Psychology Attribution Theory
by
Bertram F. Malle, Joanna Korman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0096

Introduction

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.

Textbooks

Few authored books have been entirely devoted to attribution theories and research. Shaver 1975 reviews in detail the three major theories (by Heider, Jones and Davis, and Kelley) and attempts to integrate them into a coherent whole. Though not entirely successful, this work remains one of the few integrative efforts in the literature. The next monograph, Harvey and Weary 1981, covers some of the same territory but discusses recent theoretical advances and includes a developmental exploration and clinical applications. Eight years later, Weary, et al. 1989 updated and expanded the 1981 book to keep pace with the still-growing literature. It succeeded in pulling together a large amount of the attribution literature at the time and discussed (again conservatively) several alternative perspectives. The book’s broad coverage is admirable, but it reads a bit too densely to be a suitable textbook. Going beyond the North American perspective, Hewstone 1989 widens the scope of what should count as attribution and emphasizes the importance of social context and social function of attributions. Försterling 2001 is the closest to a textbook, organized in ways that make it suitable for an advanced undergraduate course. But its scope is narrow, staying very close to the mainstream and doing little to reconcile this mainstream with its critics and alternative theories.

  • Försterling, Friedrich. 2001. Attribution: An introduction to theories, research, and applications. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

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    Familiar coverage of basic questions and major theories; the last five chapters offer literature and speculation about various consequences of attributions: in motivation and emotion (summarizing Weiner), in moral judgment and action, in impression management, and in therapeutic interventions. Useable in undergraduate courses, ending each chapter with a few “exercise questions.”

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    • Harvey, John H., and Gifford Weary. 1981. Perspectives on attributional processes. Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown.

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      After a survey of the classic theories, the authors discuss advances from the 1970s (such as Weiner’s work on achievement attributions) and critically, but conservatively, assess theoretical alternatives. Additional chapters examine developmental patterns of causal and responsibility attribution, the attribution of freedom, and attributions’ role in maladaptive behavior.

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      • Hewstone, Miles. 1989. Causal attribution: From cognitive processes to collective beliefs. Oxford: Blackwell.

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        Covers first the familiar territory of classic theories and questions but offers a more critical, European perspective on the traditional assumptions. Points to the limits of a purely cognitive view of attribution and, in the second half of the book, examines explanations in relationships between people and groups. This gives the volume more breadth than have most others of its time.

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        • Shaver, Kelly G. 1975. An introduction to attribution processes. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.

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          Discusses the major theories at the time and claims they share the hypothesis that the ideal attribution process has a disposition (stable person characteristic) as its goal. Though probably incorrect, this framework represents one of the few attempts to integrate the various theories. Also connects to self-perception and responsibility judgments.

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          • Weary, Gifford, Melinda A. Stanley, and John H. Harvey. 1989. Attribution. New York: Springer-Verlag.

            DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4612-3608-5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

            The first four chapters offer detailed coverage of the extant theories and recent research, including connections to models of social cognitive processes more generally. The next five chapters provide extensive applications of attribution concepts to close relationships, clinical psychology, and education. High information density but still readable.

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            Article-Length Reviews

            Most of the reviews of attribution work have appeared in chapters of books, edited volumes, or articles in periodicals. Tracking such reviews since 1970, we see that they vary in how close to the canonical views they stay. The earliest in this group is Hastorf, et al. 1970, the first textbook of person perception (social cognition). The contributions Kelley and Michela 1980 and Jones 1990 were written by two of the classic theorists of attribution. Kelley and Michela provide a comprehensive literature review whereas Jones offers a selective and somewhat technical discussion of the key theoretical positions. Ross and Fletcher 1985 delivers not only a review but a critical, insightful discussion. Though long, it is a readable overview for the serious student of attribution who wants to go deeper than the mainstream did at the time. Fiske and Taylor 1991 presents the most extensive review that was not a whole textbook and also includes discussion of alternative perspectives. Meyer and Försterling 1993 supplies one of the few available German reviews. Among the most recent contributions, Hilton 2007 takes an expanded perspective of attribution, making the important distinction between attribution as explanation and as dispositional inference, and lays out the growing evidence for alternatives to mainstream attribution work, especially in the domain of knowledge structures and conversational processes. Malle 2011 provides a revisionist discussion of Heider’s and Kelley’s classic theories and offers a comprehensive alternative theory of attribution as explanation.

