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Attributions

Jenna is running late to work this morning. She runs late most mornings, and her boss is starting to get annoyed with her. She runs into heavier traffic than usual today, so she ends up being extra late for work. She expects her boss to say something to her about it, but she is surprised when he doesn't. Most of Jenna's coworkers are also late to work this particular day, so her boss attributes all of their lateness to heavier traffic.

  • What do attributions mean in psychology?
  • What are some examples of different types of attributions in psychology?
  • What kind of attributions concern entire groups of people?
  • What is attribution theory in psychology?
  • Why is studying attributions important in psychology?

The Meaning of Attributions

Attributions are conscious or unconscious subjective cognitive conclusions about the cause of an event or situation. In simple terms, attributions are basically how a person perceives a situation or event. In the example of Jenna arriving late for work, her boss attributed her lateness to an external factor: heavy traffic. He could have attributed her lateness to an internal factor about Jenna: she was late because she didn't get up early enough that morning.

Attributions in Psychology

When we attribute a cause to an event, we make a decision or conclusion about why something happened. Attributions are a common topic of study in psychology. The psychologist Fritz Heider studied attributions back in the early 1900s, and he developed the attribution theory in psychology.

Toby came to school without money for lunch. Toby's friend Lilo attributes Toby's lack of lunch money to forgetting to bring it. Actually, Toby came to school without lunch money because his parents had no money to send with him. If Lilo attributed Toby's lack of lunch money to his family's financial struggles, how would that change Lilo's attitude and actions towards Toby?

Attributional Styles

Attributional style varies depending on a person's general outlook on life and way of explaining or interpreting life events. Attributional styles are based on the idea that either we control our environment or it controls us. In other words, it is often based on our locus of control. People with an optimistic attributional style have a generally positive attitude toward life events even when things are not going well. People with a pessimistic attributional style generally respond negatively to life events and attribute them to forces outside of their control.

Example of Attributions

Attributions impact our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. They can also impact motivation in ourselves and others. Psychologists want to understand better why and how we make cognitive attributions and how they contribute to the way we treat others. Types of attributions in psychology include dispositional attributions, situational attributions, cognitive biases, and perceptual shortcuts.

Dispositional Attributions

Internal attributions are also known as dispositional attributions. Internal attributions occur when someone relates an experience to personal factors, emotions, moods, or personality traits. For example, if someone does well at a cheerleading competition, they may believe it is due to internal attributes and their personal efforts.

Situational Attributions

External attributions are also known as situational attributions. External attributions happen when someone considers factors outside themselves. Social factors come into play, such as race, age, location, other people, etc. For example, if someone is late to work, external attributes such as traffic or car accidents might be considered.

Biases and Attributions

Bias is when we favor a particular person, group, thing, or idea. Biases can be either implicit or explicit, meaning they are either unconscious or conscious. Implicit bias is unconscious, preconceived outlooks or perspectives influenced by past life experiences. Prejudice is an example of a negative implicit bias toward other people, groups, or ideas.

Explicit bias is conscious, preconceived outlooks or perspectives that guide our thoughts and responses. Explicit biases influence how we determine the causes of our behaviors and other people's behaviors. In general, humans attribute the behaviors of other people to internal factors and behaviors of our own to external factors. When this occurs, it is known as the fundamental attribution error (FAE).

Lucy had a long, hard day at work. When she gets home, her kids are acting crazy and making a mess. She snaps at them and reacts based on her stress level. She feels bad afterward, but she attributes her behavior to external factors like the stress of her day at work. The next day, Lucy visits her friend Mark's house. Mark also has kids, and he snaps at his kids for breaking a toy. Lucy is shocked and attributes Mark's behavior to poor parenting.

Perceptual Shortcuts and Attributions

Shortcuts are often called perceptual shortcuts in psychology when considering attributions. These shortcuts are ways that we often look over or miss information that might be vital in understanding if there is an internal or external cause. We use selective perception to decide what information to pay attention to and what information to ignore. When we do this, we often use our bias to choose what to pay attention to. The judgment we have based on the shortcuts can lead to attributions surrounding a situation or event.

Group Attributions in Psychology

Group attributions in psychology often relate to in-group and out-group biases. In-group bias is the tendency to favor other group members over people who belong to another group. If we are part of a group that believes eating meat is not okay, we may treat others in our group better than we treat those in other groups. We may use perceptual shortcuts to ignore the fact that eating meat has benefits, like added protein and vitamins. Out-group bias is the exact opposite: undervaluing those that are not part of your group.

In-group and out-group biases can lead to prejudice and discrimination against others. Prejudice is a negative implicit bias that leads to unfair or poor judgments of entire groups of people. Discrimination is the action side of prejudice. Prejudice is the attribution; discrimination is how we treat people based on our attributions.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory explains how we perceive the actions of others and form attributions. There are three key factors in attribution theory: distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency. Distinctiveness is when we closely observe someone's behavior and decide if it is common or uncommon. By observing the behavior and making a decision, we decide if the cause is internal or external.

Antonio sings in the car, in the shower, and in his home. His voice is wonderful so his parents encourage him to try out for the school's talent show. Antonio follows his parents' guidance and tries out. When Antonio stands on stage in front of the judges, he freezes for a few seconds and then moves on with his song. Antonio's voice cracks and he sounds shaky when performing, which is uncommon based on his parent's perception. This performance flaw can be attributed to external factors such as new people and a new environment. The judges who have never met Antonio before may attribute his performance to poor singing abilities or issues with stage fright.

