Attribution Theory

  • Article's photo | Credit Sprouts Schools

Imagine this: you're driving to work, minding your own business, when the car behind you starts tailgating, honking impatiently, and finally swerving recklessly to pass. How do you make sense of such aggressive behavior? This is where attribution theory comes in.

Understanding Why People Behave the Way They Do: An Introduction to Attribution Theory

Attribution theory helps us understand how people judge and interpret the behavior of others. It proposes that we constantly seek causal explanations for people's actions, trying to figure out why they behave the way they do. This understanding influences our own reactions and interactions with others.

Understanding the "Why" Behind the Behavor:

Attribution theory suggests that we have two main social motives when interpreting others' behavior:

  1. Understanding: We want to know why people do what they do. This helps us predict their future actions and navigate social situations effectively.
  2. Control: We want to feel some control over our own lives and the world around us. Understanding why people behave a certain way gives us a sense of control over our interactions with them.

To achieve these goals, we naturally attempt to categorize behavior as either internally caused (driven by the person's personality, abilities, or choices) or externally caused (influenced by situational factors beyond their control).

Imagine you see a colleague arrive late for work:

  • You might think it's because they overslept (internal cause) or because their car broke down (external cause).
  • Or if your colleague is always late, you might attribute it to their lack of time management skills (internal cause).
  • But if everyone else who took the same route was also late, you might blame it on a traffic jam (external cause). Attribution theory helps us understand how we make these kinds of judgments.

The Three Factors That Shape Our Attributions

The figure below summarizes the key elements of attribution theory. It illustrates, for example, how an employee's performance on a specific task can be attributed to internal or external factors based on three key characteristics: distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency.

Diagram summarizing the key elements in Attribution Theory
  1. Distinctiveness: If Michael performs similarly on other related tasks (low distinctiveness), it suggests that his performance on the current task is likely due to internal factors like his abilities or effort.
  2. Consensus: If other employees consistently perform differently on the same task (low consensus), it further strengthens the case for an internal attribution.
  3. Consistency: If Michael's performance on this specific task is consistent over time (high consistency), it further reinforces the likelihood of an internal attribution.

Therefore, if all three characteristics are present (low distinctiveness, low consensus, and high consistency), Michael's manager or anyone else judging his work is likely to hold him primarily responsible for his performance on the task, making an internal attribution.

Distorted Attributions

Attribution theory reveals fascinating insights into how we interpret behavior. However, our judgments can be skewed by various biases and errors. One prominent example is the fundamental attribution errorOpens in new window, where we tend to overemphasize internal factors (personality, traits) when judging others' actions, even when external circumstances play a significant role. This can lead to misinterpretations, like a sales manager attributing a team's poor performance to laziness instead of a competitor's innovative product line.

Similarly, the self-serving biasOpens in new window influences how we perceive our own successes and failures. We readily attribute our accomplishments to internal factors like ability and effort, while blaming external factors like luck for our shortcomings. This can distort how employees interpret feedback in performance reviews, regardless of its positive or negative nature.

Another source of distortion is perceptual shortcuts. These are mental heuristics we use to make quick judgments about others. While helpful for speed and efficiency, they can be imperfect and lead to inaccurate conclusions. For example:

  • The halo effect: A positive impression in one area can bias our perception of other aspects, causing us to overestimate positive qualities.
  • The horns effect: Conversely, a negative impression can color our perception, leading us to underestimate positive qualities.
  • Stereotyping: Overgeneralizing based on group membership can lead to inaccurate judgments about individuals.

A summary of these perceptual shortcuts is provided below:

SelectivityPeople assimilate certain bits and pieces of what they observe depending on their interests, background, experience and attitudes‘Speed reading’ others may result in an inaccurate picture of them
Assumed similarityPeople assume that others are like themMay fail to take into account individual differences, resulting in incorrect similarities.
StereotypingPeople judge others on the basis of their perception of a group to which the others belongMay result in distorted judgments because many stereotypes have no factual foundation
Halo effectPeople form an impression of others on the basis of a single traitFails to take into account the total picture of what an individual has done

The Limited Lens of Perception

Our perception of the world isn't a perfect photograph, capturing every detail with utmost accuracy. Individuals can't absorb everything they observe; instead, they're naturally selective, focusing on bits and pieces that resonate with their own interests, background, experiences, and attitudes.

This selective perception allows us to quickly form impressions of others, like "speed reading" a person, but not without the risk of painting an inaccurate picture.

One common pitfall is assumed similarity, or the "like me" effect. We tend to project our own preferences and assumptions onto others, believing they share our desires and motivations.

For example, someone who thrives on challenges in their job might assume everyone else yearns for the same. While there's a chance of being right, such generalizations can often lead us astray.

StereotypingOpens in new window takes this a step further, making judgments based on someone's perceived group membership. Statements like "Married people are more stable employees" or "Older employees are absent more often" exemplify harmful stereotypes. While some stereotypes may contain a grain of truth, they often rely on oversimplified and inaccurate generalizations, distorting our judgment.

Another cognitive shortcut, the halo effectOpens in new window, paints an entire picture based on a single prominent characteristic. This is often seen in student evaluations of teachers. A single trait, like an instructor's lack of outward enthusiasm, can overshadow and bias assessments of other important qualities, like knowledge, expertise, or teaching skill.

In diverse workforces, where biases can have significant consequences, understanding these perception shortcuts is crucial. By acknowledging how our own experiences and assumptions influence our judgments, we can take steps to mitigate their impact and foster a more objective and inclusive workplace environment.

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    • This entry is resourced from the manual: Management: the Essentials What Is Attribution Theory? (Pg 225-227) By Stephen Robbins, David De Cenzo, Mary Coulter, Megan Woods

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