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Attribution Theory and the Fundamental Attribution Error

July 6, 2011

I’ve been really busy these last couple of weeks. As a result, my blogs have been coming out later and later as I re-organize my schedule. One of the things that has kept me busy has been my private practice. Because last week was a shortened work week (Canada Day weekend), I had fewer hours available for my clients. Additionally, I had to prepare for a workshop. So, as you can see, there were a lot of external reasons for why I was unable to produce and release a blog earlier last week.

A few friends of mine, however, thought there were different reasons for why I had not written a blog. “I thought you had lost the motivation to write,” said one friend. Another thought I had given up the ‘post-a-week’ challenge altogether. The point is, many of those on the outside attributed the causes of not writing as something internal. That is, they thought the causes and reasons for my behaviour (not writing) was due to a motivational factor, or something internal.

Attribution Theory and the Fundamental Attribution Error

The differences in perception made me think of the Attribution Theory discussed in social psychology. Basically, attribution theory states that when an individual has a negative experience, or makes a mistake, they will attribute the cause to something external. Others, however, will attribute the cause to something internal, something inherent in the individual’s internal locus of control. For example, in my case, I attributed the cause for my delayed blogging to something external (hectic schedule, shortened week, holiday, etc.), whereas those on the outside attributed the cause of my delayed blogging to something internal (lack of motivation, disinterest, lack of ideas, etc.). The other thing is that others (and ourselves) will hold on rigidly to those causes, making it hard to convince those who do not know us that they’re incorrect in their assumptions.

Origins of Attribution Theory

The first mention of attribution theory was by Fritz Heider in the late 1950’s. Heider looked at how people come to explain the causes of their behaviour and of those around them. Heider first made the argument that people tended to place more weight on internal reasons for success, but placed more weight on external factors when they made a mistake or error. This theory was studied more in depth by Lee Ross, who eventually coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error.” Other psychologists have extended work in this area and many would argue that it forms the basis of social psychology.

So, the next time you observe someone struggle at something, be open to the possibility that there were things in their environment that contributed more heavily than just personality traits or internal characteristics.

Hoping this bit of knowledge provides you with some internal growth…

(Richard Amaral, Ph.D., is a registered psychologist with a private practice in mid-town Toronto. Click on the About Me tab above for more information or to book a session.)

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