Attribution of Theories


Fiske (2010) asserts that human beings are guided by five core social motives which describe “fundamental, underlying psychological processes that impel people’s thinking, feeling, and behaving in situations involving other people” (p. 14).  Specifically, the core social motives she refers to are belonging, understanding, controlling, enhancing self, and trusting others.  Three of these social motives are particularly relevant to the topic discussed in this paper: attributes relating to the behavior described in a specific vignette.  Understanding our environment, having a sense of control over our future, and trusting or believing the world at large is good, all play a particular role in the attributions and the behavior of the subject discussed herein.

An attribution is “the end result of a process of classifying and explaining observed behavior in order to arrive at a decision regarding the reason or cause for the behavior – a decision as to why a person has acted in the fashion that we have witnessed” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 234).  Typically, behavior is attributed to either the person or the situation.  Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the time, the average person will attribute causation to the person, inclusive of some aspect of their disposition, motivations, goals or feelings, i.e., the fundamental attribution error.  Although the fundamental attribution error asserts predominant attributional bias toward internal, stable, dispositional person-oriented causes and a noted deficiency in allocating causality to the situation, it may well be that the behavior of Molly discussed relative to the vignette does, in fact, emanate from her person.  As discussed hereafter, I believe her behavior is largely motivated by two categories of attribution errors.  Specifically, Molly’s unrealistic positive view of herself and unrealistic optimism regarding the future culminate in biased rationalizations resulting in her behaviors, as described in the vignette.

Vignette #1: Molly, 62-year-old Caucasian American Female

Molly exited her doctor’s office and promptly lit a cigarette.  In doing so, she missed her bus and would have to wait an additional 30 minutes for the next one.  She thought about Dr. Wilson, her primary care physician, who was not too concerned about her smoking.  Then, she thought about Dr. Smith, her cardiologist, who had clearly stated that she needs to stop smoking.  Waiting for the next bus was no problem for Molly; she could enjoy a second cigarette.

Unrealistic Positive Views of the Self

“People can attend to, interpret, and recall information that is consistent with their predominantly positive self-views.  They can also process information in a biased manner, so that negative information is kept at bay” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 313).  In the vignette discussed herein, Molly faces a medical situation requiring that she consider quitting smoking.  Being told to quit a behavior is akin to be told you are doing something wrong, something bad.  Further, having a person of authority with a medical degree tell you to quit doing something that is considered medically harmful is even more discomforting.  Therefore, maintaining said negative behavior in the face of an explicit directive to stop requires significant cognitive fortitude motivated by self-defensive protective mechanisms and a need to maintain a positive self-view.  Molly is able to achieve these ends through the use of self-serving bias, motivated skepticism, and cognitive dissonance.

Self-serving Bias.  Individuals believe positive outcomes and success emanates from person-oriented causality, i.e., they create their success.  However, negative outcomes are the result of situational, variable, and uncontrolled events (Crisp & Turner, 2010; Moskowitz, 2005).  Attributions often work unconsciously and automatically, especially when referencing oneself.  Consequently, when applying this particular bias to Molly, the subject of the vignette, she very likely unconsciously believes that the negative physical prognoses relating to her smoking are unlikely because that would mean her behavior will be the direct cause of her future negative outcome.  This runs counter to the function of self-serving bias, which indicates Molly’s behaviors are responsible for positive outcomes, and any negative outcomes will come from outside, external causes.

Motivated Skepticism.  Second, individuals use motivated skepticism to further prevent negative information from penetrating their self-concept shield.  Motivated skepticism refers to the tendency of criticizing negative information on the one hand and blindly accepting positive information on the other (Moskowitz, 2005).  Research has demonstrated that people are inherently biased towards information positive or favorable to their own unique perspectives, understandings, and indicative of positive outcomes (Fiske, 2010).  Moreover, negative information, whether inconsistent to their beliefs and attitudes or indicative of potential negative outcomes is largely dismissed, criticized or diminished.

In this vignette, Molly considers her smoking from the perspective of her two doctors, a general practitioner, and a cardiologist.  “She thought about Dr. Wilson, her primary care physician, who was not too concerned about her smoking.”  This statement seems to indicate that Dr. Wilson did not provide clear, unequivocal negative feedback relating to Molly’s smoking.  It is entirely possible that he did not have all of the facts, he was occupied by a separate purpose of the exam, or that Molly herself steered the conversation away from smoking so that it was not brought up in what was likely a short, general doctor visit.  In this case, Molly would be able tp easily consider the lack of feedback as supportive of her smoking.  “Given that most utterances are somewhat ambiguous, and that most feedback is open to interpretation, people have a tendency to see ambiguous feedback in the most positive light” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 315-316).  Additionally, “she thought about Dr. Smith, her cardiologist, who had clearly stated that she needs to stop smoking.”  Again, motivated skepticism comes to Molly’s rescue, as she is able to either ignore this feedback or criticize it into nonexistence.  “If people are unable to ignore the feedback, they opt to denigrate the source of the negative feedback by labeling it either as inaccurate (‘I need a second opinion’) or as coming from a tainted source” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 316).  In the extant vignette, either of these is plausible.  The vignette indicates Molly waits for the next bus as she enjoys a second cigarette, apparently nonplussed by the negative directive given to her by Dr. Smith.  It appears likely Molly chose to ignore Dr. Smith’s directive, believing she already had a second opinion in hand provided by the ambiguous feedback of Dr. Wilson.

