Understanding Attribution in Social Psychology

Photo of a man and woman talking in front of a computer

Jose Luis Pelaz Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

In social psychology, attribution is the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors. In real life, attribution is something we all do every day, usually without any awareness of the underlying processes and biases that lead to our inferences.

For example, over the course of a typical day, you probably make numerous attributions about your own behavior as well as that of the people around you.

When you get a poor grade on a quiz, you might blame the teacher for not adequately explaining the material, completely dismissing the fact that you didn't study. When a classmate gets a great grade on the same quiz, you might attribute their good performance to luck, neglecting the fact that they have excellent study habits.

What impact do attributions for behavior really have on your life? The attributions you make each and every day have an important influence on your feelings as well as how you think and relate to other people.

Types and Examples of Attribution

Why do we make internal attributions for some things while making external attributions for others? Part of this has to do with the type of attribution we are likely to use in a particular situation. Cognitive biases often play major roles as well.

The main types of attributions you may use in daily life include the following.

Interpersonal Attribution

When telling a story to a group of friends or acquaintances, you are likely to tell the story in a way that places you in the best possible light.

Predictive Attribution

We also tend to attribute things in ways that allow us to make future predictions. If your car was vandalized, you might attribute the crime to the fact that you parked in a particular parking garage. As a result, you may avoid that parking garage in the future.

Explanatory Attribution

We use explanatory attributions to help us make sense of the world around us. Some people have an optimistic explanatory style, while others tend to be more pessimistic.

People with an optimistic style attribute positive events to stable, internal, and global causes and negative events to unstable, external, and specific causes. Those with a pessimistic style attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes and positive events to external, stable, and specific causes.


Psychologists have also introduced a number of different theories to help further understand how the attribution process works.

Correspondent Inference Theory

In 1965, Edward Jones and Keith Davis suggested that people make inferences about others in cases where actions are intentional rather than accidental. When people see others acting in certain ways, they look for a correspondence between the person's motives and their behaviors. The inferences people then make are based on the degree of choice, the expectedness of the behavior, and the effects of that behavior.

Heider's 'Common Sense' Theory

In his 1958 book, "The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations," Fritz Heider suggested that people observe others, analyze their behavior, and come up with their own common-sense explanations for their actions.

Heider groups these explanations into either external attributions or internal attributions. External attributions are those that are blamed on situational forces, while internal attributions are blamed on individual characteristics and traits.

Influential Biases and Errors

The following biases and errors can also influence attribution.

The Actor-Observer Bias

Interestingly, when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to have the opposite bias of the fundamental attribution error. When something happens, we are more likely to blame external forces than our personal characteristics. In psychology, this tendency is known as the actor-observer bias.

How can we explain this tendency? One possible reason is that we simply have more information about our own situation than we do about other people's. When it comes to explaining your own actions, you have more information about yourself and the situational variables at play. When you're trying to explain another person's behavior, you are at a bit of a disadvantage; you only have the information that is readily observable.

Not surprisingly, people are less likely to fall victim to the actor-observer discrepancy with people that they know very well. Because you know more about the personality and behavior of people you're close to, you are better able to take their point of view and more likely to be aware of possible situational causes for their behaviors.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When it comes to other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. This phenomenon tends to be very widespread, particularly among individualistic cultures.

Psychologists refer to this tendency as the fundamental attribution error; even though situational variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

The fundamental attribution error explains why people often blame other people for things over which they usually have no control. The term blaming the victim is often used by social psychologists to describe a phenomenon in which people blame innocent victims of crimes for their misfortune.

In such cases, people may accuse the victim of failing to protect themselves from the event by behaving in a certain manner or not taking specific precautionary steps to avoid or prevent the event.

Examples of this include accusing survivors of rape, domestic violence, and kidnapping of behaving in a manner that somehow provoked their attackers. Researchers suggest that hindsight bias causes people to mistakenly believe that victims should have been able to predict future events and therefore take steps to avoid them.

Self-Serving Bias

Think about the last time you received a good grade on an exam. Chances are that you attributed your success to internal factors, such as "I did well because I am smart" or "I did well because I studied and was well-prepared."

What happens when you receive a poor grade, though? Social psychologists have found that in this situation, you are more likely to attribute your failure to external forces, such as "I failed because the teacher included trick questions" or "The classroom was so hot that I couldn't concentrate." Notice that both of these explanations lay the blame on outside forces rather than accepting personal responsibility.

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the self-serving bias. So why are we more likely to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and blame outside variables for our failures? Researchers believe that blaming external factors for failures and disappointments helps protect self-esteem.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jones WW, Davis KE. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. Adv Exper Soc Psych. 1965; 2:219-266. doi: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60107-0

  2. Reisenzein R, Rudolph U. The discovery of common-sense psychologySocial Psychology. 2008;39(3), 125–133. doi:10.1027/1864-9335.39.3.125

  3. Felson RB, Palmore C. Biases in blaming victims of rape and other crimePsychology of Violence. 2018;8(3), 390–399. doi:10.1037/vio0000168

  4. Shepperd J, Malone W, Sweeny K. Exploring causes of the self‐serving bias. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2008;2:895-908. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00078.x

Additional Reading
  • Goldinger SD, Kleider HM, Azuma T, Beike DR. “Blaming the victim” under memory loadPsychol Sci. 2003;14(1):81-85. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.01423

  • Jaspars J, Fincham FD, Hewstone M. Attribution Theory and Research: Conceptual Developmental and Social Dimensions. Academic Press. 1983.

  • Jones EE, Nisbett RE. The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press. 1971.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."