Attributions are inferences that people make about the causes of events and behavior. People make attributions in order to understand their experiences. Attributions strongly influence the way people interact with others.
Researchers classify attributions along two dimensions: internal vs. external and stable vs. unstable. By combining these two dimensions of attributes, researchers can classify a particular attribution as being internal-stable, internal-unstable, external-stable, or external-unstable.
Attribution theory proposes that the attributions people make about events and behavior can be classed as either internal or external. In an internal, or dispositional, attribution, people infer that an event or a person’s behavior is due to personal factors such as traits, abilities, or feelings. In an external, or situational, attribution, people infer that a person’s behavior is due to situational factors.
Example: Maria’s car breaks down on the freeway. If she believes the breakdown happened because of her ignorance about cars, she is making an internal attribution. If she believes that the breakdown happened because her car is old, she is making an external attribution.
Researchers also distinguish between stable and unstable attributions. When people make a stable attribution, they infer that an event or behavior is due to stable, unchanging factors. When making an unstable attribution, they infer that an event or behavior is due to unstable, temporary factors.
Example: Lee gets a D on his sociology term paper. If he attributes the grade to the fact that he always has bad luck, he is making a stable attribution. If he attributes the grade to the fact that he didn’t have much time to study that week, he is making an unstable attribution.
When people make an attribution, they are guessing about the causes of events or behaviors. These guesses are often wrong. People have systematic biases, which lead them to make incorrect attributions. These biases include the fundamental attribution error, the self-serving bias, and the just world hypothesis.
The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to internal factors such as personality traits, abilities, and feelings. The fundamental attribution error is also called the correspondence bias, because it is assumed that other people’s behavior corresponds to their personal attributes. When explaining their own behavior, on the other hand, people tend to attribute it to situational factors.
Example: Alexis falls asleep in class. Sean attributes her behavior to laziness. When he fell asleep in class last week, however, he attributed his own behavior to the all-nighter he pulled finishing a term paper.
The self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute successes to internal factors and failures to situational factors. This bias tends to increase as time passes after an event. Therefore, the further in the past an event is, the more likely people are to congratulate themselves for successes and to blame the situation for failures.
Example: Chad wins a poetry competition but fails to get the poem published in a magazine he sent it to. He attributes his success in the competition to his talent. He attributes his failure to get it published to bad luck.
The just world hypothesis refers to the need to believe that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve. The just world hypothesis gives people a sense of security and helps them to find meaning in difficult circumstances.
People are less generous about other people than about themselves. Other people’s successes tend to be attributed to situational factors and their failures to internal factors.
Example: Chad’s friend Diana does manage to get a poem published in a magazine. However, she did not receive a prize in a poetry competition she entered. Chad attributes Diana’s publication success to good luck and her failure to her underdeveloped writing abilities.
Unfortunately, the just world hypothesis also leads to a tendency to blame the victim. When something tragic or terrible happens to someone, people often reassure themselves by deciding that the person must have done something to provoke or cause the event.
Example: Anthony gets into a car wreck. His friends believe that Anthony must have been driving drunk.
Research suggests that cultural values and norms affect the way people make attributions. In particular, differences in attribution style exist between individualist and collectivist cultures. People in individualist cultures place a high value on uniqueness and independence, believe in the importance of individual goals, and define themselves in terms of personal attributes. People in collectivist cultures, on the other hand, place a high value on conformity and interdependence, believe in the importance of group goals, and define themselves in terms of their membership in groups. North American and Western European cultures tend to be individualistic, while Asian, Latin American, and African cultures tend to be collectivist.
People in collectivist cultures tend to be less susceptible to the fundamental attribution error than people in individualist cultures. People from collectivist cultures are more likely to believe that a person’s behavior is due to situational demands rather than to personal attributes. People from collectivist cultures are also less susceptible to the self-serving bias.
Research suggests that people who are from a collectivist culture, such as the Japanese culture, tend to have a self-effacing bias when making attributions. That is, they tend to attribute their successes to situational factors rather than to personal attributes, and, when they fail, they blame themselves for not trying hard enough.