Attribution Theory – Definition

Cite this article as:"Attribution Theory – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated May 5, 2019, last accessed August 6, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/lesson/attribution-theory-definition/.

Back to: Management & Organizational Behavior

Attribution Theory Definition

Attribution theory is a social psychology theory that deals with how individuals relate and make sense of the social world. This theory is concerned with how people translate events around them and how their translations affect their thinking and behavior. The Attribution Theory was proposed by Fritz Heider, an Austrian psychologist in 1958.

This theory is concerned with how individuals perceive the information they receive, interpret events and how these form causal judgements.  That is, how individuals attribute causes to their behaviours through information they receive and events that unfold around them.

A Little More on What is Attribution Theory

No individual would take an action or decision without attributing it to a cause or factor. Naturally, people tend to accredit their actions and behaviors, without any pre-existing notion to do so or prejudice . According to Fritz Heider, who proposed the psychology theory of attribution, this is aimed at assessing the explanation that people give to certain behaviors, it considers how individuals interpret their behaviors.

The theory of attribution posits that attribution, whether done internally or externally, has great influence on how people feel and relate to others. This is also dependent on individual personality and cognitive behaviors.

As a complex psychological process, there have been diverse attempts to explain this concept using many theories. From an attribution theory perspective, creativity is considered. This theory explains how individuals respond or relate with one another or how they ascribe meanings to the ways people behave. It examines how individuals exhibit creativity when dealing with others people and factors that are responsible for this. Since the theory of attribution describe individuals’ thoughts, perceptions and causal judgements, this is also useful in examining creativity.

Joseph Kasof is a scholar that studied the subjective and objective aspects of creativity using the theory of attribution. While measuring the objectivity of creativity, three main dimensions or mechanisms surfaced, these are infrequency of creativity, novelty and originality of creativity. However, this test for objectivity in creativity reveal the neglect of subjectivity, the attribution of variability to divergence of individuals, the nullification of social point of view among others.

Furthermore, using the attribution theory, Kasof explained other cogent factors of creativity such as situational and dispositional factors. He also examined why individuals tend to attribute creativity divergently as a result of egoistic baises, covariation and salience.

Resulting from Fritz Heider’s findings, the principle of covariation was introduced in 1967 by Kelly. According to Kelly, the person, the stimulus and the situation are important factors in the covariation model. These factors are distinguished and their degree of dependence on one another explained.  For instance, causal attribution tend to result from an individual’s response to a stimulus in a given situation. This however give birth to these sources of information which are;

  • trans-personal generalization (consensus with the responses of other people in that situation)
  • trans-temporal generalization (consistency in a person’s response to this stimulus) and
  • How the stimulus is distinct from responses to other stimuli.

When discussing creativity, consensus is its most influential factor followed by originality which is the characteristics of the creativity that makes it stand out.  Also, in attributing creativity, the person is mostly considered, given that high creative behaviors are attributed to the individual among other factors. Uncreative behaviors are only attributed to individuals when an enabling environment is present. The attribution theory also studies the consistency of an individual’s behavior and how this translates to creativity.  Kelly’s attributional model also incorporates an examination to determine whether something more or less creative than its environment. Aside from Kelly’s, there are other studies on creativity because a complex phenomenon. These studies were carried out by Nisbett and Ross, 1980, Fiske and Taylor, 1984, McArthur, 1972 and others.

References for Attribution Theory

Academic Research on Attribution Theory

An attribution theory of leadership, Calder, B. J. (1977). An attribution theory of leadership. In New directions in organizational behavior. St. Clair Press.

•    Attribution of success and failure revisited, or: The motivational bias is alive and well in attribution theory, Zuckerman, M. (1979). Journal of personality, 47(2), 245-287.

•    Beyond attribution theory: Cognitive processes in performance appraisal., Feldman, J. M. (1981). Journal of Applied psychology, 66(2), 127.

•    An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion., Weiner, B. (1985). Psychological review, 92(4), 548.

•   Attribution of success and failure revisited, or: The motivational bias is alive and well in attribution theory, Zuckerman, M. (1979). Journal of personality, 47(2), 245-287.

Motivational processes affecting learning., Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American psychologist, 41(10), 1040.

•    Intrapersonal and interpersonal theories of motivation from an attribution perspective, Weiner, B. (2001). In Student motivation (pp. 17-30). Springer, Boston, MA.

•    A review of attribution theory in achievement contexts, Graham, S. (1991). A review of attribution theory in achievement contexts. Educational Psychology Review, 3(1), 5-39.

•    Consumers’ responses to negative word‐of‐mouth communication: An attribution theory perspective, Laczniak, R. N., DeCarlo, T. E., & Ramaswami, S. N. (2001). Journal of consumer Psychology, 11(1), 57-73.

•    The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: A history of ideas, Weiner, B. (2010). Educational psychologist, 45(1), 28-36.

•    Are causal attributions causal? A path analysis of the cognitive model of achievement motivation., Covington, M. V., & Omelich, C. L. (1979). Journal of personality and social psychology, 37(9), 1487.

Was this article helpful?