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Attribution theory suggests that we make sense of other people’s behaviour and our own by ascribing a number of different causes or attributions. Using relevant theory explain how such attributions are made and how biases can emerge in relation to particular social contexts:

 

Attribution theory is a motivational theory investigates how and why individuals explain events that occur. It was first proposed by Fritz Heider in ‘The psychology of interpersonal relations’ (1958). Heider proposed the common-sense theory that one is a ‘naive psychologist’ trying to explain the social world, they do this by ascribing attributions to an individual to understand their behaviour. Attributions are split up into 2 categories, internal and external. Internal attributions refer to an internal characteristic (e.g. personality trait or mood) that the naive psychologist uses to explain why an individual behaves in a certain manner. External attributions are also referred to as situational attributions, these attributions refer to external causes (e.g. situation or event) that the naive psychologist uses to explain an individual’s behaviour. For example, if an individual is late to a meeting at work, the naive psychologist could ascribe this behaviour to an internal factor e.g. they are repeatedly late and it’s their personality. Or the naive psychologist could ascribe this behaviour to external factors e.g. there was traffic while driving to work.

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Jones and Davis (1965) proposed Correspondent Inference Theory, they “thought that people pay particular attention to intentional behaviour (as opposed to accidental or unthinking behaviour.” (McLeod, 2010). They sought to explain why people make internal (dispositional) and external (situational) attributions. Correspondent inference refers to when an observer connects a behaviour with an internal disposition. They argued that when one makes a correspondent inference there are five elements that one takes into consideration; choice, intention, social desirability, hedonistic relevance, and personalism. First, choice, “if a behaviour is freely chosen it’s believed to be due to internal (dispositional) factors.”(McLeod, 2010). Second, if the intention was purposeful it’s attributed to internal factors, whereas if it was accidental it would be attributed to external factors. Third, social desirability, if an individual’s behaviour scores low on social desirability (eating food from a wastebasket) Jones and Davis (1965) argue that one would attribute this to internal factors. Fourth, hedonistic relevance if the person’s behaviour is directly intended to harm or benefit us. Fifth, personalism, is measured by how unique the behaviour is, the individual’s behaviour is seen as personal if it’s intended to have an impact on the other person. (Jones and Davis, 1965)

 

Kelley (1967) proposed a Covariation Model to explain how an individual decides if a behaviour will be attributed to internal or external factors. It’s a normative model of inference, “a formal, idealized set of rules for validating attributions.” Kelley (1967) argues that we are not naive psychologists, but instead, social perceiver that take evidence into account. This has been broken down into 3 pieces of ‘evidence’ the scientist will look at before making the judgement. Firstly, consensus which refers to the behaviour of others in the same situation; if everyone is late to a meeting consensus would be high, but if everyone was on time, and only one was late, consensus would be low. Secondly, distinctiveness which refers to the uniqueness of behaviour. Or if the individual behaves the same in other similar situations; if the individual only is late to this meeting, distinctiveness is high. But if the individual is late in other situations (e.g. to meet friends), distinctiveness is low. Thirdly, consistency which refers to how consistent the individual’s behaviour over time; if the individual is always late to meetings consistency is high, but if they are never/rarely late to meetings, consistency is low. Hewstone and Jaspars (1987) carried out research and found that different levels of consensus, distinctiveness and consistency can predict whether one would make a stimulus (external), personal (internal), or circumstantial attribution. High consensus, high distinctiveness, and high consistency leads to stimulus attributions. Low consensus, low distinctiveness, and high consistency leads to personal attributions. High consensus, low distinctiveness, and low consistency leads to circumstance attributions. (Hewstone and Jaspars, 1987).

