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Attribution Theory of Social Psychology

Attribution Theory of Social Psychology to Learn Moral Dilemmas

In order to understand what attribution theory explains, it is really important to know what social psychology is, what a psychologist studies, and how it is relevant in the present scenario. Read on to know more about this subject.
Sourabh Gupta
Last Updated: Mar 2, 2018
Social psychology is a vast subject that includes Schemata theory, Self-verification theory, Social Identity Theory, Triangular Theory of Love, Drive Theory, and various others. Attribution theory is one of the categories of social psychology which was put forward by Fritz Heider, Harold Kelley, and Bernard Weiner. It explains the way a person interprets the causes of events, and the behavior of himself/herself and others too.
What is Social Psychology?
Social psychology is the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behavior are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others (American psychologist, Gordon Allport, 1985).This, of course, does not mean that it explains every social trouble; instead, there are various other ways to determine the social phenomenon. By studying people's perceptions and motives, we can comprehend why various social cults like racism and sexism exist. Interestingly, by studying people's feelings and thoughts, we can tell why and what makes a person fall in love. These findings of social psychologists tend to be empirical and laboratory based theories, rather than general and global. Some of the core issues related to it are:
  • Social cognition: This involves the study of cognitive processes to understand others and ourselves. It is basically the study of how people process, store, and retrieve the socially available information, and apply the knowledge to various situations in everyday life.
  • Self image: Self image in nothing but a mental picture of one's own self, which is quite resistant to change. This change is not only in terms of physical appearance, like height, weight, complexion, sex, etc., but also other aspects, like things learned in the past either by one's own experiences and mistakes or by those of others.
  • Intelligence quotient (IQ): Intelligence quotient, or IQ as it is generally known, is a score inferred from certain standardized or psychological tests, to measure the cognitive abilities of a person. It is the ratio of a person's mental age and chronological age, multiplied by 100.
  • Attitude: Attitude is involved in every phase of life, from social perception to discipline. Our attitude is different from our behavior. A perfect example for this would be having seen a worthless movie for USD 15 (our behavior), but still convincing ourselves that the movie was good (our attitude).
Attribution theory is concerned with how people interpret events and relate them to their thinking and behavior. It is a cognitive perception which affects their motivation. This theory was first proposed in a book called The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, written by Fritz Heider in 1958. According to Heider, humans behave as amateur scientists in social situations. He also said that we generally explain behavior in two ways: we either attribute the behavior to a person or a situation. Attribution literally means a grant of responsibility. Although the theory was first proposed by Heider (1958), Bernard Weiner (1972) and Harold Kelley (1967) later developed a theoretical structure, which is now seen as an epitome of social psychology.
The theory divides the behavior attributes into two parts, external or internal factors.
  • Internal attribution: When an internal attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is within the person, i.e., the variables which make a person responsible like attitude, aptitude, character, and personality.
  • External attribution: When an external attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the situation in which the behavior was seen. The person responsible for the behavior may assign the causality to the environment or weather.

In 1967, Kelley tried to explain the way people perceive internal and external attribution. He tried this by postulating the principle of co-variation, which came to be known as the Covariation Model. The basic principle of this model states that the effect is attributed to one of the causes which co-varies over time. It also means that the behavior at various occasions varies. It considers three major types of information to make an attribution decision and to observe a person's behavior. The three types of information are:
  • Consensus information: This responds to how people with similar stimuli behave in similar situations. If most people behave alike, i.e., their reactions are shared by many, the consensus is high. But, if no one or only a few people share the reactions, the consensus is low.
  • Distinctiveness information: This is how a person responds to different situations. There exists a very low distinctiveness if the person reacts similarly in all or most of the situations. However, if a person reacts differently in different situations, it is said that the distinctiveness is high.
  • Consistency information: If the response of a person to different stimulus and in varied situations remains the same, then the consistency is high.

But, Kelly's covariation model has some limitations, the most prominent one being that it fails to distinguish between the intentional and unintentional behavior.
Attribution Theory in Education
Also known as the Attribution Theory of Motivation, this theory describes how a person's reasons, alibis, and vindications about self or others influence motivation. One of the most prominent psychologist who focused on this theory was Bernard Weiner. Professor Weiner said that all the factors influencing achievement or motivation can be classified as effort, ability, luck, and the level of difficulty of the task. These factors mainly provide details of the things which are under/beyond our control; effort, an unstable factor on which we exercise a great deal of control; ability, a stable factor on which we do not have much control; luck, an unstable factor over which we exercise little control; and level of difficulty, a stable factor which is beyond our control.
Usage and Applications
The theory helps in Criminal Law, i.e., to understand the psychology of criminals. The usage of this theory in this context is of utmost importance. In today's times, with the increase in crime, especially of juvenile crimes, understanding criminal psychology has become essential. This can help psychologists to understand their thought process, help experts to prevent such crimes in future, and also to reform the criminal's personality. It also helps in understanding cognitive bias.
Another major application of this theory is in marketing communication. Here, it explains the fact that the consumer can attribute claim, either to advertiser's desire to sell product (called one sided advertising) or to actual attributes of a product communicated by an honest advertiser.
Attribution theory is a solution to many problems the world is facing today. We can hope for a better world, without crime, dishonesty, and greed only if the advancement in the theory is possible.
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