            • Fiske, Susan T., and Shelley E. Taylor. 1991. Attribution theory (chapter 2) and attribution theory: Refinements and observations (chapter 3). In Social cognition. 2d ed. By Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, 22–95. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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              Comprehensive coverage of nearly all topics of attribution research: theories, evidence, errors and biases, individual differences; missing are only applications. Among theories, authors focus on Kelley, but also discuss Bem, Schachter, Weiner, and alternative viewpoints, including the communicative approach. Also briefly discuss attributions of responsibility and blame.

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              • Hastorf, Albert H., David J. Schneider, and Judith Polefka. 1970. Person perception. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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                Chapter 4 of this early book provides a thoughtful discussion of attribution phenomena and theories, attending to some of Heider’s key concepts, including personal causality, but focusing on outcome attribution rather than action attribution. Authors also discuss dispositional attribution and integrate work on self-attribution, elements often left out in later reviews.

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                • Hilton, Denis J. 2007. Causal explanation: From social perception to knowledge-based causal attribution. In Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. 2d ed. Edited by Arie W. Kruglanski and E. Tory Higgins, 232–253. New York: Guilford.

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                  Thorough and informative beyond the mainstream. Considers many classic findings from the perspective of knowledge structures underlying attribution processes and from the perspective of conversational principles guiding selection of specific explanations. Also attends to the role of ordinary people’s conceptual assumptions and perceptual skills in interpreting behavior.

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                  • Jones, Edward E. 1990. The attributional approach. In Interpersonal perception. By Edward E. Jones, 39–76. New York: W. H. Freeman.

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                    The author himself calls the chapter “rather long and difficult,” and it is not recommended for beginners. The presentations are somewhat complex, and the evidence reported is highly selective. Valuable, however, as a historical document, in which one of the three classic attribution theorists writes about the three classic theories.

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                    • Kelley, Harold H., and John L. Michela. 1980. Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology 31:457–502.

                      DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ps.31.020180.002325Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      This mainstream survey of the first twenty years of attribution research is organized into attributions’ antecedents (e.g., information, motivation) and consequences (e.g., attitudes, evaluations, expectations). Besides the familiar distinction between external and internal causes, it also considers other causal dimensions and their impact on behavior and thinking.

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                      • Malle, Bertram F. 2011. Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior. In Theories in social psychology. Edited by Derek Chadee, 72–95. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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                        Most recent review of both classic and new attribution theories. Focuses on attribution as explanation (not dispositional inference) and in particular on Heider’s model, trying to correct previous misinterpretations. Shorter discussions of Kelley and brief mention of additional theories. The last part features the author’s own theory, along with supporting evidence.

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                        • Meyer, Wulf-Uwe, and Friedrich Försterling. 1993. Die Attributionstheorie. In Theorien der Sozialpsychologie. Band I: Kognitive Theorien. 2d ed. Edited by Dieter Frey and Martin Irle, 175–214. Bern, Switzerland: Verlag Hans Huber.

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                          A rare German review of attribution research. Authors do not cover the entire attribution literature but focus on Heider and Kelley—that is, on attributions as explanations. Overly detailed exposition of covariation principles and variations (not suitable for undergraduate students). Also discuss errors and biases in people’s explanations of behavior and events.

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                          • Ross, Michael, and Garth J. O. Fletcher. 1985. Attribution and social perception. In The handbook of social psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson, 73–114. New York: Random House.

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                            A thorough, critical, and creative review, anticipating many of the central conceptual and methodological issues that arose in the following decades. Though published in the handbook that embodies mainstream social psychology, it offers several perspectives that deviate from the mainstream. The chapter’s impact on subsequent research, unfortunately, was minimal.