 

One can draw parallels between Jones and Davis’ (1965) and Kelley’s (1967) model’s. Personalism and high distinctiveness and non personalism and low distinctiveness are the same argument. (Enzle, Harvey and Wright, 1980). A behaviour is personalistic or high in distinctiveness if the behaviour is unique. The only difference between them being that Kelley (1967) distinctiveness hypothesis “does not differentiate among different classes of observers” however, Jones and Davis (1965) personalism hypothesis does differentiate, the perceiver must be the one who the behaviour is intended for. This means that the two model’s come to different conclusions about the strength of the inferences. Kelley (1967) argues that low distinctiveness leads to stronger inferences compared to high distinctiveness. Whereas Jones and Davis (1965) argue the opposite. Enzle et al., (1980) examined both these hypotheses and found that when observers were asked to predict an actors future behaviour with another person. If the observer was given low distinctiveness information about the current behaviour, stronger inferences were made regarding the actors future behaviour. Compared with giving high distinctiveness information. (Enzle, Harvey and Wright, 1980). The predictions were true to Kelley’s (1967) distinctiveness hypothesis. However, although the results cannot confirm Jones and Davis’s (1965) personalism hypothesis, but they did suggest “that especially strong influences of personal causation were made when observers were singled out for kind/harsh treatment” (Enzle, Harvey and Wright, 1980). These results suggest that when predicting future behaviour people use the high distinctiveness hypothesis, whereas when inferring causality of current behaviour it could be due to personalism hypothesis.

When ascribing attribution to others and ourselves are the attributions always accurate? An attribution bias is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual makes incorrect attributions. The most common attribution error is the fundamental attribution error (FAE). This refers to when an individual is explaining others’ behaviour, they are more likely to emphasize dispositional factors and disregard situational factors. Jones and Nisbett (1971) proposed the actor/observer asymmetry. It is closely related to the FAE, and expands on the limitations of it. The FAE describes the observer part of the actor/observer asymmetry. When an individual judges their own behaviour, they are the actor and are more likely to attribute this to situational factors. But when an individual judges another’s behaviour, they are the observer and are more likely to attribute this to dispositional factors. (Jones and Nisbett, 1971) The actor/observer asymmetry was widely supported for a long period of time before Malle’s (2006) meta-analysis. Malle (2006) looked at 113 articles and 173 studies between 1971 and 2004 to analyse the actor/observer asymmetry and try to find substantial evidence for the theory. From the study’s he examined the methods and results sections and collected the reported data from which effect sizes could be computed. (Malle, 2006). The results showed “average effect sizes from d = -0.016 to d = 0.095” (Malle, 2006) with scores ranging from close to zero to below. The results show that the actor/observer attributes behaviours to both dispositional and situational factors. Although these results suggest that the actor/observer asymmetry in dispositional and situational attributions does not exist. One cannot say these results disprove general actor/observer asymmetries, as evidence suggests the two differ in explanations.

 

References

Enzle, M., Harvey, M. and Wright, E. (1980). Personalism and distinctiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(4), pp.542-552.

Fiske, S. and Taylor, S. (n.d.). Social cognition. SAGE, pp.160-186.

Gilbert, D. and Malone, P. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117(1), pp.21-38.

Hesketh, B. (1984). Attribution theory and unemployment: Kelley’s covariation model, self-esteem, and locus of control. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 24(1), pp.94-109.

Hewstone, M. and Jaspars, J. (1987). Covariation and causal attribution: A Logical Model of the intuitive analysis of variance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), pp.663-672.

Jones, E. and Davis, K. (1965). From acts to dispositions: the attribution process in social psychology. Advances in experimental and social psychology, 2, pp.219-266.

Jones, E. and Harris, V. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), pp.1-24.

Jones, E. and Nisbett, R. (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behaviors. New York: General Learning Press.

Malle, B. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), pp.895-919.

Malle, B., Knobe, J. and Nelson, S. (2007). Actor-observer asymmetries in explanations of behavior: New answers to an old question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(4), pp.491-514.

McLeod, S. (2010). Attribution Theory | Simply Psychology. online Simplypsychology.org. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/attribution-theory.html Accessed 26 Jan. 2018.

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