In This Article Attribution Theory

  • Introduction
  • Edited Volumes
  • Journals
  • Traditions in Other Sciences

Psychology Attribution Theory
Bertram F. Malle, Joanna Korman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0096


In social psychology, the term attribution has at least two meanings. The first, usually labeled “causal attribution,” refers to explanations of behavior (i.e., answers to why-questions); the second, typically labeled “dispositional attribution,” refers to inferences of traits from behavior. Thus, there is no one “attribution theory,” because different theories have been offered for attribution as explanation and attribution as trait inference. These two attribution phenomena have distinct psychological characteristics and have evolved in two distinct historic lines of research. Both originate in work by Austrian philosopher and psychologist Fritz Heider, who recognized attribution as a central process of forming subjective interpretations of the world; but the two lines emphasize different aspects of this fundamental insight. This entry covers both literature on attribution in general (which often ignores the distinction between explanation and trait inference) and then separately discusses literature on each specific meaning of the term. Within attribution as explanation, it is important to distinguish between outcome attribution and action attribution. Outcomes are consequences of behavior and are not directly under the actor’s control; people therefore explain them like they explain unintentional behaviors (often by referring to one of several cause types, such as internal or internal-stable). Actions are considered under the actor’s control and, according to Heider and more recent theories, are explained by the actor’s reasons—desires and beliefs that motivate the action. One of the major, but often overlooked, differences between theories of attribution is whether they concern outcome attributions (e.g., Kelley’s and Weiner’s theories) or action attributions (e.g., more recent goal-based and folk-conceptual theories). This article will track, where possible, which of the two types of attribution is featured in the various publications. Finally, a recurring theme in this entry is the tension between mainstream and alternative approaches to attribution. Mainstream research has stayed close to the classic contributions by Heider 1983 (originally 1958), Jones and Davis 1965, and Kelley 1967—contributions that are separately discussed in the Classics section. Alternative approaches emerged after 1980 and have either amended or proposed to replace the classic theories, sometimes with compelling empirical data. Despite repeated and sustained criticism of the classic theories, their assumptions have been retained in the vast majority of published research, and even in the new millennium, textbooks in social psychology still focus almost exclusively on mainstream theories. The Extensions and Alternatives section therefore features the alternative approaches that have gathered the most empirical support.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide reviews of attribution theories and research in a broad way, typically summarizing all contributions described in the Classics section and research done in light of those. Thus, we have here, with few exceptions, reviews of mainstream attribution work. The first section covers book-length reviews that approximate Textbooks. However, most of them are outdated and technical, so they are not suitable for use in the undergraduate classroom. The second section covers Article-Length Reviews.

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