Consensus is when we make a generalized observation based on what most people do in a group. If most of the group has the same observable behavior or experience, our attribution of the cause of the behavior or experience will likely be external. If the majority display uncommon behavior within the group, our attribution will likely be internal

There are a group of ten employees attending a meeting, and seven of them are vegetarians. Jack, the company CEO, notices that only three people eat meat. Jack attributes the vegetarian employees' food preferences to external factors: it is becoming more popular in society, and they want to fit in with each other. Jack attributes the non-vegetarian food preferences to internal factors: the employees who eat meat are not as earth-conscious or concerned with animal rights. The reverse of Jack's attributions could actually be true, but he attributes caused based on consensus.

Consistency

Consistency is when we observe if the behavior is common or uncommon. If an action or behavior rarely occurs in someone, we might consider it an external cause. If the behavior is recurring, it is most likely internal. Throughout this process, we are able to determine what we believe to be the root of someone's behavior.

Raya watches ballet so she can learn to improve her dance moves. She notices that one of her favorite dancers, Kira, practices 6 days a week. Raya observes consistency in Kira's method, which means it is a common practice for Kira. Raya attributes Kira's behavior to an internal cause: Kira is dedicated and motivated to practice and wants to improve her skills. Actually, Kira's practices are scheduled by her coach and mom, and she participates whether she wants to or not.

Attributions - Key takeaways

  • Attributions are conscious or unconscious cognitive conclusions about the cause of an event or situation.
  • The psychologist Fritz Heider studied attributions back in the early 1900s, and he developed the attribution theory in psychology.
  • Types of attributions in psychology include dispositional attributions, situational attributions, cognitive biases, and perceptual shortcuts.
  • Group attributions in psychology often relate to in-group and out-group biases.
  • The three factors of attribution theory are distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency.

Frequently Asked Questions about Attributions

An example of an attribution in Psychology can include: 

Toby has a friend that does not have lunch money to eat. Toby gives his friend Lilo half of his money to get something small from the snack bar at lunch. Lilo is filled with excitement and attributes Toby's behavior to his kindness and caring personality.

The attribution theory is the study of how we perceive others based on how we form attributions. The attribution theory is made up of three factors that provide reasoning for why we come to these types of conclusions. The three factors of attribution are distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency.

Internal attributions & External attributions.

Attributions are how humans perceive everyday internal and external experiences or events. When people make attributions, they are making conclusions about something, oftentimes with bias.

An attribution model is based on the theory of attribution that has three parts; distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency.

Final Attributions Quiz

Question

________ are  how humans perceive everyday internal and external experiences or events.

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Attributions

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When people make attributions, they are making ________ about something, oftentimes with bias.

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 conclusions

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A popular psychologist that began his work in the early 1900s, ultimately leading to the discovery of the attribution theory.

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Fritz Heider

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Also known as dispositional attributions.

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Internal attributions

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Internal attributions occur when someone relates an experience to ...

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personal factors, emotions, moods, or personality traits

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Are also known as situational attributions.

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External attributes

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Happen when someone considers factors outside themselves.

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External attributes

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Social factors such as race, age, location, other people, etc, are all a form of?

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external attributes

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____  is when we favor a particular person, group, thing, or idea.

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Bias

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A bias that is preconceived throughout our previous life experiences?

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Implicit bias

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_______ bias is the bias we can recognize and choose to ignore or react to consciouslly.

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Explicit bias

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What is fundamental attribution error (FAE)?

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Our bias gets in the way while we base other people's behavior on internal factors, even if the reasoning is external. In human nature, we are quick to judge the characteristics of other people, without considering external factors or causes.

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Two types of perceptual shortcuts are?


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Selective perception and stereotyping

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 The three factors of attribution are?

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distinctiveness, consensus, and consistency.

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_________ attribution is a form of external attribution that focuses on the environment or situation that someone is in.


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Situational

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True or False: Attributions are conscious or unconscious subjective cognitive conclusions about the cause of an event or situation.

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True 

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Which psychologist developed the Attribution Theory in psychology? 

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Fritz Heider 

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True or False: Attributional styles are based on the idea that either we control our environment or it controls us. In other words, it is often based on our locus of control.  

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True 

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True or False: People with an optimistic attributional style have a generally positive attitude toward life events even when things are not going well. 

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True 

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True or False: People with a cynical attributional style generally respond negatively to life events and attribute them to forces outside of their control.  

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False

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Fill in the blank: ___________ attributions occur when someone relates an experience to personal factors, emotions, moods, or personality traits. 

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Internal 

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Fill in the blank: ___________ attributions happen when someone considers factors outside themselves. 

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External

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True or False: Attribution is when we favor a particular person, group, thing, or idea.

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False

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Fill in the blank: _________ bias is conscious, preconceived outlooks or perspectives that guide our thoughts and responses. 

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Explicit 

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True or False: In general, humans attribute the behaviors of other people to internal factors and behaviors of our own to external factors.  

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True 

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Fill in the blank: Prejudice is an example of a negative ________ bias toward other people, groups, or ideas.  

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implicit 

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True or False: We use selective perception to decide what information to pay attention to and what information to ignore. 

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True 

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Fill in the blank: _________ bias is the tendency to favor other group members over people who belong to another group.  

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In-group

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Fill in the blank: __________ is when we closely observe someone's behavior and decide if it is common or uncommon. 

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Distinctiveness

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True or False: Consistency is when we observe if the behavior is common or uncommon. 

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True 

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Fill in the blank: If an action or behavior rarely occurs in someone, we might consider it an ________ cause. 

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external

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