How Self-Serving Attributions Maintain Stereotypes & Prejudice

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  • 0:05 Attributions
  • 1:09 Self-Serving Attributions
  • 2:05 Group Attributions
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Attributions are the reasons that we give for why a particular outcome occurred. What do they have to do with stereotypes and prejudice? This lesson answers that question, as well as explains different types of attributions.


Annie is babysitting for her friend Nina. The entire time that Nina is gone, the baby cries. Annie rocks the baby, feeds and changes her, sings her songs. She does everything she can think of to stop the baby from crying, but nothing works. Annie gets upset and believes it's her fault. If she were a better babysitter, the baby would stop crying.

When Nina gets home, she tries to get the baby to stop crying too. Again, nothing works. Nina shrugs and tells Annie that the baby must have a touch of colic, which is making her cry. Nina realizes that it's not her fault; it's just something that happens.

Attributions are reasons people give for why an outcome occurred. Annie believes that the baby is crying because she's a bad babysitter. That is an internal attribution, because the reason has to do with Annie's skills or personality. Compare that to Nina. She blames colic, something outside of her control, so that is an external attribution.

Self-Serving Attributions

People use attributions all the time. From babysitting woes to taking tests to running a marathon, people give internal and external attributions for almost everything that they do or that happens to them. Studies have shown that some people make what are called self-serving attributions. That is, they give failure external attributions and success internal attributions. Remember Nina? When she got home, the baby didn't stop crying, so she blamed colic. Her failure to get the baby to stop crying led to an external attribution.

But, what if she'd gotten home, taken the baby from Annie, and the baby stopped crying? Would she have given some external reason for the baby to stop crying? Probably not. She'd probably say that the baby just missed her mom. Her success in getting the baby to stop crying, then, would be attributed to internal factors.

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