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                            Edited Volumes

                            Much of the progress in attribution theory and empirical research has been documented in edited volumes. Attribution research stormed onto the scene with the publication of Jones, et al. 1987 (originally 1972), which contains a number of citation classics and was the starting point for some of the most prominent topics of attribution research. In the wake of rapid expansion of empirical investigations, there was a clear need for summarizing and organizing this research around central themes. This was done admirably in the three-volume series Harvey, et al. 1976–1981, which featured numerous reviews of extant research on a wide variety of attribution topics. Subsequent edited volumes gave voice to authors outside the mainstream, allowing them to develop their alternative views safe from conservative pressures of journal peer review. These books developed or featured, for example, the knowledge structure approach and the conversational approach (Hilton 1988; Jaspars, et al. 1983) as well as the role of reasons in action attribution (McLaughlin, et al. 1992). A greater emphasis on social rather than merely cognitive analyses of attribution also gained prevalence under the guidance of two additional volumes (Antaki 1981, Hewstone 1983). See also two more recent collections focused specifically on the contributions of Edward Jones (Darley and Cooper 1998) and Fritz Heider (Reisenzein and Rudolph 2008) under Autobiographies and Biographies of Classic Contributors.

                            • Antaki, Charles, ed. 1981. The psychology of ordinary explanations of social behaviour. New York: Academic Press.

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                              Uniquely European look at attributions as explanations, critical of traditional assumptions in the US literature. Expands the (at the time) dominant cognitive analysis of explanations to the impact of language and to the strategic use of explanations. Authors encourage studies of explanations in social interaction, not just in laboratory situations.

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                              • Harvey, John H., William John Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd, eds. 1976–1981. New directions in attribution research. 3 vols. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                Volume 1 begins with a charming conversation with Fritz Heider, then offers attributional analyses of such topics as freedom, intrinsic motivation, attention, dissonance, reactance, and attitudes. Volume 2 explores connections with affect, egotism, and moral decision making and for the first time examines the role of attribution in interpersonal phenomena (attraction, relationships, social influence). The volume concludes with a conversation between the editors and both Edward Jones and Harold Kelley. Volume 3 connects attribution to such interpersonal topics as persuasion, self-presentation, conflict resolution, and conversation; several other chapters signal the rise of the cognitive-process approach, characterizing attribution as an information-processing structure.

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                                • Harvey, John H., and Gifford Weary, eds. 1985. Attribution: Basic issues and applications. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

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                                  Wide-ranging collection of essays on such previously neglected topics as access to one’s own mental states, behavior perception, content distinctions among dispositions, and social comparison in explanations. Three chapters offer applications of attribution to self-handicapping, close relationships, and individual differences in explanations that relate to shyness and depression.

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                                  • Hewstone, Miles, ed. 1983. Attribution theory: Social and functional extensions. Oxford: Blackwell.

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                                    The chapters in this volume examine attributions at three levels: their cognitive organization, their social context, and their role in health and clinical psychology. Some essays were prescient in anticipating, for example, the knowledge structure approach and the growing interest in cross-cultural comparisons.

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                                    • Hilton, Denis J., ed. 1988. Contemporary science and natural explanation: Commonsense conceptions of causality. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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                                      A volume with wide scope of content, including overviews and expansions of theory, developmental, social, and communicative processes, and relations to moral judgment. Concludes with an innovative essay by Harold Kelley on the way in which people may represent causal chains and causal structures—a topic that researchers took up much later.

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                                      • Jaspars, Jos, Frank D. Fincham, and Miles Hewstone, eds. 1983. Attribution theory and research: Conceptual, developmental, and social dimensions. New York: Academic Press.

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                                        A collection of essays (with predominantly European contributors) that challenge the mainstream attribution literature. Authors explore how people select the specific causes that explain events (not just a class of causes, such as person vs. situation) and how explanations are adjusted to audiences in conversation.

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                                        • Jones, Edward E., David Kanouse, and Harold H. Kelley, et al., eds. 1987. Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning.

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                                          Seminal volume that defined the key topics of attribution research for decades, such as: actor-observer asymmetry, impact of attributions in achievement settings, attributions of ambiguous internal states, causal schemata that lead to discounting and augmenting of competing explanations. Originally published 1972.

