Psychology - Cognitive approach - Attribution Theory

  • Created by: jkav
  • Created on: 31-01-15 13:16

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory was first developed by Fritz Heider in the 1950's. Further theories have been proposed by a number of psychologists, including Edward E.Jones and Harold Kelley.

Internal and External attributions

The orgins of the attribution theory lie with an amusing study by Heider and Simmel (1944,). This led Heider (1958) to propose that people have a strong tendency to attribute causes to ebhaviour. Heider suggested that people are like amateur (or naive) scientists, trying to understand other peoples behaviour by piecing together information until they arrive at a reasonable explanation. These explanations come from two sources.

  • The person: internal or dispositional factors, such as person's traits. For example, we might explain a person's loud behaviour in terms of their extrovert personality.
  • The situation: external or situational factors, such as social norms or luck. For example, we might explain a person's loud ebhaviour in terms of the noisy environment. Or we might explain getting a good exam result in terms of having a good teacher ( a situational attribution) rather than in terms of a students ability (which would be a dispositional attribution).

Heider suggested that people prefer to make dispositional attributions. This is called the fundamental attribution error (FAE), i.e it is a basic (fundamental) mistake that people make. For example, when served in a shop by an assistant who is very rude, people tend to assume that it is in the assistants nature (dispositional explanation) rather than wondering if the assistant has been having a bad day (situational explanational).

Ross et al (1977) demonstrated the FAE. Observers watched contestants giving answers to a quiz and were asked to rate their ability. They knew that some of the contestants had actually made up the questions (which would explain why they did well on the quiz), but nevertheless rated these contestants more highly.

However the FAE does not occur in all cultures. In collectivist cultures, people tend to make situational attributions, whereas in an…


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