How useful is Attribution Theory?
Attribution theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do. The theory deals with the information one uses in making casual inferences, and the way one deals with this information to answer a casual question. But how can this account to the usefulness of the theory? By knowing the reasons for various behaviours people can better predict future behaviours, and thus protect themselves from any unpleasant surprises (Brown, 1986). This search for reason behind behaviour allows people to attribute causes to behaviour. It focuses on situations that usually involve at least two people: one who is making a judgement about someone else’s behaviour, and this someone else whose behaviour is being judged. When people try to attempt and find explanations for other people’s behaviour they are said to be engaging in the processes of attribution (Gleitman, 1999).


Attribution helps individuals to understand and react to their social surroundings (Eiser & Pligt, 1988). It is important to study because attributions have implications for behaviour hereby emphasizing upon the usefulness of the theory itself. Three types of attribution theories will be discussed: theories that focus on antecedents of people’s perception of the cause of events in their social environment; theories that are based on the assumption that people have preconceptions about causality leading to bias in their attribution; and finally, theories that concentrate on the consequences of attributions. Heider (1958), Jones and Davis (1965), and Kelley (1967) have provided the major theoretical contributions to attribution theory.


“Attribution theory is usually traced to Fritz Heider and his attempts to describe and explain ‘naïve’ psychology” (Eiser & Pligt, 1988; p. 46). Heider’s major role in relation to attribution theory would be the division of potential sources of action into personal and environmental types (Hewstone M. et al., 2000). Heider believed that people act on basis of their beliefs. Upon inspection, people form beliefs or theories about what is occurring in order to understand, predict and control events that concern them. Heider assumes that individuals are motivated to see their social environment as predictable and hence, controllable, and that they apply the same kind of logic to the prediction of social events as to the prediction of physical events; they look for the necessary and sufficient conditions for such events to occur. (Eiser & Pligt, 1988).


In Heider’s words, “Attributions in terms of impersonal and personal causes, and with the latter, in terms of intent, are everyday occurrences that determine much of our understanding of and to our surroundings” (Heider, 1985; p.16). Heider stresses on the importance of the concept of internationality, arguing that behaviour should only be attributed to personal causes if its outcome is seen to have been intended by the actor. “It seems that behaviour in particular has such salient properties it tends to engulf the total field rather than be confined to its proper position as a local stimulus whose interpretation requires the additional data of a surrounding field” (Heider, 1985; p.54). This choice becomes clear if we try to imagine a social world where people do not attribute behaviour.


One of Heider’s themes is that people engage in attributional analyses to discern the personal and relatively stable properties that underlie the variable behaviour of others (Eiser & Pligt, 1988). Heider’s insights provided the blueprint for succeeding theories, making naïve psychology a legitimate field of study in social psychology. These and other insights were systematized and expanded upon by Jones and Davis, and Kelley. Their contribution helped develop attribution into an explicit, hypothesis generating set of principles.


Jones and Davis developed Heider’s (1985) ideas about the attribution of personal dispositions describing two major stages in the process. They assumed that when judging the causes of another person’s deliberate behaviour, people first try to attribute it to an underlying intention, and then to the personal disposition that produced that intention. This process is known as ‘correspondent inference’ because dispositions and intentions are inferred in the actor that matches to the nature of the observed action. (Hewstone M. et al., 2000).


The next addition to attribution theory was Kelley’s model. Kelley’s analysis of the attribution process deals with the question of how individuals establish the validity of their own or of another person’s impression of a stimulus.