Attribution Theory: Causes of Behavior & Errors

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  • 0:00 Internal vs. External Causes
  • 0:59 Stable vs. Unstable Causes
  • 1:45 Errors In Assigning Cause
  • 3:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Bautista
Do you attribute your success to your abilities and failure to outside forces? You'll explore possible ways of weighing personal responsibility and environmental factors when trying to determine what caused an outcome.

Internal vs. External Causes of Behavior

When you achieve a goal, do you attribute your success to your abilities or to the situation?

Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider developed attribution theory to explain the process by which we attribute outcomes based on internal behavior and external events. Internal causes include emotions, talent and other personal characteristics, whereas external reasons include environmental factors.

Imagine driving past the scene of an accident on the highway. The driver, who is unharmed, looks very young. Without any knowledge of the situation, you may come to the conclusion that the accident was the driver's fault. We might assume that it was due to inexperience, assigning an internal behavior, the driver's ability, as the cause. In reality, at the time of the accident there was an external factor: a deer ran out in front of the car, causing the driver to swerve off the road to avoid hitting it.

Stable vs. Unstable Causes of Behavior

Cognitive psychologist Bernard Weiner built on Heider's attribution theory to distinguish between stable and uncontrollable causes in evaluating performance. Adding this dimension, internal and external factors could either have unchanging or variable aspects.

For example, a baseball player can have a natural athletic ability, which is an internal-stable factor; however, the amount of effort that they put into batting practice from day to day is an internal-unstable factor.

Hitting a home run is a difficult task, or an external-stable factor, whereas the wind blowing in the right direction at the exact moment the bat hits the ball is pure luck and is thus an external-unstable factor.

Errors in Assigning Cause

The tendency to celebrate our own success as an indication of our internal abilities and failure as a result of external factors is an error recognized as self-serving bias.

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