Attribution theory

Critically analyse Weiner's attribution theory

Attribution theory is a core focus of social psychology. The notion of attributions was born from Fritz Heider (1958), who argued that people try to be 'naive scientists' they seek to understand and explain interpersonal events by attributing causes to them. Therefore, attributions can be described as inferences that people make about the causes of their own and other people's behaviour. Heider's main concept of attributions involved the idea that a three stage process underlies an attribution; firstly the behaviour is observed/ perceived, then the behaviour is determined to be intentional, and finally the behaviour is attributed to either internal or external causes. Many psychologists have since further attempted to explain why and how we make attributions. This interest is because attributions have widespread social affects; they affect interaction and behaviour towards the person the attribution was made about, self perception, and also allow expectations to be made for future behaviour. One popular psychological theory of attribution is that of Bernard Weiner (1974).

Weiner developed an interesting theory of attributions by applying Heider's main concepts to achievement situations involving success or failure. Weiner focused on the way people saw their own or other people's successes and failures, generally in an academic environment. This lead to his proposal that people attribute achievement outcomes to one of four main causes: ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck. These causal features can then be analysed in terms of three causal dimensions, each independent and each having different consequences.

The first of these dimensions is locus of control. This is whether the location of the cause is internal to the person, such as ability and effort; or external, such as task difficulty and luck. The second cause of success or failure is stability. If the cause is stable, it would mean that the outcome would be likely to be the same if the same behaviour was performed on another occasion. If the cause is unstable, the outcome of the behaviour is likely to change between occasions. The third causal dimension is control. A controllable factor would be something that one can control and alter such as ability, whereas an uncontrollable factor is one which is not easily altered, such as luck.

Evidence for Weiner's theory comes from Graham (2004), who investigated the attributions made by English students (aged 16-19) studying French. It was found that students who attributed their success to internal, unstable and controllable factors- such as high ability, high effort and effective learning strategies- has higher levels of achievement. On the other hand, those who attributed causes to external, stable and uncontrollable factors- such as high task difficulty and luck- had lower levels of achievement.

Weiner's attribution theory has also been used to explain motivation differences between high and low achievers. According to the theory, high achievers are more likely to have high motivation, and approach rather than avoid achievement related tasks, because they believe success is due to high effort and ability- which they are confident of, and would further improve their self-esteem and confidence. Failure would only be caused by bad luck or a highly difficult task- which would not be their fault, thus would not affect their self-esteem. Alternatively, low achievers generally have low motivation and tend to avoid success related tasks because they doubt their ability or assume that success is due to uncontrollable factors such as luck. Therefore, even when successful in a task, low achiever's self esteem is not greatly improved as they would attribute their success to something beyond their control- such as good luck.

However, this aspect of Weiner's theory can be criticised. In line with his theory, when people achieve success they attribute it to internal factors- such as high ability, or external factors-such as low task difficulty. So, when that same person that achieves low success in a similar activity, Weiner would argue that they would attribute this failure to bad luck, or some other external factor. This may not always be the case- the internal causes that Weiner describes such as high ability are not flexible but they way they are attributed may be- which Weiner's theory fails to account for.

Research examples like this have important implications as it can be seen that for students to persist and achieve at academic tasks, they need to be assured of a belief that they are competent and that the occasional imperfections are as a result of uncontrollable factors such as bad luck. Furthermore, it has become clear that it is not beneficial for students to attribute their success entirely to ability- they need to consider effort as also important for their achievement. These ideas can be highly beneficial for teachers, as attribution theory can be used to motivate students more effectively, leading to higher levels of achievement.

In addition to the relationship between attributions and motivation, a link between attributions and self concept has also been found. This is demonstrated when applying Weiner's theory to clinical psychology situations, for example, patients suffering from depression would attribute their failures to internal, stable factors which can be generalised to other situations (Abrahamson et al., 1978).

In contrast to Weiner's theory, Harold Kelley (1967) proposed an earlier theory of attributions. Kelley proposed a co-variation theory, based on the idea that observers make attributions by systematically working out covariations and correlations between the effects and their possible causes. This principle maintained that the cause of an event must be present when the event occurs and absent when the event fails to occur. He proposed that there are three causes which behaviour is attributed to: Person, Object and Context, and an attribution is made based on three criteria: consistency, consensus and distinctiveness. Consistency is whether the behaviour is the same over time or different, in the same situation. Consensus refers to whether or not other people behave the same way in the given situation. Distinctiveness is whether or not behaviour changes when the situation is changed. Kelley proposed that when all three of these factors are high, then behaviour is attributed to external causes such as the context. When consistency is high but distinctiveness and consensus are low, then behaviour is attributed to internal causes, such as the person. Kelley argued that any other combinations of these features results in ambiguity as to the cause of events.

