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What is Internal Attribution?

Laura Langford, Yolanda Williams, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Laura Langford

    Laura Langford is a nationally Certified Health Education Specialist. She has a Bachelor's degree in Health Education and Health Promotion from Arizona State University, where she also works as an Academic Associate.

  • Instructor
    Yolanda Williams

    Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Understand what attribution is. Learn the definition of internal attribution and compare internal and external attribution. Updated: 02/07/2022

What is an Attribution?

The definition of attribution is the process of assuming the causes of events or behaviors based on one's own beliefs. It is an individual's attempt to make sense of their own behaviors, as well as those of others. Attributions can influence an individual's feelings, as well as how they think of others. Attributions can be categorized in two ways:

  • Internal - The assumption that personal factors are the cause of an event or behavior
  • External- The assumption that situational factors cause an event or behavior.

According to psychologists, there are three attribution characteristics: locus of control, stability, and controllability.

Locus of control is the assumption that an event occurred because of an individual's own behaviors, known as the internal locus of control, or because of outside factors, known as an external locus of control. Stability of attribution is an individual's assumption about the stability of the factors that caused an event or behavior. Factors may be stable, which means that the event or behavior was caused by lasting factors, or unstable, which refers to temporary factors. Controllability of attribution is the degree to which an individual can impact an event or behavior. According to psychologists, an individual is more likely to accept responsibility for an event that occurs if they believe they have control over it.

Attribution Examples

In the following examples, each individual assumes that an event or behavior was caused by either an internal or external factor. A few examples of attribution include:

  • A student gets a failing grade on her science quiz. Suppose the student attributes the failing grade to the test anxiety they have had for years. In that case, they are making a stable attribution because test anxiety is an issue they have dealt with for years.
    • If the student attributes the failing grade to not studying the day before, they make an unstable attribution because they may generally study before a test. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, they were not able to.
  • An employee applies for a promotion at work but does not receive it. Suppose the employee attributes bad luck to not getting the promotion. In that case, they have an external locus of control because they blame their failure on outside factors.
    • If the employee attributes their lack of effort as the reason, they have an internal locus of control because they blame their failure on personal factors.
  • An athlete achieves first place in a competition. If the athlete attributes the first-place win to the fact that they trained hard, they believe that they have control over the win.
    • If the athlete attributes their first-place win to luck, they believe that the win was out of their control and was due to an outside factor.

Making Attributions

Suppose that you were driving along a freeway on a rainy day. The water builds up around your tires and you start to aquaplane. You lose control of your vehicle and veer off into the grass where your car comes to a halt. Though no one is hurt, you begin to worry and ask yourself why did this happen to you. Your interpretation of the cause of this event is dependent upon the attributions that you make.

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Internal Attributions

The definition of an internal attribution is the process of assuming that personal factors are the cause of an individual's behavior or the cause of an event. Internal attribution, also known as dispositional attribution, directly blames an individual for the cause of an event or behavior. When making internal attributions, an individual ignores situational factors and focuses primarily on personal factors. Personal factors, such as traits, genetics, abilities, feelings, and attitudes, are the primary focus when making internal attributions. Internal attributions are a characteristic of individuals with an internal locus of control.

According to the Fundamental Attribution Error, individuals often exaggerate internal factors as the cause of an event or behavior and under-exaggerate external factors. Individuals often view others as internally responsible for their behaviors or events, despite situational factors. For example, an individual who believes that their friend's lack of self-confidence is the cause of a divorce, rather than the divorce being caused by the husband's substance abuse. The individual is more focused on what they perceive as their friend's weakness rather than their friend's home environment.


Internal attribution assumes personal factors are the cause of events and behaviors.

woman looking in the mirror


Attributions

So what are attributions? Attributions refer to inferences that you make regarding what caused an event or behavior. Attributions are your attempt at understanding your experiences, behaviors, and the behaviors of others. When a parent asks a child why he or she behaved in a certain way, the parent is making attributions to the child's behavior. There are two types of attributions: internal and external.

External Attributions

When we use external attributions, we infer that a person is behaving in a certain way or that an event is due to the situation that they are in. There is the assumption that given the same situation, others would most likely respond in the exact same way. Because of its dependence on situational factors, external attribution is also called 'situational attribution.'

