What is Attribution Theory?
History and Background
Initial theories were developed by Fritz Heider, Edward Jones, Keith Davis and Harold Kelley, all social psychologists. Heider first wrote of attribution theory in 1958. However there have been modifications since that time.
Attribution theory is seen as very relevant to the study of a person’s perceptions, event perceptions and attitude change, which can then lead to individuals impacting their own self-esteem, as well as their own levels of anxiety. Heider specifically believed that people acted on the basis of their beliefs, and that their beliefs must be taken into account by the therapist. It did not matter whether their beliefs were accurate, valid, or based in reality; individuals would act based on their belief systems.
It is this author’s opinion that our or past experiences definitely effect and contribute to one’s behavior. If we have had negative reinforcement associated with certain stimuli or encounters, we will then attribute those feelings with future experiences. Clearly not all behavior can be accounted for by attribution theory. It is only one tool in a tool box used to pinpoint how a behavior may be related to other events that have occurred in the past—cause and effect.
Examples of self attribution theory include situations which may be positive or negative. A situation where individuals attribute their excess to some external factor or their downfall to external factors, i.e., students that may have failed a test may externalize and attribute this failure to not studying well, studying the wrong material, the instructor did not give us this information. This externalization of blame takes the responsibility completely off the student. Some individuals externalize thoughts or projections of possible consequences of a current behavior. An example of this would be teenagers buying alcohol and drinking in a vehicle may become grossly anxious knowing what they are doing is illegal. This level of anxiety may lead them either to drive slower, leads to the awareness of police officers or others, subsequently getting caught.
People who practice behaviors that contradict their moral value structures often experience anxiety. The anxiety is a result of perceptions (or attributes) individuals place on either themselves or an event, that is in direct conflict with their existing value structures.
Heider proposes that the attribution theory is also how we judge others. We see a behavior, we judge the behavior as in intention of purpose, and then we draw a conclusion, which is an attributed disposition. Inaccurate or not, this is a common human behavior that transcends many social interactions. Even though others’ behaviors that we observe, what then is subjective data from our observation, we appear to draw conclusions and attribute their behavior and intentions onto us. Part of the reason for this is it decreases our own anxiety levels and our own responsibility because it projects the responsibility for the negative results onto others. How convenient. We then tend to hold others more responsible. Subsequently we have to take less of the blame.
This attribution plays out in many diagnoses in psychiatry, and also plays an important role in the assessment of individuals for treatment.
In Native American cultures, one rarely observes this behavior. I am sure it occurs, but to a much lesser degree. It is this author’s experience that younger generation Native Americans more readily use the self attribution theory.
We see these individuals state that the reason why alcoholism is so prevalent is related to the white man’s supremacy and the breaking of numerous treaties. Speaking to many elders, this has not been the case. Elders frequently take responsibility and although they recognize the plight, would like to see change and have voiced concerns over their younger generation. Which begs the question, yes, self attribution theory does exist, it was there in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when Heider first developed the theory. However is it more prevalent in Western society, and less prevalent in smaller cultures? Specifically tribal cultures? This author has not found any research addressing this issue.