Cognitive Dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance results when a person’s behavior is unmatched to their attitude or belief about that same behavior.  Festinger (1957) stated, “cognitive dissonance is the state of uncomfortable psychological tension that occurs when individuals become aware of inconsistencies among their behaviors and attitudes” (as cited in Lehman & Geller, 2008, p. 68).  For instance, an individual will experience extreme psychological discomfort in the form of cognitive dissonance if they smoke and believe there are dire, physical consequences to such behavior.  This discomfort is typically resolved by either altering the behavior, i.e., quitting smoking, or changing their attitude by rationalizing away the potential consequences.  As discussed hereinabove, Molly has gone to great lengths, subconsciously, to ignore the explicit directive given to her by her cardiologist to quit smoking.  In so doing, Molly is evidencing the end result of the cognitive dissonance process wherein she has rationalized away the physical dangers associated with smoking.  Despite success achieved in some dissonance reducing studies, it must be noted that the individual may reduce dissonance through changing their attitude rather than behavior.  Indeed, “when behaviors are difficult or inconvenient to perform, changing one’s attitude may be far easier” (Lehman & Geller, 2008, p. 69).

Unrealistic Optimism about the Future

Similar to unrealistic positive self-views; Molly also likely possesses an unrealistic optimism about the future.  The simple fact is people do not like to think about or believe that bad things happen to good people, and we all believe “we” are good people.  This belief extends to concerns over medical health.  In fact, when confronted with potential illness or disease, people often engaged in unrealistic optimism, disengagement of beliefs, and diminish the perceived seriousness of the potential physical consequences (Dijkstra & Rothman, 2008).  When it comes to envisioning the future, people only see through rose-colored glasses.

Differential Evaluation of Information.  Similar to motivated skepticism discussed previously, differential evaluation of information is described by Kaunda as a “process whereby people are more critical of information that has negative implications for themselves and more accepting of information that favors them” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 323).  Research has demonstrated that when presented with information relating to a negative outcome and behavior, those who engage in the behavior found the “evidence” unconvincing and invalid, whereas when given positive “evidence” to the contrary, they were more than willing to accept the source unquestioningly.  Part and parcel with differential evaluations of information, when confronted with potentially negative physical outcomes, people will engage in diminishing the seriousness of the potentiality or completely enact a process of disengagement related to their beliefs.  “Disengagement beliefs of different types help to lower fear without having to change the unhealthy behavior” (Dijkstra & Rothman, 2008, p. 230).

Returning to Molly, I have discussed how she likely dismissed the negative information she received from her cardiologist.  However, it is also possible she unconsciously participated in some other cognitive disengagement belief processes as well to help her rationalize her behavior, thereby also aiding in the reduction of cognitive dissonance.

Different Circumstances

The attributions discussed to this point are all internal, person-oriented attributions.  However, Molly’s behavior could be altered should the situation warrant it.  For instance, in the vignette Molly is alone waiting at a bus stop.  There is no description of her destination provided.  Molly could be on her way back to work or she could be on her way home.  If Molly was on her lunch break, it is possible she would squash the impulse to have a cigarette that caused her to miss the bus because she wanted to get back to work in a timely fashion.  This situational influence would have dramatically changed her behavior.  A friend or family member accompanying Molly to the doctor could have also significantly changed Molly’s behavior, especially if (1) they were in the appointment where the cardiologist stated Molly should quit smoking, and (2) disapproved of smoking as well.  On the other hand, if the friend or family member also smokes they could have just as easily provided additional socially consistent support backing Molly’s favorable attitude towards smoking.  Therefore, although internal attributions were discussed relating to Molly’s smoking throughout this paper, it is also quite possible that situational variables could be at play.



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

Dijkstra, A., & Rothman, A. (2008).  Social psychology of health and illness.  In L. Steg, A. P. Buunk, & T. Rothengatter (Eds.), Applied social psychology (pp. 226-248).  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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

Lehman, P. K., & Geller, E. S. (2008).  Applications of social psychology to increase the impact of behavior-focused intervention.  In L. Steg, A. P. Buunk, & T. Rothengatter (Eds.), Applied social psychology: Understanding and managing social problems (pp. 57-86).  Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Moskowitz, G. B. (2005).  Social cognition: Understanding self and others.  New York, NY: Guilford Press.


One thought on “Attribution of Theories

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