Attribution Theory

According to Fiske (2010), human beings have five primary core social motives, two of which are understanding and controlling.  “People patently have a basic need to understand other people, to make sense of other people” (Fiske, 2010, p. 89).  Controlling is important because “people need to expect some contingency between what they do and what they get” (Fiske, 2010, p. 91).  Heider understood these principles in 1958 when he “proposed that we have a basic need to attribute causality as this ascribes meaning to our social world, making it more clear, definable and predictable” (Crisp & Turner, p. 44).  These are essentially the same concepts.  Further, these concepts help explain the power of attribution theory, that is, how people make dispositional or situational attributions (determine the cause of) about other people and events based on their perceptions and observations.

There are two main types of attributions, internal or external in nature.  Behavior is either the result of relatively stable dispositional traits (internal), such as “mood, personality, values, intentions…internal causes of behavior” (Fiske, 2010, p. 99), .or the result of some varying situational circumstance, environment or context (external).  There are a variety of attribution theories available, such as Covariation Theory, Correspondence Inference Theory, Self-Perception Theory, and Outcome Attribution Theory (Wang, 2008 Jones and Davis’s (1965) Correspondent Inference Theory and Kelly’s (1967) Co-Variation Model (Crisp & Turner, 2010) are relatively similar; however, Jones and Davis’s Correspondent Inference Theory has two significant limitations.  The first is that “the model is limited to single instances of behavior” and second, “focuses on internal attributions” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 47).  Kelly’s Co-Variation Model “addresses these limitations and is arguable the most influential of the attribution theories” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 47).

Co-Variation Model

This model allows for internal and external attributions as well as for multiple behaviors.  Kelley (1967) posited that “causality is attributed using the co-variation principle.  This states that for something to be the cause of a particular behavior it must be present when the behavior is present and absent when the behavior is absent” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 47).  To make an accurate attribution, the observer needs information regarding consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness.  Consensus refers to the behavior of most people in that situation or circumstance.  If most people would behave the same way in the same situation, the inference is that the situation is causing the behavior.  For example, my son attends a private Christian school that requires wearing a uniform (green shirt and black pants).  All the students are required to wear the uniform; therefore wearing the uniform is not unique to my son and could be the result of attending Eastside Christian.  Consistency refers to the behavior of the person on multiple occasions, this day, that day, morning, noon, or evening.  If the person behaves a particular way only at a particular time, then it is more likely the situation is causing the behavior.  As an example, I rarely get a cold and have not yet called in sick to work.  I have, on occasion, gone home ill.  I also do not generally go to the doctor.  With a health science background, I am fairly discerning about symptoms that require a doctor’s care and those that do not.  Therefore, when I tell my boss I am not feeling well, he immediately shows concerns and asks what is wrong.  Further, he will follow up with me the next day to see if I am feeling better.  On the other hand, if I was a hypochondriac who worried over every little sniffle, any complaints to my boss about how I felt would likely be chalked up to an over active imagination.  In fact, my boss is lactose intolerant, and yet, he loves his dairy.  When he complains about his stomach not feeling well, I immediately ask him what he ate that he should not have eaten.  Clearly, if I am ill he considers it an aberration, where if he is ill I consider it dispositional.  In a similar vein, distinctiveness refers to a person’s behavior in a variety of situations, environments, and/or contexts.  If the behavior occurs in all environments, locations, and/or contexts, it is likely the cause of the behavior is internal or specific to the individual.  On the other hand, if the person only behaves a certain way in a particular environment or context, the behavior is more likely the result of the situation.  For example, as I mentioned my son is required to wear a uniform to school Monday through Friday.  What I did not mention is his predilection for wearing his uniform on holidays, weekends, and vacations.  Despite an entire wardrobe of perfectly fine non-uniform apparel, my son will invariably put on his school uniform each morning.  This behavior would seem to indicate there is something inherently dispositional in his choice of attire because when allowed to make a free choice he still chooses to wear the uniform.  On the other hand, most people do exhibit a preference for certain things.  We wear the same antiperspirant, use the same shampoo, and buy the same style of shoes and/or clothing.  I prefer to wear flip-flops or be barefoot, no matter what the weather is outside.  Wearing flip-flops when it is raining outside is highly dispositional, whereas, if I put on a pair of Uggs or rain boots that would be an indication the weather was influencing my shoe choice.

Video Vignette

According to the Virtual Office video this week (Laureate Education, Inc. [Laureate], 2012), Gavin is the target of observation.  He is late to work, forgetful, running into things, and uncharacteristically quiet.  According to the co-variation theory, applying the information related to consensus, consistency and distinctiveness we can try to pin down Gavin’s behavior.  Gavin’s behavior is atypical for most work people.  People do not usually arrive to work late; forget important documents, or their assistant’s retirement party.  The consensus would be low indicating a dispositional reason for Gavin’s behavior.  Is Gavin consistently tardy, forgetful, and klutzy?  This information is not provided.  However, there are a couple of indications that Gavin’s behavior is atypical for him.  One coworker thinks to herself that Gavin is usually talkative, but today he is quiet.  Another coworker is surprised that Gavin forgot his own assistant’s retirement party.  This intimates that something is going on situationally to influence Gavin’s behavior.  Lastly, is Gavin’s behavior distinctive?  Unfortunately, in this case, his behavior is off all day.  We are not given any other information as to different environments or contexts.  If the opinion is generated solely from this particular day, the evidence would seem to indicate Gavin is, as his coworker put it, “a wreck” (Laureate, 2012, p. 1).


This theory is fairly thorough; however, as indicated in our resources, individuals rarely put this much cognitive effort into their thinking or attributions (Fiske, 2010).  In fact, there are two attribution errors that specifically state individuals are more likely to attribute others’ behaviors as disposition in nature, even with evidence to the contrary (Crisp & Turner, 2010; Fiske, 2010).  The Fundamental Attribution Error states, “all other things being equal, people have a general tendency to make internal rather than external attributions, even when there are clear potential situational causes” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 51, Fiske, 2010).  In addition, the actor-observer bias reflects a “tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to internal causes and our own behaviors to external causes” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 53, Fiske, 2010).

In our vignette, it is clear that although the coworkers have likely worked with Gavin for some period of time, they still attributed his behaviors to some internal dispositional issues such as being dumb, klutzy, and a wreck.  They did not apply Kelly’s Co-Variation Model in their evaluation of Gavin because there is no indication the coworkers considered whether or not Gavin is usually late for work, usually klutzy and/or usually forgetful.  One coworker did consider that Gavin was atypically quiet, but she was the exception.  For the most part, Gavin’s coworkers seem content to believe he was simply a disaster, rather than consider the more obvious alternative; something was going on causing Gavin to be distracted, late, klutzy, and forgetful.


Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2010).  Essential social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Fiske, S. T. (2010).  Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer).  (2012). Virtual Office [Video/Transcript].  Available from

Murray, J., & Thomson, M. E. (2009, March).  An application of attribution theory to clinical judgment.  Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 96-104.  Retrieved from

Wang, Y. J. (2008). The application of attribution theories in marketing research: A critique. Review of Business Research, 8(3), 174-180. Retrieved from



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