What is attribution theory?

Attribution theory is a concept in psychology. As part of an attempt to understand the world and exert control, people generally try to attribute causes to actions and events, believing that everything has an explanation, if you dig deep enough. How attributions play out can be very revealing, as, perhaps not surprisingly, people have different standards when it comes to attribution. The application of these standards can fuel prejudice, power imbalances, and similar social problems.

In attribution theory, there are two possible explanations for an event or an action. One is internal, also known as intrinsic; The explanation arises from the fact that someone or something is motivated by internal forces. For example, when someone says "don't worry about Sally, that's just her," they are illustrating internal attribution. Conversely, when situational, environmental, or extrinsic factors are believed to be the cause of something, someone is exercising external attribution. In an example, you could say "John would have received the report on time, but the server crashed."

One interesting thing to note about attribution theory is that people are not consistent in applying attribution. When someone makes a mistake, he or she will tend to blame the mistake on external factors. When someone identifies a mistake made by someone else, internal factors are often blamed. This allows people to shift the responsibility of personal blame to external factors, while also holding people personally accountable for the mistakes they have made.

When someone is successful, this is often attributed to internal factors such as skill or competence. When things change and success is recognized in someone else, people are more likely to suggest that external factors such as luck were responsible. These trends illustrate that people like to take credit for success and avoid placing blame where they can.

Social interactions can also be influenced by attribution theory. People will often use attribution theory to claim some reflected glory, like when sports fans say "we won" even if they weren't on the team. Rather, attributions can be used to distance yourself from failure; can be "lost" when the team loses.

Understanding attribution theory can be important when challenging your own biases, or trying to understand the dynamics of a group. Knowing that people will claim personal responsibility for success and blame failure on others can be especially important in the workplace, where people use attribution theory as they strive for promotions, recognition, and good reputations.

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