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                                          • McLaughlin, Margaret L., Michael J. Cody, and Stephen Read, eds. 1992. Explaining one’s self to others: Reason-giving in a social context. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                            This volume brings together researchers from the United States and Great Britain to examine attributions from communicative as well as cognitive perspectives. Attributions are treated as both mental and social processes—thought patterns and knowledge structures that are expressed in language to achieve social goals, such as clarifying, justifying, and excusing.

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                                            Journals

                                            Attribution research has always been published widely across many journals. More than a hundred journals have published ten or more articles on the topic of attribution, and eight have published one hundred or more articles, with a total research output of about 14,500 articles. Perhaps because of its broad appeal and applicability, attribution research never spawned its own journal. Its most frequent outlets have been the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (4.9 percent of all published articles), Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (3.1 percent), Journal of Applied Social Psychology (2 percent), and Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (1.8 percent).

                                            Classics

                                            Attribution research was sparked by Heider 1983 (originally 1958) and its broadly conceived model of social perception. Heider’s blend of anecdotal observation with conceptual and linguistic analysis generated visionary ideas and was unlike anything psychology had seen before. As of January 2012, the book has been cited, according to Google Scholar, over twelve thousand times. Two highly influential contributions followed Heider. The first was Jones and Davis 1965, with its theory of dispositional attribution (“correspondent inference theory”), that was cited over twenty-eight hundred times; the second was Kelley 1967 and its model of attribution as covariation detection, with about four thousand citations. Each of them led to its own tradition of attribution research, as described in the section The Two Meanings of Attribution. Kelley 1987 made another important contribution to the attribution literature: the analysis of causal schemata, or abstract expectations about how effects and causes are related (e.g., effects with multiple necessary or multiple sufficient causes). Though less influential than his covariation model, it introduced the ideas of “discounting” and “augmenting,” which refer to the relative weakening and strengthening, respectively, of one causal explanation in the presence of an alternative causal explanation. Finally, a highly cited work is Weiner 1985, an article delineating the role of causal interpretation of achievement outcomes and its impact on motivation and emotion.

                                            • Heider, Fritz. 1983. The psychology of interpersonal relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                              Thoroughly explores “commonsense psychology,” the system of concepts ordinary people use to understand human behavior. Emphasizes how identifying the causes of events (especially of human behaviors) influences social interaction. Heider’s blend of anecdotal observation with conceptual and linguistic analysis generated visionary ideas and was unlike anything psychology had seen before. Originally published 1958.

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                                              • Jones, Edward E., and Keith E. Davis. 1965. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 219–266. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                Challenging chapter in which the authors initially engage deeply with Heider’s core ideas of intention and explanations of actions; however, after a few pages, they abruptly shift into an analysis of conditions under which perceivers attribute dispositions (traits, attitudes) to others. The latter analysis had an enormous impact on social psychology.

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                                                • Kelley, Harold H. 1967. Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. Vol. 15. Edited by David Levine, 192–240. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

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                                                  The original formulation of the “covariation” or “ANOVA” model of causal attribution. Claims that people explain an agent’s behavior by observing what causes the behavior covaries with—internal ones (e.g., personality) or external ones (e.g., context). A long and somewhat plodding chapter, but highly influential.

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                                                  • Kelley, Harold H. 1987. Causal schemata and the attribution process. In Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. Edited by Edward E. Jones, David E. Kanouse, Harold H. Kelley, Richard E. Nisbett, Stuart Valins, and Bernard Weiner, 151–174. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                    Kelley postulates here that people have general expectations or “schemas” about how causes and effects relate, and from these expectations they infer the most likely cause of a given event. Whereas the covariation model applies only to instances of multiple cause-effect observations, the causal schema model applies to single observations. Originally published 1972.

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                                                    • Weiner, Bernard. 1985. An attributional theory of achievement-motivation and emotion. Psychological Review 92:548–573.

                                                      DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.92.4.548Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                      Analyzes how people’s interpretations of the causes of (their own or others’) success and failure guide their expectancies, emotions, and motivation. Identifies three dimensions of perceived causes, which have distinct psychological consequences. For example, perceived stability influences expectancies about future success; perceived controllability influences anger and guilt.

