Attributional Processes

Topic: Attributing Behavior To Persons Or Situations
Attribution theory attempts to explain the processes by which individuals explain, or attribute, the causes of behavior and events.

One of the central concerns of social psychology is understanding the ways in which people explain, or “attribute,” events and behavior. “Attribution theory” is an umbrella term for various models that attempt to understand this process. An explanatory attribution is an attempt to understand the world and seek reasons for a particular event. An interpersonal attribution is an attempt to explain the reasons for an event based on an interaction between two or more individuals.

People are susceptible to bias and error when making attributions about themselves and others. A few common such biases include the fundamental attribution error, the self-serving bias, the actor-observer bias, and the just-world hypothesis.

Fundamental attribution error occurs when people tend to overemphasize internal factors as explanations for the behavior of other people (in comparison to how we explain our own behavior). That is to say, we tend to assume that the behavior of another person is due to a trait of that person, underestimating the role of context. The fundamental attribution error is so powerful that people often overlook even obvious situational influences on behavior. This can contribute to prejudice and stereotyping and lead to conflict.

This is related to actor-observer bias, where an actor tends to explain his or her behavior by situational factors while an observer tends to explain the actor’s behavior based on stable internal states.

Self-serving bias is the tendency of individuals to make internal attributions when their actions have a positive outcome but external attributions when their actions have a negative outcome.

Cultural Factors affect how people make attributions. Individualist cultures value personal goals and independence. Collectivist cultures see individuals as members of a group and tend to value conformity, mutual support, and interdependence. People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make the fundamental attribution error and demonstrate self-serving bias than people from collectivist cultures. This is thought to be because individualists tend to attribute behavior to internal factors (the individual), while collectivists tend to attribute behavior to external factors (the group and world). One example of cultural factors impact on attribution is the Just-World Hypothesis. This theory is one consequence of westerners’ tendency to provide internal explanations for others’ behavior is victim-blaming. When bad things happen to people, others tend to assume that those people somehow are responsible for their own fate. A common view in the United States is the just-world hypothesis, which is the belief that people get the outcomes they deserve. In order to maintain the belief that the world is a fair place, people tend to think that good people experience positive outcomes and bad people experience negative outcomes.


Practice Questions

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Key Points

• Attributions are classified as either internal or external. Internal attributions include dispositional or personality-based explanations; external attributions emphasize situational factors.

• Individuals are susceptible to bias and error when making attributions about themselves and others. A few examples of this include the fundamental attribution error, the self-serving bias, the actor-observer bias, and the just-world hypothesis.

• The fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to over-value internal (personality-based) explanations and under-value external (situational) explanations for another person’s behavior.

• The self-serving bias refers to the tendency to attribute internal factors for success and external factors for failure, particularly when someone is explaining their own behavior.

• People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make the fundamental attribution error and demonstrate the self-serving bias than are people from collectivist cultures.


Key Terms

attribution: the process by which individuals explain the cause of behavior and events

fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations and under-value situational explanations for another person’s behavior

cultural factors: comprise of set of values and ideologies of a particular community or group of individuals

Just-World Hypothesis: western theory that provides internal explanations for others’ behavior is victim-blaming



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