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Attribution Theory

Technical Details

Name(s): Attribution Theory
Author: Fritz Heider (1920's) ; Bernard Weiner (1935) ; Harold Kelley (1967- 1973) and many others.
Classification: Hedonic or Pleasure Motivational Theories
Year: 1920s


  • Provides predictability and order in our lives to help us cope with all of what life as to offer.
  • Effective at predicting behaviours when the cause was properly identified.


  • Inaccurate inferences can lead to erroneous assessments.
  • Can lead to expecting a particular behaviour from yourself or others that might not become a reality.
  • Other causes might be ignored.
  • Our inferences are most likely biased as they tend to preserve our self-image.


At its origin, the dissertation of Fritz Heider, an Austrian psychologist, on the Attribution Theory was attempting to explain why the perceivers attribute the properties of an object they sense to the object itself when these properties only exist in their minds. It is only later that Heider introduced the question of how people perceive each other and how they account for each other's behaviours. In addition, the Attribution theory is complimented by Heider's earlier theory, the psychological balance theory. Hence the perceivers orders his or her perceptions based on the concepts presented within the psychological balance theory, meaning that a relationship is balanced when the results of the multipliers are positive.

The attribution theory attempts to explain behaviours by indicating a cause. More specifically the theory looks at how an average person will assess the meaning of a particular event based on the motives for finding the cause as well as his or her understanding of the environment. It's important to note that Heider focused on the day to day events that occurs on a conscious level as opposed to the more deeply rooted subconscious one.

In order for one to properly asses the meaning of a particular event, one needs to make inferences about others and yourself, in addition to those we need to make about environmental factors and those that we are making which could explain why an individual would behave in the manner he or she did or will do.

According to Heider's attribution theory there are two kinds of causalities: Personal and Impersonal. The personal causalities are the ones within our control, like saying good morning to your co-workers in the morning. The impersonal causalities are outside of our control, such are rain or snow falling.

Later, in 1958, in Fritz Heider book "The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations", he introduces the concepts of "Common sense" or "naive psychology".


There are many models that were developed around the attribution theory. In fact, one could even consider the attribution theory as being a main category by itself. This isn't surprising because we, human's want and need to explain the world around us and making attributions is the only way we can have the belief that we fully understand the events as well as people that surround us, while making ourselves feel good!

  • Common sense psychology
  • Correspondent inference theory
  • Covariation model of attribution
  • Three-dimensional model of attribution

High Level Timeline of Major Contributions

Fritz Heider (1920's)

Heider introduced the question of why people attribute the properties they sense to the object itself.

Bernard Weiner (1935)

Weiner introduces the theoretical framework which interprets causes to events or behaviors. More specifically he's focused on understanding how people explain academic success and failures. In general the framework can be summarized by:

  1. Attribution is a three stage process:

  2. 1. Behaviors are observable;
    2. Behaviors are deliberate;
    3. Behaviors are attributed to either an internal or external cause.

  3. Achievement can be attributed to:

  4. 1. One's Efforts;
    2. One's Abilities;
    3. The difficulty of the task;
    4. Luck.

  5. Causal dimensions of behavior are;

  6. 1. Locus of control (Internal or External) ;
    2. Stability (Stable or Unstable);
    3. Controllability (Within one's control or not).

Fritz Heider (1944 & 1958)

In 1944 Heider published two articles that lead the way for the concepts of social perception and causal attribution. Later, in 1958, he published the book "The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations" where he presented that social perception follows many of the same rules of physical object perception. In addition, he made the point that the order that people put on their perceptions are the same as he originally stated in his psychological balance concept.

The most influential notion in "The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations" is how people see the causes of behaviors and how they explain it. This being what, Heider calls "Attributions".

Fritz Heider was also the first in making the argument that perceivers were more inclined to value internal and dispositional causes over external causes. Ross in 1977 called this phenomenon "fundamental attribution error. Fiske and Taylor, in 1991, referred to it as the correspondence bias.


The attribution theory is somewhat reductionist in nature as it assumes that people are logical as well as rational beings. In addition the theory is self-limiting as it doesn't account for social, cultural and historical factors that play in our attribution of cause. The fact that people will always attempt to preserve their self-image and thus will generally attribute their successes to controllable variables and failures to un-controllable ones introduces subjectivity into their analysis which could lead to a wrongful interpretation of either their or someone else's motives.

For scholar and researchers, the translation process of taking causal attributions and transposing them onto the causal dimension has its degree of error. For example, when listening or reading a general comment like "They were better than us" where does the causality lies? Within their own team or the opponents?

Future of theory

The development of taxonomy of situational configurations would be a good direction to proceed. As a following step, in would be valuable to better understand how one's attributions affect their own behavioral patterns. Even more importantly, how do the erroneous interpretations modify one's future attributions within a similar situation?

Share your thoughts

Sharing your motivating thoughts or your motivational tips will benefit every leader. Motivation is what give them the energy to constantly seek to improve their self-motivation as well as motivating other. Consequently increase our leadership influence.


  4. Dan Russell, The Causal Dimension Scale: A Measure of How Individuals Perceive Causes, 1982, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1982, Vol. 42, No. 6, 1137-1145

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