Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application

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Human behavior has always been one of the most mysterious and challenging concepts in terms of justification and reasonable explanation. As a result, there is little astonishment in the fact that many sociologists decided to define the fundamentals of such justification through cognitive science and psychological triggers like motivation. One of the most widely recognized theories in the field is the attribution theory, which strives to explain human actions with the help of different causal factors (McCutcheon et al., 2014). For example, every time a person’s surrounding tends to do something unpredictable, people define what were the reasons for such behavior by appealing either to personal characteristics or the environment. In terms of the present paper, an attempt will be made to dwell on the peculiarities of attribution theory and its real-life application examples.

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Research Topic

To commence the discussion of attribution theory, it is necessary to outline the definition of the concept. Hence, introduced in Heider in 1958, the term “attribution theory” encompassed the idea of causality in terms of human choices and actions (Pishghadam & Abbasnejad, 2017). What is meant by that is the fact that every single human choice is a result of a causal link leading to a certain outcome. Therefore, when faced with human behavior, people tend to define the motivation behind the decision to justify it. The attribution theory consists of various processes related to motivation and causes detection.

One of the fundamentals of the attribution theory concerns the distinction between factors leading to a specific choice. Thus, according to the researchers, influences are generally divided into dispositional (internal) and situational (external) ones (Martinko & Mackey, 2019). The former stands for the factors handled by an individual, including such notions as personality, attitude, mood, physical abilities, and preferences. The latter, in their turn, are directly correlated with a person’s interaction with the environment and the effect it has on one’s perception of the situation. According to the researchers, people generally face a challenge when trying to rationally evaluate the reasons for someone’s behavior because emotion levels tend to play the most significant role in the attributing process (Pishghadam & Abbasnejad, 2017). However, when speaking of the means of an objective assessment, there exists a series of questions individuals should ask before defining a reason.

To define what precedents led to the person’s present behavioral patterns, people should address the aspects of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency:

  • The notion of consensus stands for individual behavior in the context of the generally accepted behavioral norms in a given situation. Thus, when defining the influences, a person should ask whether the behavior presented is typical for other people in similar situations.
  • The aspect of distinctiveness determines if the individual acts similarly when interacting with other people. Hence, it is necessary to define whether a person’s interaction with the actor is somehow distinct from the overall cooperation with others.
  • The concept of consistency shows the extent to which certain behavior is either typical or alien to the actor.

Consequently, the aforementioned characteristics help an individual to define whether the reasons for one’s behavior are influenced by internal or external factors, as high levels of consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency generally indicate situational influence (Martinko & Mackey, 2019). However, even when analyzing a situation with the help of these notions, the overall perception of the situation may be distorted by a human predisposition to look into the internal factors of one’s behavior.

Such a human psychological peculiarity is known as fundamental attribution error. When generalized, this concept stands for people’s tendency to underestimate the impact of situational influences by placing major emphasis on one’s internal characteristics (Ross, 2018). Moreover, another paradox related to attribution is the presence of biases when assessing personal behavior. The types of such biases are generally divided into self-serving and actor-observer biases. The former stands for the process when people tend to ignore their personal qualities as reasons for certain behavior by shifting the focus on external factors. However, as soon as something good happens, people emphasize their personal qualities as a driving force of success. The latter, in its turn, tends to label people’s actions about the behavioral norms accepted by an individual, making such assessment rather subjective. As a result, the objective perception of a causal relationship is completely distorted by preconceived feelings for either the situation or the individual.

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Real-Life Application

Having analyzed the information given on the topic, it would be safe to assume that every person tends to address the attribution theory on the level of subconsciousness. However, before discussing the application of the theory, it is important to identify that the theory does not show how to act when defining the causal relationship between influences and human behavior. Instead, it aims at helping people realize how people judge the actions of others.

One of the most vivid examples that come to my mind when thinking of attribution is the difference in perception of the same situation when it happens to me and when it happens to anybody else. For instance, when arriving late for a meeting, I rarely think of myself as a person with poor time-management skills or responsibility levels. Hence, I tend to deliberately overlook dispositional influences to find an excuse. However, in situations when I am the person who is waiting for someone, it is the personal characterization that prevails in my assessment patterns. Instead of thinking of heavy traffic or any other obstacles in the way, I imagine the situation where people go out of the house late enough to make me wait. The most obscure aspect of the following scenario is the fact that I become rather upset with the rationalization I created in my mind before meeting the person and hearing her story.

Considering the following example, it should be mentioned that there is little chance to educate a person on making reasonable attributions of a situation, as most of them are highly dependent on the level of emotiveness. However, the application of attribution theory in such cases provides valuable insight into human feelings. Instead of letting attribution bias take over the situation, people may acknowledge the fact that they may have to look at the same situation from a different angle. Moreover, attribution theory contributes to the person’s better self-awareness, as people may realize that some of their subjective evaluations are the result of fundamental attribution error.


The patterns of human behavior, both through the prism of cognitive science and motivation, are some of the most complicated peculiarities of human nature. The attribution theory, being a framework aimed at describing how people justify the behavior of others, is one of the most widespread paradigms of social psychology. Having considered the notion from both theoretical and practical points, it has become evident that rather than being a framework for behavioral assessment, the theory helps people acknowledge why they tend to make the immediate and often wrong conclusions about the behavior of others.

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Martinko, M. J., & Mackey, J. D. (2019). Attribution theory: An introduction to the special issue. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(5), 523-527.

McCutcheon, L. E., Hackney, A., & Hart, J. (2014). Social psychology for today’s world. CAT Publishing.

Pishghadam, R., & Abbasnejad, H. (2017). Introducing emotioncy as an invisible force controlling causal decisions: A case of attribution theory. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 48(1), 129-140.

Ross, L. (2018). From the fundamental attribution error to the truly fundamental attribution error and beyond: My research journey. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(6), 750-769.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 28). Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application. Retrieved from


PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 28). Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application.

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"Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application." PsychologyWriting, 28 July 2022,


PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application'. 28 July.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application." July 28, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application." July 28, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "Attribution Theory: Overview and Real-life Application." July 28, 2022.