Methods of Attribution – Psychology Research Paper

Subtitle: Assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of ‘traditional’ compared to ‘critical’ social psychological approach on attribution

There are a lot of questions that people want to know the answer, most probably because human beings are

curious at everything. Due to curiosity, people always want to know how other people think and why others think that way. Laymen try to explain others behaviour by ‘guessing’, they think it is a rather common sense thing to do; but psychologists try to generate theories to explain and predict attributions by scientific methods.

Attribution generally means beliefs about the causes of behaviour that attributing causes to certain events which it is an important part of language. And attribution theory is a conceptual framework within social psychology dealing with lay, or common-sense, explanations of behaviour. Traditional social psychologists use experiments to ascertain how particular stimuli would affect causal attributions for particular events.

There are several theories of causal attribution which Heider was seen as the founding father of attribution theory. He made crucial foundation towards attribution theory that he argued it was essential to know what people believed as it would guide ones behaviour. He viewed layperson as a naïve scientist seeking to find an explanation for everything. Heider classified two types of attribution: personal attributions (dispositional) and impersonal (situation attributions) ones. The theory suggested that it is all about motivations whether one should be responsible for their behaviour or their behaviour is caused by external factors.

Heider’s work was built upon Jones and Davis (1965)’s correspondence inference theory which they suggested people interpret behaviour or acts in terms of stable underlying qualities, or characteristics, of the actors. There are several reasons for correspondent inference: free will, non-common effect, social desirable action, hedonic relevance, and personalism. Though this theory has significant historical impact, its impact has been limited.

Kelley (1967, 1973) assumed that there should be different factors that cause a behaviour and she tried to separate out which effects are to be attributed to which of several factors. She claimed if two events repeatedly occur together, then we are more likely to infer that they are causally related. Kelley suggests people consider three variables when making attributions. The first one is distinctiveness which refers to the extent that people behaves in the same way to other stimuli. Secondly, she mentioned about consistency that refers to the extent to which people has behaved in the same way in the past towards the stimulus. Lastly, it is consensus which refers to the extent that other people behave in the same way towards the same stimulus as people whose behaviour we are trying to explain. People who weigh up those variables above make either a dispositional or situational attribution.

There was also theory like fundamental attribution error that suggest there are bias in attributing other’s behaviour more to internal factors than to situational factors because of focus of attention (people’s attention on the situation have generally found greater level of situational attributions) and differential forgetting (tend to forget situational causes more regularly).

In contrast to casual attribution theories, Semin and Manstead (1983) argue that research into attribution lacks ecological validity as experimental research into attribution sets out to explicitly ask someone why they believe people chose a particular course of action. However, it does not necessarily they will make causal attributions in the same when they are not called upon to explicitly explain their answers. And this suggestion contradicts Kelley’s co-variation model where it seems difficult to imagine that we always take different factors into account when making quick decisions.

On the other hand, majority of the research has been conducted in Western cultures that imply the theories suggested may not take cultural variations into account. Critical social psychologists argue that attributions are rarely made solely at an individual level. They are the result of cultural and social forces which provide different information based.

Traditional attribution theories underestimate the extent to which attributions are articulated through the uses of language and discourses especially. Besides, mass media play a big part in analyzing relationships that may affect our understanding of relationships which traditional social psychologists do not take into account, nevertheless, critical psychology places a greater emphasis on the role of discourse and attempt to engage more with the content and nature of conversation than traditional social psychologists.

Recent research has been conducted in different areas such as relationships which have yielded more complex models of attributions. Fincham and Bradbury (1988) claim when a relationship is sound, people are less motivated to engage in engaging in sophisticated thought when making attributions and vice versa yet this does not take into account the cultural and historical variability in couple relationships. Smith and Harris-Bond (1993) so suggest that the difference between individualist and collectivist cultures leads to different attribution styles as the role in a relationship is different between two cultures.

Traditional social psychology places emphasis on the fact that people often make attribution errors and suggests that the way people view the social world can occasionally be flawed. Critical social psychology on the other hand stress that people are quite realistic who rarely make mistakes because they use strategies and personal experience to interpret an attribution. Moreover, traditional social psychology fails to take into account the emotional factors behind attribution. Human beings have feelings, thoughts and emotions which all influence the attributions that one make.

In conclusion, stresses the uniqueness of each individual failing to take into account how culture mediates understanding the world. On the other hand, it also fails to take into account other social processes such as social influences and the construction of knowledge by more powerful groups in society. People do not draw upon just their own personal constructs when making decisions. They actually use knowledge from a range of other sources such as books, experience, other family members and friends etc. People do not just use alternative constructs from within our own cognitive systems.