Causal Attribution

Inferring the Causes of Others' Behavior

To collaborate effectively, it is advantageous to be able to infer both in-group and out-group members’ thoughts and intentions. Knowing the extent to which an in-group member is committed to a group task or to a more individualistic goal aids in establishing trust and assessing team member contributions.

Causal attribution is the process whereby we assign causes to both our own and others’ behavior. We do this in order to add predictability to the situation or interaction. If we have an understanding of the cause of someone’s behavior, we may be better able to control and direct the interaction.

But how do social psychologists come to know others’ thoughts and intentions? They rely on what is observable: behavior.

Causal attribution theorists (e.g., Heider, 1958; Jones & Davis, 1965; Kelley, 1972) hypothesize that a cause can be either internal or external to the person performing the behavior.

Internal causes are those that stem from the internal characteristics of the person. These would include their attitudes, abilities, or personality traits. External causes are those that stem from the situation or the environment.

If the behavior is thought to be the result of a person’s thoughts, intentions, abilities, or personality, an internal attribution is made. If the behavior is thought to be the result of situational forces, an external attribution is made.

According to Kelley’s Covariation Model Opens in new window (Kelley, 1972; Kelley & Michela, 1980), people make causal attributions by examining the relative likelihood of the behavior when the cause is present and absent. If the cause and behavior occur together more than the behavior occurs in the absence of the cause, that is, the cause and the behavior covary, people are likely to infer a causal relationship.

People focus on three types of information to make an internal or external attribution:

  1. Distinctiveness
    Distinctiveness is the extent to which it is unusual for the person to exhibit the target behavior across a variety of contexts. Distinctive behaviors are attributed to external sources; low distinctiveness behaviors are attributed to internal forces.
  2. Consensus
    Consensus is the extent to which other people are exhibiting the behavior in the context. High consensus behaviors are attributed to external forces; low consensus behaviors are attributed to internal ones.
  3. Consistency
    Consistency is the degree in which the person exhibits the same behavior in the same context at a later time. If consistency is low, an attribution is not made; the behavior is thought to be a coincidence or an aberration. However, if consistency is high, then an attribution will be made.

Using Kelley’s Covariation Model Opens in new window, a person would probably make an accurate determination as to the cause of another’s behavior. However, the determination would require the use of cognitive resources.

To determine why Karen argues with Bob, group members would need to search to determine how often Karen argues with other people (distinctiveness), how often other people argue with Bob (consensus), and whether Karen argues with Bob in the future (consistency). Rather than using these cognitive resources, people often make attribution errors Opens in new window.