Weiner's Attribution Theory of Motivation: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Ron Fritz
Weiner's attribution theory of motivation describes the way in which we strive to maintain our positive self-image. Learn more about this theory, including its three characteristic traits: locus of control, stability, and control.


Two people are in a race and one of them wins. Did that individual win because he or she was a faster runner or because the other person was having an off day? The answer depends on which runner you ask. The winner will attribute the victory to his or her ability and feel confident about the next race. The loser will blame the loss on circumstances beyond his or her control (feeling sick, poor night's sleep, painful shoes) and be less likely to race again unless those factors change.

A person's motivation to attempt a task is directly related to his or her confidence in a positive outcome. If people believe they will be unsuccessful, they are less likely to try, and if they do, it is doubtful they will give 100% effort. The basic principle of attribution theory states that a person's attributions for success or failure determine the amount of effort the individual will expend on the task.

Ford Quote


The word Attribution generally refers to assigning cause. In psychology, attribution refers to the inference made about the causes behind an event or behavior. If a car drives by you at the same time you hear a loud backfire sound, you are likely to infer that the sound came from the car; the sound's attribution is the car. Likewise, if a child performs better at a sporting event when his or her parents are in attendance, the improved performance is attributable to the parent's presence.


Motivation is the psychological stimulus that directs people to act in a certain way to achieve their individual goals. Bernard Weiner stated it more succinctly when he wrote, 'Motivation is the study of why people think and behave as they do.' Although many theories on motivation exist, Weiner focused on the link between motivation and behavior attribution.

Weiner's Attribution Theory of Motivation

Weiner's Attribution Theory states that an individual's causal attributions of achievement affect subsequent behaviors and motivation. One of the primary assumptions of attribution theory is that people will interpret their environment in such a way as to maintain a positive self-image.

No one wants to be the bad guy, and assigning attribution is one of the ways that people seek to see themselves in a more positive light. By blaming other people and avoiding personal recrimination, individuals strive to keep a positive self-image. If people believe they are responsible for bad outcomes, they are less motivated to repeat their behaviors. By shifting blame, people avoid accountability and therefore feel able to repeat the same behaviors.

As an example, imagine a thief who breaks into a home and commits a burglary. If the thief sees himself as a 'bad person,' he will feel remorse and be less likely to repeat the behavior. However, if the thief can blame his actions on society and believe he is entitled to steal, then he is more motivated to perform additional burglaries.

According to attribution theory, people tend explain success or failure in terms of three types of characteristics: Locus of Control, Stability, and Control.

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