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The More You Know: Attribution Theory

'Life' is a lengthy and sometimes confusing journey. Yes, it can be colorful and fulfilling, warm and welcoming and brimming with opportunity. It can also be challenging and disappointing, fragile and mysterious and swimming with obstacles. Many of us have encountered both versions and recognize our life's journey is never the same, forever following a predictable daily trajectory. Much of this experience, this 'journey,' is related to those with whom we share our life, whether for a brief moment or many, many years. Therefore, interpersonal relationships are essential and foundational throughout the creation of who we are and who we will be.

Though we cannot control others nor wholly understand 'why people do the things they do,' Fritz Heider, author of The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, maintains that people subconsciously behave as amateur psychologists. We construct hypotheses about others and ultimately draw conclusions via attribution (attribution occurs when certain behaviors are associated with certain catalyzing factors). This so-called "naive psychology" is the crux of Attribution Theory, a psychological concept that helps determine whether, in any given interaction/circumstance, an individual's behavior is internally or externally motivated (University of Twente).

Internal Attribution refers to deductions made when we believe someone has behaved in a fashion fitting their personality. I.e. If we see a man yelling at another individual in the street, we might assume this is because the man is an angry person. Or, to use another example, if we witness a teenager helping an elderly person cross a busy intersection, we might assume this teenager has acted so because they are kind-hearted and compassionate. Conversely, External Attribution occurs when we assume outside factors have pushed someone toward their actions. Let's take the same examples as before; in the case of the yelling man, we might believe the other person has been somehow provocative or, possibly, that the angry man has had an especially bad day. With the 'helpful' teen, we could speculate enticement: the teenage was offered something in return for aid (McLeod, 2012).

There are two models of Attribution Theory which are used to better understand the way in which people make conclusions regarding fellow humans: the Jones and Davis Correspondent Inference Theory (1965) and Kelley's Covariation Model (1967). Jones and Davis specified that people are more perceptive in regard to intentional behavior (rather than, say, accidental or coerced behavior); their model details the process our mind follows in order to correlate a person's actions and their personality. In effect, is someone behaving like they "should?" This perceived correlation, additionally, helps us make predictions about any given individual's future actions/decisions. The relationship between actions and personality should sound familiar- it's Internal Attribution all over again and, under the Jones and Davis theory, labeled a Correspondent Inference. Jones and Davis assert Correspondent Inferences are based on five key factors:

  1. Choice - whether someone acted of their own volition

  2. Accidental v. Intentional Behavior

  3. Social Desirability - non-conforming behavior is seen as more likely to be based on a person's personality

  4. Hedonistic Relevance - whether an individual's behavior appears to directly hurt or benefit others

  5. Personalism - if an individual's behavior appears to have a direct impact on us, we tend to think it is personal and not a situational, a.k.a. external, by-product (McLeod, 2012)

Kelley's Covariation Model maintains three pieces of key information are necessary when deciding whether to attribute behavior internally or externally; people act as scientists and absorb knowledge about fellow humans. This knowledge takes into account many sources, circumstances, and times in order to reach conclusion. Answers to the questions below are ranked as either 'high' (external attribution and related to outside factors; the swimsuit, in the example below) or 'low' (internal attribution and related, in the example below, to hard work) (McLeod, 2012):

  1. Consensus: how did others behave in the situation? (e.g. a swimmer is racing particularly well in a certain swimsuit...are other athletes in the same suit also racing well?If other swimmers are not racing as well, this is a 'low' factor)

  2. Distinctiveness: how did the person behave in similar situations? (e.g. does the swimmer race well in any suit, or just this one particularly?If the swimmer does not race well in other suits, this would be a 'high' factor)

  3. Consistency: does the person behave similarly any time this particular situation arises? (e.g. does the swimmer always race well in this suit?If the swimmer normally does not race well in this suit, this is a 'low' factor)

Attribution Theory is a fun concept and a reminder that we as humans, social by nature, are consistently attempting to place meaning in our lives. We want to make sense of the world, sense of our planet's cohabitants. Though we may not always be correct in our assumptions, it is fascinating to see the way in which we reach conclusions. We ask our readers to think: do you typically resort to internal or external attribution? If someone cuts you off on the road, are you instantly incensed? Do you assume this person is a bad driver and, therefore, a reckless individual? Or, perhaps, do you assume this driver is racing towards an emergency at home? Our TOPPS tip for the week is this: be cognizant and aware of the ways you judge others. Remember, we are all fighting our own silent battles, building personal beautiful realities. Building self-awareness, empathy, and compassion for others and ourselves will lead to a healthier you.


McLeod, Saul. (2012). Attribution Theory. Retrieved from

University of Twente. Attribution Theory. Retrieved from

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