Humans are rational creatures, and that makes them different from the rest of the animals. In contrast with all other animals, humans don’t only act, but also think about the reasons and consequences of their actions. People need explanations of any event or activity.
The theory of the different ways people use to explain things is called attribution theory. Bernard Weiner developed the Attribution theory. His research initially belonged to the field of social psychology but later became popular in other sciences. While promoting his approach, Weiner turned to so-called “locus of control” – the source of control over the events of the person’s life. This theory is based on the assumption that attitude to any event can be of two opposing types. It can be either external or internal. Such an attitude got the name attribution. Attribution is usually defined as a person’s attitude to the events, which occur in his or her life. External attribution makes outside agent or force responsible for the results of the situation. So, external forces cause an event that happens. In contrast to external attribution, an internal one makes an individual responsible for the consequences of the events. In this case, all the burden of responsibility lies with the individual. Weiner’s theory became very popular in education, psychology, and medicine. Good results were achieved with the help of the switch of the attitude.
Weiner has also discovered a strong connection between self-concept and the results achieved. “Causal attributions determine affective reactions to success and failure. For example, one is not likely to experience pride in success or feelings of competence, when receiving an ‘A’ from a teacher who gives only that grade, or when defeating a tennis player who always loses… On the other hand, an ‘A’ from a teacher who gives few high grades or a victory over a highly rated tennis player following a great deal of practice generates great positive affect” (Weiner, 362). He discovered that students with higher self-esteem are more likely to receive higher grades. They are also more likely to attribute their success to internal factors and failure to external ones. For example, children with high self-esteem can explain poor results of the test by the lack of effort while getting ready for it. At the same time, students with low self-esteem will explain the results of the test by the lack of abilities. In the first case, students leave for themselves the space for perfection and can correct the results while in the second case there are left no opportunities to change the results for better. Weiner also distinguished a stability dimension. So, he defined four types of event attribution. He described stability dimension as the dependence of the results on the time span.
Internal and external attributions were divided into stable and unstable. Weiner studied the types of attributions peculiar to different ages. He stated that up to the age of seven most of the children showed the behavioral types of unrealistic optimists. All children believed they were able to accomplish the task of any difficulty and obtain any results they wanted. Starting from the age of 8 years old children lost their unrealistic optimism. “Beginning around 8-12 years, children change from being undaunted optimists. It is during this period that they are first able to distinguish between ability and effort, and that distinction can change the attributions they make” (Weiner).
An important conclusion can be made from the theory of attribution. The type of attribution the person uses in the most cases has an extremely important influence on his or her life. When people change the kind of attribution they use, they also change their attitude to life and its events and, thus, can influence the results they obtain. As long as the person depends on external attribution the results of his actions will depend on the external thing. For example, kids, who believe that the classroom is neat because they are neat children will keep the classroom clean during all the time. They use an internal attribution in this case. At the same time, the same children will be neat only in the presence of a teacher if they believe that the classroom is neat because the teacher is watching. In this case, we meet an external attribution. This illuminates the problem, which arises when an external attribution is used. In this situation, the actions of people depend on external factors, such as reward or punishment and lack of inner motivation. Many theories, such as cognitive dissonance, for example, rely on the Attribution theory. Attribution theory deals very carefully with the motivation. Dissonance paradigm shows that in the cases when people are intrinsically motivated the results are higher than in the case when they have extrinsic motivation. For example, students will show higher grades for the essay if they write it to make higher their scores than if it’s an essay they were forced to make. In the first case, students have intrinsic motivation and understand they need an article to improve their scores. They want to show better results. In the second case they have no other motivation than external one and, thus, they have external attribution. The same happens with the work people do. If they have external attribution, i.e. work to earn money, they will probably show worse results in comparison to people who have intrinsic motivation and enjoy what they do. The research has shown that in the situation where an extrinsic motivation is added to intrinsic one, the inherent motivation becomes weaker. For example, children, who like painting and enjoyed it without any rewards, became reluctant to do so after they had been announced about the price for the best painting. This shows that their internal attribution became weaker after they obtained an external one.
The Attribute theory became very popular due to its simplicity. It can be used in many fields of knowledge. The simplest way to use the Attribution Theory in practice is to make agents wonder about the causes of the situation and then make the answer in the form of internal attribution. For example, kids at school should be placed in the situation when they ask themselves why they get good marks and next step they should realize they achieve such results because they are good learners.
1. Heider, Fritz. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
2. Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution in social psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 15, 192-238.
Weiner, B. (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. Morristown, N.J.: General Learning Press.
3. Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.
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