reading’ others may result in an inaccurate picture of them
Assumed similarityPeople assume that others are like themMay fail to take into account individual differences, resulting in incorrect similarities.
StereotypingPeople judge others on the basis of their perception of a group to which the others belongMay result in distorted judgments because many stereotypes have no factual foundation
Halo effectPeople form an impression of others on the basis of a single traitFails to take into account the total picture of what an individual has done

Individuals can’t assimilate all they observe, so they’re selective in their perception. They absorb bits and pieces. These bits and pieces are not chosen randomly; rather, they’re selectively chosen depending on the interests, background, experience and attitudes of the observer.

Selective perception allows us to ‘speed read’ others but not without the risk of drawing an inaccurate picture.

It’s easy to judge others if we assume that they are similar to us. In assumed similarity, or the ‘like me’ effect, the observer’s perception of others is influenced more by the observer’s own characteristics than by those of the person observed.

For example, if you want challenges and responsibility in your job, you’ll assume that others want the same. People who assume that others are like them can, of course, be right, but not always.

When we judge someone on the basis of our perception of a group they are part of, we are using the shortcut called stereotyping. For instance, ‘Married people are more stable employees than single people’ or ‘Older employees are absent more often from work’ are examples of stereotyping.

To the degree that a stereotype is based on fact, it may produce accurate judgments. However, many stereotypes aren’t factual and distort our judgment.

When we form a general impression about a person on the basis of a single characteristic, such as intelligence, sociability or appearance, we’re being influenced by the halo effect.

This effect frequently occurs when students evaluate their classroom instructor. Students may isolate a single trait such as enthusiasm and allow their entire evaluation to be slanted by the perception of this one trait. An instructor may be quiet, assured, knowledgeable and highly qualified, but if his classroom teaching style lacks enthusiasm, he might be rated lower on a number of other characteristics.

These shortcuts can be particularly critical with diverse workforces.