Some support has been found for Kelley's theory, such as McArthur (1972) who gave participants event- depicting sentences that used a range of combinations of Consistency, Consensus and Distinctiveness. It was found that participants made less use of consensus than predicted, but consistency and distinctiveness did play an important role. Much other research, however, has shown evidence against the covariation theory. Alloy and Tabachnik (1984) found that despite information about consistency, consensus and distinctiveness being available, people were not especially able to use the information systematically- reducing its usefulness in making accurate predictions. There are also further limitations of Kelley's theory. One major criticism is that the theory fails to clearly distinguish between intentional and unintentional behaviour (Malle, 1999). The theory does not specify which behaviours occur due to desiring the outcome (intentional) and which behaviours are unrelated to belief and desires. By discerning whether behaviour is intentional or unintentional it becomes possible to predict the explanation. To summarise Kelley's covariation theory, although this theory was highly influential and proposed some interesting ideas, when put into practice it was lacking in evidence. The theory assumes that people make attributions in a logical and rational way- drawing inferences from evidence and observed behaviours, yet evidence shows this is not always the case.

In relation to Weiner's theory, although there are a number of limitations of Kelley's covariation model, it provides a well structured and 'logical' framework of attributions, and may hold some advantages over Weiner. Kelley puts more emphasis on how a person makes attributes, explaining this as a rational and logical calculation. Kelley also highlighted some important points- such as the roles of distinctiveness and consistency of information; which Weiner failed to account for.

Another attribution theory comes from Jones & Davis (1965), who developed the Correspondent Inference theory. Their theory focused particularly on attempting to explain attributions about what an actor was attempting to achieve by their actions- their intentional behaviour as opposed to accidental behaviour. Jones and Davis used the term correspondent inference to describe an occasion when an observer infers that a person's behaviour corresponds with their personality or an underlying disposition. According to Jones & Davis, a number of types of information are used when making dispositional (internal) attributions. One of these factors is choice. If behaviour is freely chosen then it is assumed to be due to internal factors. Another factor is whether the outcome of the behaviour is socially desirable- behaviours low in social desirability are more likely to produce internal inferences. Finally, non-common effects are important- for example if the actor's behaviour has important consequences for the observer, this may affect attributions.

In criticism of Weiner's attribution theory, Jones & Davis' theory gives more detail and importance to the nature of inferences; and highlights some important factors such as social desirability and non-common effects. Furthermore, Jones & Davis supply a theory that proposes attributions are made through matching behaviour to a personal characteristic- a route which Weiner fails to explore. ?

There are a number of phenomena which are commonly observed when studying attributions which can make explaining attributions in relation to certain causes more difficult. The first of these is the actor-observer bias, which is a phenomenon where the perceived cause of an event follows from the particular perspective of the person explaining that behaviour. This means that the person carrying out the behaviour-the actor- is more likely to attribute the cause to external factors, whereas the observer of the behaviour is more likely to attribute the cause to internal characteristics of the actor (Jones & Nesbit, 1971. A second attribution bias is the fundamental attribution error; whereby individuals generally tend to explain the behaviour of others in terms of internal factors to a greater extent than external factors. For example, when analysing another's behaviour, the tendency is to underestimate the impact of situational, external factors and overestimate the effect of personal, internal factors. Thirdly, the phenomenon of the self-serving bias exists when explaining success and failure. This is the tendency to attribute success to internal, personal factors- such as ability and effort- yet attribute failure to external factors, such as luck.

In 1958, Heider's played a central role in defining attribution theory, and since then, it has become one of the most intriguing and well studied matters in social psychology. The theories that have developed since have contributed greatly to the field of social psychology. In 1965 Jones & Davis expanded on attribution theory through their systematic model concerning the perception of intention, and later, in 1967 Harold Kelley further developed the theory with his ideas about how people decide on the causes of behaviour. They have highlighted important issues and phenomena, such as the power of explanations of behaviour, and factors that create variations in explanation such as the actor-observer effect. Furthermore, attribution theory has lead to more specific hypotheses, such as that of Bernard Weiner.

Weiner's theory provides an important and useful framework for studying attributions made in an achievement context. The theory is an influential and contemporary model with many implications for academic motivation. It has been widely applied in education, law, clinical psychology and mental health, and has compellingly demonstrated that causal attributions play an important role in many everyday activities. However, there are a number of problems with this theory. It lacks universal applicability, as cultural differences are observed in the tendency to use internal or external attributions, such as the bias in western societies towards a belief in personal responsibility. Individual differences are also important, and although the majority of evidence offers strong support for the main values of Weiner's theory, some modifications would be useful to make the theory more representatives of individual performing at different developmental levels in achievement settings. A further problem is that many of the concepts of attribution theory, such as aspirations, need for achievement, reactions to success and failure and need for achievement are often difficult to observe or analyse (Biehler & Snowman, 1993). A final criticism is that as Weiner's theory is mainly focused on self attribution, it may underestimate a need for understanding attributions made about other people. To overcome the problems highlighted here, some psychologists, such as Martinko (1998), have proposed a need for an integration of Weiner and Kelley's theories. For example, the consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness information from Kelley's model can be combined with the basis for external/internal, stable/unstable, and global/specific attributions within Weiner's achievement explanation model (Martinko 1998).


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