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                                                      Autobiographies and Biographies of Classic Contributors

                                                      When scientists have a broad and lasting impact on a field, the curiosity for the person behind the scientist arises. Fittingly, the biggest name in attribution research, Fritz Heider (see Heider 1983), wrote an autobiography that offers insight not only into this particular thinker’s life but also into the development of social psychology more broadly. Malle and Ickes 2000 provides a third-person perspective on Heider’s life, and an interview with Heider by Harvey, et al. 1976 blends the first-person and third-person perspectives. Most recently, Heider was celebrated and revisited in a special issue of the journal Social Psychology (Rudolph and Reisenzein 2008). Kelley 2008 is a largely intellectual autobiography, and Harvey, et al. 1978, an interview with Kelley, gives further insight into his thinking. Edward Jones also took part in this interview, and a Festschrift for Jones (Darley and Cooper 1998) contains researchers’ personal observations in addition to scientific discussions. Finally, Weiner 2008 wrote an entertaining autobiography of his early career years, with lessons and recommendations for the budding academic.

                                                      • Darley, John M., and Joel Cooper, eds. 1998. Attribution and social interaction: The legacy of Edward E. Jones. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

                                                        DOI: 10.1037/10286-000Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        This Festschrift for Edward “Ned” Jones offers a diverse collection of target essays with commentaries, but only the first two chapters (and two commentaries each) are devoted to attribution topics. The chapters have a relaxed writing style but are difficult to appreciate without background knowledge.

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                                                        • Harvey, John H., William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd. 1976. A conversation with Fritz Heider. In New directions in attribution research. Vol. 1. Edited by John H. Harvey, William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd, 3–21. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                          A broad range of topics is covered here, often capturing the unusual way Heider thought about phenomena. Topics include the role of commonsense psychology in scientific measurement; attribution in social perception and object perception; egocentric causal thinking; and the functions of attributions, such as achieving control and satisfying curiosity.

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                                                          • Harvey, John H., William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd. 1978. A conversation with Edward E. Jones and Harold H. Kelley. In New directions in attribution research. Vol. 2. Edited by John H. Harvey, William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd, 371–388. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                            In this highly readable transcript of a conversation, the two seminal contributors to attribution theory provide a short historical background to their thinking and then respond to a number of questions about the overlap between their theories, limitations of each, and theoretical as well as applied topics in attribution.

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                                                            • Heider, Fritz. 1983. The life of a psychologist: An autobiography. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

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                                                              This charming personal account of Heider’s life illustrates the creative discoveries of a careful observer of social behavior and describes an important phase in the history of social and general psychology—when, before and during World War II, intellectuals left central Europe and made the United States the new center of psychological science.

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                                                              • Kelley, Harold H. 2008. Some reflections on 50 years in social psychology. In Journeys in social psychology: Looking back to inspire the future. Edited by Robert Levine, Aroldo Rodrigues, and Lynette Zelezny, 211–220. New York: Psychology Press.

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                                                                An intellectual autobiography organized around fundamental psychological questions about the relationship between the individual and the group. Surprisingly little is said about attribution theory, but the chapter paints a broader context for Kelley’s contributions in this domain.

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                                                                • Malle, Bertram F., and William J. Ickes. 2000. Fritz Heider: Philosopher and psychologist. In Portraits of pioneers in psychology. Vol. 4. Edited by George A. Kimble and Michael Wertheimer, 193–214. Mahwah, NJ: American Psychological Association.

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                                                                  Relying on Heider’s autobiography and his original writings, this biography follows Heider on his life journey from Graz, Austria, to Lawrence, Kansas, and draws him both as modest and endearing and as ingenuous and prescient. Also tries to clarify misunderstandings in the reception of Heider’s life work.

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                                                                  • Rudolph, Udo, and Rainer Reisenzein, eds. 2008. 50 years of attribution research. Special issue: Social Psychology 39.3: 123–203.

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                                                                    At the fiftieth anniversary of Heider’s famous book, the editors collected essays from German and US scholars who offer a wide range of contributions: biographical, historical, and theoretical, all taking Heider as their starting point or central theme.

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                                                                    • Weiner, Bernard. 2008. Life experiences and their legacies. In Journeys in social psychology: Looking back to inspire the future. Edited by Robert Levine, Aroldo Rodrigues, and Lynette Zelezny, 69–84. New York: Psychology Press.

