Attribution Theory


Attribution Theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do. This search for a reason behind behavior allows people to attribute causes to behavior. A behavioral cause could be situational, where a person had to do something because of the situation they were in. A behavioral cause could also result from something unique to person. Examples of those unique attributes include, but are not limited to:

  1. the person's desire to perform the behavior (e.g., they did it because they wanted to do it),
  2. the person's whim (e.g., they did it because they felt like doing it),
  3. the person's ability (e.g., the person is capable of doing the behavior),
  4. the person's sense of obligation (e.g., the person did it because they felt they had to or should do the behavior), and
  5. the person's sense of belonging (e.g., the person did it to fit in with a group of people important to the person).

A person seeking to understand why another person did something may attribute one or more causes to that behavior. However, a three-stage process leads up to the final attribution:

  1. the person must perceive or observe the behavior,
  2. then the person must believe that the behavior was intentionally performed, and
  3. then the person must determine if they believe the other person was forced to perform the behavior (in which case the cause is attributed to the situation) or not (in which case the cause is attributed to the other person).


For detailed information read:

Heider, F. (1944). Social perception and phenomenal causality, Psychological Review, 51, 358-374.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

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