What Is Attribution?

We make inferences about a person’s behavior because we are interested in the cause of that behavior. For example, when a person is late for a meeting, we want to know if the individual simply did not care or if something external, beyond his or her control, caused the late appearance. Although, there is a general tendency to ignore the external factors as the causes of behavior, if you conclude that the person was late because of, say, illness at home, your inferences about that behavior will be more moderate than if you determined he or she did not care.

An attribution refers to our efforts to understand the causes behind other’s behavior and sometimes, the causes behind our behavior too. It is the process through which we seek to identify the causes of others’ behavior, and so gain knowledge of their stable traits and disposition, as well as understand our own behavior.

The accurate knowledge of others’ current mood or feelings is useful in many ways but it is only the beginning. In social psychology, we want to know more. We want to understand others’ behavior, their traits, as well as know the causes responsible for their behavior.

The social psychologists believe that our interest in such questions stems from our basic desire to find the cause-and-effect relationships in the social world. That is, we simply do not want to know how others have acted; we also want to understand why they have done so.

The process by which we seek such information is called attribution. Thus, the attribution refers to our efforts to understand the causes behind others’ behavior, and on some occasions, the causes behind our behavior too.

In deciding the causes of behavior, the most important thing we need to know is whether the behavior is a reflection of the person’s disposition to behave in that way, or a reflection of the situational constraints that made them behave in that way. We need to assess the relative importance of the situational and dispositional factors. The situational factors are stimuli in the environment. The dispositional factors are the individual personality characteristics.

One of the tasks of socialization is to learn what behaviors are expected in various situations. Once we learn that in certain situations, most people act in a specific way to develop schemas Opens in new window for how we expect the people to act in those situations. For example, when people are introduced, they are expected to look at each other, smile, say something like ‘How do you do?’ or ‘It’s nice to meet you,’ and perhaps offer to shake the other person’s hand. If people act in conventional ways in given situations, we are not surprised. Their behavior appears to be dictated by the social custome—by characteristics of the situation.