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                                                                      A humorous and insightful autobiography focusing on the author’s formative academic years during the 1960s, from being admitted to graduate school to getting tenure and authoring several citation classics as attribution theory rose to fame.

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                                                                      The Two Meanings of Attribution

                                                                      The following sections introduce the separate literatures on the two major meanings of the term attribution. The causal attribution meaning refers to explanations of behavior (i.e., answers to why-questions); the dispositional attribution meaning refers to inferences of stable attributes (e.g., personality traits, attitudes) from behavior. The foundational publication is Heider 1983 (originally 1958), because the two lines of literature both evolved from Heider’s pioneering work. Interestingly, Heider himself did not make the distinction between dispositional and causal attribution. For him, “dispositions” were any attributes beyond a target person’s observed behavior and helped a perceiver make sense of the behavior, including punctuated intentions, specific beliefs, fleeting emotions, as well as deeply held values and stable traits. The distinction between dispositional and causal attribution was created implicitly by the different directions that Jones and Davis 1965 and Kelley 1967 took their respective models of attribution. Jones and Davis discussed explanations of action (by way of intentions and reasons) in the first three pages of their seminal chapter, but they focused entirely on inferences of stable attributes in the remainder of the chapter, creating the research tradition of dispositional attributions. Kelley 1967 asked a different question: given a certain event (e.g., an emotion or an action), how can we identify its cause, and particularly whether this cause resides in the person or in the situation? Thus, dispositional attribution is the attempt to determine what traits a behavior is diagnostic of (regardless of whether they directly caused the behavior), whereas causal attribution is the attempt to determine the specific causes that brought about the behavior (regardless of whether the causes are dispositions or not). Over time, a number of researchers made the distinction between these two attribution processes. Johnson, et al. 1984 is among the first to closely attend to the dangers of confusing the two, showing that causal and dispositional attributions are sometimes inconsistent with one another. Hilton, et al. 1995 shows that the two processes are differentially sensitive to covariation information, and Erickson and Krull 1999 points to their differential responsiveness to behavior extremity. Gilbert 1998 provides a detailed review of dispositional attribution and, in a smaller section, also contrasts it with causal attribution theories.

                                                                      • Erickson, Darin J., and Douglas S. Krull. 1999. Distinguishing judgments about what from judgments about why: Effects of behavior extremity on correspondent inferences and causal attributions. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 21:1–11.

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                                                                        Demonstrates in two studies that dispositional attributions are more sensitive to the extremity of behaviors than are causal attributions. For example, extremely anxious behavior predicts extreme inferences about the person’s personality, moderate behavior predicts moderate inferences about personality. Attributions (to person causes or situation causes) for why the person acted do not follow this pattern.

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                                                                        • Gilbert, Daniel T. 1998. Ordinary personology. In The handbook of social psychology. 4th ed. Edited by Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, 89–150. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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                                                                          A detailed historical review of research on dispositional attribution, starting with Heider 1983, Jones and Davis 1965, and the stage-process theories of dispositional attribution. Contrasts dispositional attribution with the model of covariation reasoning in Kelley 1967, but does not cover any other literature on attribution as explanation.

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                                                                          • Heider, Fritz. 1983. The psychology of interpersonal relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                                            Author thoroughly explores “commonsense psychology,” the system of concepts ordinary people use to describe and understand human behavior. Analyzes such concepts as “can,” “want,” “try,” and “ought.” Heider’s blend of anecdotal observation with conceptual and linguistic analysis generated visionary ideas unlike anything psychology had seen before. Originally published 1958.

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                                                                            • Hilton, Denis J., Richard H. Smith, and Sung Hee Kim. 1995. Processes of causal explanation and dispositional attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68:377–387.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.68.3.377Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              Distinguish between causal and dispositional attribution and show their distinct sensitivity to covariation patterns (specified in the model of Kelley 1967), especially consensus and distinctiveness. Studies with verbal stimuli show that in causal attribution people contrast one actor with other actors; in dispositional attribution they attend to generality in a single actor’s behavior.

