Attribution theory attempts to build models by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. In other words, how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events.  It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment. See the Chapter 2 of the book Essential Social Psychology: Social Cognition, or read the book: by Fiske & Taylor, 1991.

What for attribution theory is useful? For building narrative structures to explain behaviour, or influence behaviour. This is particularly relevant in the context of Quantified Self and life-logging research, where the purpose of data collection might be to build “theories” of one’s own life or behaviour. Below I’ve collected some  notes on the attribution and relevant concepts in this research area.


Basic Concepts & Theories

Internal or Dispositional attribution: personality traits, disposition, intentions, motives.

External or Situational attribution: situational context, environment, culture.

Stability and controllability. Stability: extent to which the causes are stable and permanent, vs. temporary and fluctuating. Controllability: the extent to which the causes can be controlled by others. 

Correspondent inference theory. It focuses on internal attributions and the inference mechanisms that observers might use. Some of the rules for making attributions:

  • Non-common effects: small number of distinctive effects from various choices might indicate to the observer the underlying motivations of the actor.
  • Social Desirability: behaviours not conforming with social norms are more frequently attributed to dispositional factors.
  • Choice: the appearance of free choice of an actor triggers dispositional attribution in the observer.
  • Hedonistic relevance: if the behaviour appears to be directly intended to benefit or harm the observer, the dispositional attribution is stronger (it becomes “personal”)
  • Accidental vs. intentional behaviour: appearance of intentional behaviour is attributed to dispositional factors.

Kelley’s Co-variation model. A certain behaviour is attributed to a given cause that appear at the same time. Causes and effects must coexist together in time, i.e the cause must “covariate” with the outcome. Causes of an outcome can be attributed to the person (internal), to the stimuli (external), or the combination of these two. There are three main criteria:

  • Consensus: do different people appear to behave the same? Low consensus (not many people behave this way) is attributed to the person. High consensus is attributed to situational factors.
  • Distinctiveness: how similar is the behaviour as compared to other situations? High distinctiveness is attributed to situational factors. If distinctiveness is low, dispositional attribution is used.
  • Consistency: how consistent is the behaviour over time? High consistency: dispositional attribution. Low consistency: situational factors.

There is evidence that people attend Distinctiveness and Consistency more than Consensus when making their attributions (see Windschild & Wells, 1997).

Fundamental attribution error: tendency to underestimate the influence of situational factors and overestimate the role of dispositional factors when explaining behavior.

Culture bias: individualistic societies value individuals, personal goals and independence, and they are more likely to make the fundamental attribution error.

Actor/observer difference: tendency to attribute other people’s behaviour to dispositional factors while attributing own actions to situational factors. Actors downplay dispositional explanations when the outcome is negative. In case of a positive outcome, actors downplay the situational elements and focus on dispositional attributions.

Self-serving bias — attributing dispositional factors for success and external factors for failure. See also optimism bias: the belief that positive events happen more often to self than to others. Internally attributing successes and externally attributing failures boosts and maintains our self-esteem and self-worth. It can also work on group-level: we tend to attribute our group successes to internal factors and other group’s successes to external factors.  This group-serving attributions help to enforce and maintain cohesion in the group, and strengthen it against other groups.


Perceptual salience.  Something that captures the attention the most determines the social judgement and attribution. Often, salience is a determining factor in attribution.


False consensus effect: the tendency to exaggerate how common one’s own opinions are in the general population. People given two choices, after making one of them, would estimate that majority of others would make the same choice (both opposing groups cannot both have majority).


Illusory correlation: the belief that two variables are associated with one another when in fact there is no actual association.


Outgroup homogeneity effect: the variability of the outgroup is skewed towards homogeneity.


Behavioural assimilation: tendency for people to act in line with the stereotype associated with category that they have recently thought of.  Priming someone with a given category that is associated with a particular stereotypical trait increases the extent to which the person will behave in line with that trait (examples: elderly study and walking to the elevator, University professor and secretary priming and solving general knowledge tasks).


Heuristics (mental shortcuts)

  • representativeness heuristic: tendency to allocate a set of attributes to someone if they match the prototype of a given category
  • availability heuristic: the tendency to judge the probability of an event in terms of how easy it is to think of examples of that event
  • accessibility heuristic: same as above but the stress is actually on objectively enumerating the examples (not the subjective feeling of how easy it might be); Good example of availability vs. accessibility heuristic is demonstrated by study of listing 6 or 12 examples of assertive/non-assertive behaviour and then rating one’s own assertiveness. People with 12 rated themselves weaker than people with 6.
  • anchoring heuristics: tendency to be biased towards the starting value (example: people asked to estimate something given question in a form “how bigger you estimate it above 1%” and “how smaller you estimate it below 90%” will be biased by the number used in the question.


Self-perception and Cognitive Dissonance

Self-perception theory focuses on social inferences and is attributional in nature.

Cognitive dissonance theory involves the natural tendency to reduce or avoid internal conflict or inconsistency, between behaviour and attitude. It has been first coined by Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith. Note, that following current state of research, it is the attitude that changes due to the cognitive dissonance, rather than the behaviour.

Predecisional dissonance (influences behaviour and decision) and postdecision dissonance (influences future behaviour). Sherman and Gorkin (1980), the study with the female surgeon and car crash. People were given dots problems and female surgeon problem and then a task related to university employment case.

Worm eating study. “Although it is superficially striking to observe people choosing to eat a worm, the more impressive findings of these fundings, is the degree to which people will change their conceptual system to make sense of random events of their lives.” (Ronald Comer and James Laird).

Postdecisional dissonance: Knox and Inkster (1968) study with horse betting. $2 commitment changes one’s perception so that strongly believe they have picked the winner.

Cognitive dissonance theory, east-west differences:

  • Westerners tend to be concerned with inconsistencies that might suggest they are incompetent or bad in some way.
  • Easterners tend to be concerned with behaviours and choices that could lead to social rejection (e.g. bad choices made on behalf of other people).



Suppressing stereotypes is an effective method for temporarily reducing the stereotyping attributions, however, as soon as the suppression is lifted, people who were actively suppressing their stereotypes are more stereotypical than those who were not suppressing the stereotype. The research suggests (Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne and Jetten, 1994), that it might be better not to force stereotypes suppression at all, as it results in less stereotypical behaviour.

Stereotype threat: the situation in which people conform to negative stereotypes associated with their own group membership (indicating the test to be intelligence test or just asking for race reduces the performance of African Americans, Steele and Aronson, 1995).


Selected articles

  • Ross, L. (1977), The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings.
  • Storms M.D. (1973) Videotape and the attribution process: Reversing actors’ and observers’ point of view.
  • Book “Mistakes were made (but not by me)” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

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