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Attribution Theory

An area of cognitive therapy that is concerned with how people explain the causes of behavior, both their own and those of others.

A major concept in the study of attribution theory is locus of control: whether one interprets events as being caused by one's own behavior or by outside circumstances. A person with an internal locus of control, an "internal," for example, will believe that her performance on a work project is governed by her ability or by how hard she works. An "external" will attribute success or failure by concluding that the project was easy or hard, the boss was helpful or unhelpful, or some other rationale. In general, an internal locus of control is associated with optimism and physical health. People with an internal locus of control also tend to be more successful at delaying gratification.

Internal or external attribution is also made with respect to other people (i.e., is another person personally responsible for a certain event, or is it caused by something beyond his or her control?). We make this sort of attribution when we decide whether or not to blame a friend for failing to pay back a loan. If we blame it on her personal qualities, the attribution is internal. If we blame it on a problem she is having, then the attribution is external. Three factors influence whether the behavior of others is attributed to internal or external causes: consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness. Consensus refers to whether other people exhibit similar behavior; consistency refers to whether the behavior occurs repeatedly; and distinctiveness is concerned with whether the behavior occurs in other, similar, situations. For example, if a friend consistently fails to repay a loan, an internal attribution may be ascribed.

Further Reading

Douglas, Tom. Scapegoats: Transferring Blame. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Hewstone, Miles, ed. Attribution Theory: Social and Functional Extensions. Oxford, England: B. Blackwell, 1983.

Lamb, Sharon. The Trouble with Blame: Victims, Perpetrators, and Responsibility. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

McLaughlin, Mary L., Michael J. Cody, and Stephen Reed, eds. Explaining Oneself to Others: Reason-Giving in a Social Context. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.,1992.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaTherapy and Treatments