Attribution theory

process by which individuals explain the causes of actions, behavior and events

Attribution theory in social psychology is the study of models to explain attribution, the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider in the early part of the 20th century, subsequently developed by others such as Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner.


  • The study of perceived causation is identified by the term "attribution theory," attribution referring to the perception or inference of cause. As we will see, there is not one but many attribution "theories" and the term refers to several different kinds of problem. The common ideas are that people interpret behavior in terms of its causes and that these interpretations play an important role in determining reactions to the behavior.
    • Harold H. Kelley and John L. Michela. "Attribution theory and research." Annual review of psychology 31.1 (1980): p. 458
  • In social psychology, the term attribution has two primary meanings. The first refers to explanations of behavior (i.e., answers to why questions); the second refers to inferences or ascriptions (e.g., inferring traits from behavior, ascribing blame to a person). What the two meanings have in common is a process of assigning: in attribution as explanation, a behavior is assigned to its cause; in attribution as inference, a quality or attribute is assigned to the agent on the basis of an observed behavior.
    • Bertram F. Malle, "Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior." Theories in social psychology (2011): 72-95.
  • Kelley’s (1967) paper on attribution theory in social psychology is generally considered the first systematic and general treatment of lay causal explanations. Kelley’s self-ascribed goal in the paper was “to highlight some of the central ideas contained in Heider’s theory” (Kelley, 1967, p. 192). Specifically, the two central ideas on which Kelley focused were:
  1. In the attribution process “the choice is between external attribution and internal... attribution” (Kelley, 1967, p. 194).
  2. The procedure of arriving at these external or internal attributions is analogous to experimental methodology.
Two questions must be considered here, one historical, one substantive. First, were these two ideas really central to Heider’s theory, as Kelley claimed? Second, do the two ideas together provide a strong foundation for a theory of behavior explanation?
  • Bertram F. Malle, "Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior." Theories in social psychology (2011): 72-95; p. 77

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