Kelley, Harold H., The Process of Causal Attribution, American Psychologist,
Feb 1973, 107-128.
Fritz Heiders 1958 book was an early definition of attribution theory.
Others were Jones and Davis's hypotheses about perception of intention,
and Bem's self-perception theory.
Attribution theory is about how people make causal attributions, how they
answer questions begining with why. It primarily deals with quesitons of
social perception. It concerns what Hieder calls "naive psychology".
It also involves one's own perceptions of themselves as self-observers.
It has to do with th e processes by which man "knows" what he
knows and more importantly "knows that he knows".
"I believe that social psychologists finally are realizing that their
proper role is not to confound common sense bu rather to analyze, refine,
and enlarge on it"
Covariation principle: an effect is attributed to the one of its possible
causes with which, over time, it covaries.
Effects are often to come soon after their causes. The normal person as
a "naive psychologist" inteprets and attributes causal relationships
to the actions of themself and of others. The potential causes are independent
variables, and the effect (behavior) is the dependent variable. People
have greater confidence in their repsonse to a stimulus when a)their response
is associated distinctively with the stimulus, b) others do the same thing
in the same situation, c) response is consistent over time . Thus distinctiveness,
consensus, and consistency impact confidence in perceptions.
The role of a given cause in producing a given effect is discounted if other
plausible causes are also present. If there is high external justificaiton
for a behavior, his own internal causes are discounted. With low external
justification, the person attributes their behavior to their own internal
The augmentation principle is when there are know to be constraints, costs,
or risks involved in taking an action, the action is attributed more to
the actor than otherwise.
A causal schema refers to the way a person thinks about plausible causes
in relation to a given effect. Most people have a set of schema that faciliate
It also appears that "the perceiver has increasing need to attribute
responsibility to someone as the outcomes become more severe".
Some Problems for Attribution Theory
One question is how do the observational and present analysis process interplay
with the preconceptions and stereotypes? How do a piori causal beliefs
affect subsequent processing of information?
One example is the Chapman's study of how undergraduates can persist in
seeing causal properties even after they the results become invalid.
Another task is to define when a specific schema will be invoked. Simple
schemata may be preferred over complex ones.
Bias may be due to the differences between actor and observer in the information
available to them and in the salience of the information. People tend to
attribute one's owns aberrant actions to the situation and others aberrant
actions to their personality.