Attribution Theory

Attribution is a concept within social psychology which describes the process by which individuals explain the cause of behaviours and events that they perceive. Research into attribution theory began in the early 20th century, when the Austrian psychologist, Fritz Heider, addressed the following problem from phenomenology: “Why do perceivers attribute the properties of an object they sense to the object itself when those properties exist only in the minds of the perceiver?” (1). Heider extended his ideas to the question of how people perceive one another and, especially, how they account for each other’s behaviour. For example, if a person is yelled at by another, they will seek an explanation for the behaviour. Was the person yelling because he/she has an angry personality, or might they have a medical condition which does not allow them to act otherwise? Heider made a distinction between internal (personal) and external (situational) attributions (2). If an internal attribution is made as to the cause of another person’s behaviour, the cause is assigned to the individual’s characteristics such as his/her intelligence, personality, ability, or disposition. When an external attribution is made, the cause of another person’s behaviour is assigned to the situation and not to the personality of the person performing the behaviour. For example, if Lisa is involved in an accident in which she is not at fault, she may attribute the cause of the other person hitting her car as being an internal cause or an external cause. If Lisa attributes the behaviour of the other driver as an internal attribution, she may state that the accident was caused because the other driver was not paying attention or because the other driver was driving too fast on purpose. On the other hand, if Lisa attributes the behaviour of the other driver as an external attribution, she may state that the accident was caused by external conditions which none could control (such as foggy weather).


(1) Malle, Bertram F. (2004). “History: Past Research on Attribution and Behavior Explanation”. How the mind explains behavior: folk explanations, meaning, and social interaction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (Link to PDF file)

(2) Lilienfeld, Scott O. (2009). “Psychology: A Framework for Everyday Thinking” Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon. (External link)