Suppose that you tried to explain your car situation to the tow truck driver using external attributions. You would explain to him that the amount of water on the roads caused your tires to lose traction. You would likely blame the rain and the age of your tires as the reasons that you were stranded in the grass.

Internal Attributions

When we use internal attributions, we infer that a person is behaving in a certain way or that an event is due to factors related to the person. These factors include things such as:

  • Traits
  • Abilities
  • Feelings
  • Attitudes

The assumption here is that the individual is directly to blame for the event or behavior. Another term for internal attribution is dispositional attribution.

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Video Transcript

Making Attributions

Suppose that you were driving along a freeway on a rainy day. The water builds up around your tires and you start to aquaplane. You lose control of your vehicle and veer off into the grass where your car comes to a halt. Though no one is hurt, you begin to worry and ask yourself why did this happen to you. Your interpretation of the cause of this event is dependent upon the attributions that you make.

Attributions

So what are attributions? Attributions refer to inferences that you make regarding what caused an event or behavior. Attributions are your attempt at understanding your experiences, behaviors, and the behaviors of others. When a parent asks a child why he or she behaved in a certain way, the parent is making attributions to the child's behavior. There are two types of attributions: internal and external.

External Attributions

When we use external attributions, we infer that a person is behaving in a certain way or that an event is due to the situation that they are in. There is the assumption that given the same situation, others would most likely respond in the exact same way. Because of its dependence on situational factors, external attribution is also called 'situational attribution.'

Suppose that you tried to explain your car situation to the tow truck driver using external attributions. You would explain to him that the amount of water on the roads caused your tires to lose traction. You would likely blame the rain and the age of your tires as the reasons that you were stranded in the grass.

Internal Attributions

When we use internal attributions, we infer that a person is behaving in a certain way or that an event is due to factors related to the person. These factors include things such as:

  • Traits
  • Abilities
  • Feelings
  • Attitudes

The assumption here is that the individual is directly to blame for the event or behavior. Another term for internal attribution is dispositional attribution.

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Prompts About Internal Attribution:

Definition Prompt:

In approximately one to three sentences, in your own words, provide the definition of attribution.

Example: An attribution is a way for people to comprehend a situation or behavior.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least two to three paragraphs that explains external attributions and why they are sometimes referred to as situational attributions.

Example: In external attribution, people often assume that others in a similar situation would have exhibited similar behavior.

Essay Prompt 2:

In at least two to three paragraphs, write an essay that defines internal attribution, its factors, and why it is sometimes called dispositional attribution.

Example: Feelings are one factor in internal attributions.

Scenario Prompt 1:

In one to two pages, write about a scenario in which a person exhibits external attribution.

Example: You hear a tornado siren and realize that your county is under a Tornado Warning, so you go to your basement to wait for the storm to pass. Since there are generally accepted elements of tornado safety, such as taking shelter, you assume that most people would take similar action in the event of an impending tornado.

Scenario Prompt 2:

Consider a scenario that involves internal attribution. Describe this scenario in one to two pages.

Example: Your football coach was in a bad mood during practice, so you assume that this is because you are a poor player and your team is bad.

What is attribution in simple words?

In simple words, attributions are the assumptions an individual makes as to why an event or behavior occurred. Attributions allow an individual to make sense of the world. Attributions can be either internal or external.

What are the two types of attributions?

The two types of attributions are internal attributions and external attributions. Internal attributions refer to the assumption that personal factors, such as an individual's abilities, are the cause of an event or behavior. External attributions are the assumption that situational factors, such as an individual's physical environment, are the cause of an event or behavior.

Why do we make internal attributions?

Individuals make internal attributions to explain why certain events or behaviors have occurred. Internal attributions often blame personal factors, such as traits, attitudes, feelings, genetics, and abilities as the cause of an event or behavior. Internal attributions allow an individual to make sense of their world, even though it is generally based on personal beliefs.

What are attributions examples?

Examples of internal attributions include:

  • A student that believes their lack of effort to be the cause of a bad grade.
  • A new driver that blames their inexperience to be the cause of a car accident.
  • A woman that blames her low-self esteem to be the cause of a break-up.


Examples of external attributions include:

  • A student that blames their teacher to be the cause of a bad grade.
  • A new driver that blames a flat tire to be the cause of their accident.
  • A woman that blames her busy work schedule to be the cause of a break-up.

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