General Developmental Theories-Attribution Theory
The emphasis on cognition in social learning theory is largely consequence oriented (ie, based on individuals’ cognitions about the likely outcomes of their behavior). Attribution theory is more concerned with how people understand the causes of behavior. Its origins are in the naive or common-sense psychology of Heider, who suggested that an individual’s beliefs about events play a more important role in behavior than does the objective truth of events. For social interactions, an individual’s beliefs about the causes of another person’s behavior are more crucial than are the true causes. For example, in deciding whether to retaliate aggressively against a peer following a provocation (such as being bumped from behind), a person often uses an attribution about the peer’s intention. If the peer had acted accidentally then no retaliation occurs, but if the peer had acted maliciously then retaliation may be likely. The perceiver’s task in social exchanges is to decide which effects of an observed action are intentional (reflecting dispositions) and which are situational.
When judging whether another person’s behavior (such as aggression) should be attributed to a dispositional rather than a situational cause, perceivers use mental heuristics, such as correspondent inference and covariation. Perceivers examine whether the person’s actions are normative or unique (if unique, they may indicate a dispositional rather than situational cause). They examine the other person’s behavioral consistency over time and distinctiveness across situations (if the behavior is consistent, it more likely reflects a disposition). Finally, they examine whether the action has personal hedonic relevance to the perceiver (if the action is relevant to the perceiver, perceivers tend to attribute dispositional causes).
These principles predict the kinds of causal attributions that people make about the events around them, the circumstances under which people will make errors in inference, and people’s behavioral responses to events. Extensions of attribution theory have addressed differences in the causal attributions made by people about themselves versus others (actor-observer effects), the kinds of explanations that people give for their own behavior and outcomes (internal versus external attributions), and the circumstances under which people spontaneously make attributions.
Applications of the Theory
Attribution theory has been applied to problems in several domains of psychiatry and health. Studies have shown that attributions predict behavioral responses to critical events such as interpersonal losses and failure. People who attribute their failure to a lack of ability on their part are likely to give up and to continue to fail, whereas people who attribute their failure to a lack of effort are likely to intensify future efforts to succeed. People who regularly attribute their failures to global, stable, and internal causes (ie, they blame themselves) are at risk for a mood disorder and somatization disorder. People who attribute their own negative outcomes to the fault of others are likely to direct aggression toward the perceived cause of the outcome (and to develop a conduct disorder). Interventions have been developed to help people redirect attributions more accurately or more adaptively, most notably in cognitive therapies for depression.
Criticisms of the Theory
Until recently, the problem of development was relatively ignored in attribution theory. Studies only recently have begun to address topics such as the age at which attributions come to be made spontaneously, the relevance of spontaneous attribution tendencies for age differences in depression, and the experiential origins of chronic attributional tendencies.