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                                                                              • Johnson, Joel T., John B. Jemmott, and Thomas F. Pettigrew. 1984. Causal attribution and dispositional inference: Evidence of inconsistent judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 20:567–585.

                                                                                DOI: 10.1016/0022-10318490044-1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                Among the first to closely attend to the dangers of confusing causal and dispositional attribution, showing that the two are sometimes inconsistent with one another.

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                                                                                • Jones, Edward E., and Keith E. Davis. 1965. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 219–266. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                                  The first few pages engage deeply with Heider’s core ideas of intention, reasons, and explanations of actions. Then the authors abruptly shift into an analysis of conditions under which perceivers attribute dispositions (stable traits, attitudes) to others. The latter analysis had an enormous impact on social psychology.

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                                                                                  • Kelley, Harold H. 1967. Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. Vol. 15. Edited by David Levine, 192–240. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

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                                                                                    The original formulation of the “covariation” or “ANOVA” model of causal attribution. Claims that people explain an agent’s behavior by observing what causes the behavior covaries with—internal causes (e.g., personality) or external causes (e.g., context). A long and somewhat plodding, but enormously influential chapter.

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                                                                                    Attribution as Trait Inference

                                                                                    Beginning with Jones and Davis 1965, researchers became interested in an inference people sometimes make when they observe another person’s behavior: they infer a stable disposition, such as a personality trait, attitude, or value. Jones and Harris 1967 tests the model of Jones and Davis 1965 by developing a methodology (the “attitude attribution paradigm”) that was used by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of subsequent studies. In addition to finding support for the original model they also found a tendency for people to make trait inferences even if the behavior was manifestly caused by the situation (e.g., when meeting an experimenter’s request). This inferential tendency was labeled the “fundamental attribution error” by Ross 1977 and also goes by “correspondence bias” (Gilbert and Malone 1995). A major theoretical advance came in the 1980s when observing behavior, inferring traits, and considering situational influences was described as a multi-stage process with both automatic and controlled elements—modeled in slightly different ways first by Quattrone 1982, then by Trope 1986 and finally, as an integration, by Gilbert, et al. 1988. Gilbert and Malone 1995 reviews the accumulated evidence on the correspondence bias and the multiple explanations for it. A related line of work, which began with Winter and Uleman 1984, examines the possibility that trait inferences are made automatically and unconsciously upon encountering certain behaviors.

                                                                                    • Gilbert, Daniel T., and Patrick S. Malone. 1995. The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin 117:21–38.

                                                                                      DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.21Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                      A well-organized review of the evidence for the correspondence bias and the conditions under which it occurs. Authors distinguish between four causes of the bias and argue that these causes bring about somewhat different versions of the bias, which then have somewhat different psychological consequences.

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                                                                                      • Gilbert, Daniel T., Brett W. Pelham, and Douglas S. Krull. 1988. On cognitive busyness: When person perceivers meet persons perceived. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54:733–740.

                                                                                        DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.54.5.733Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                        Combines previous theories of trait inference into a model that specifies three stages: behavior interpretation, trait inference, and situational correction. Two experiments show that the last stage requires more cognitive resources (is more disrupted when the perceiver is under cognitive load) than the first two.

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                                                                                        • Jones, Edward E., and Keith E. Davis. 1965. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 219–266. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                                          Presents a detailed analysis of conditions under which social perceivers attribute dispositions (stable traits, attitudes) to other people. Suggests that inferring dispositions is the end goal of social perception. Though questionable, this claim had an enormous impact on social psychology.

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                                                                                          • Jones, Edward E., and Victor A. Harris. 1967. The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 3:1–24.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1016/0022-10316790034-0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            Original source for the “attitude attribution paradigm,” a frequently used method to examine dispositional attributions. Shows that people make inferences about attitudes or traits from single behaviors even if they seem to be aware of situation forces that facilitated or encouraged the behavior.

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                                                                                            • Quattrone, George A. 1982. Overattribution and unit formation: When behavior engulfs the person. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42:593–607.

                                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.42.4.593Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                              Noteworthy for two reasons. First, suggests an anchor-adjustment explanation of the fundamental attribution error. Second, demonstrates that under certain conditions, people are overly eager to attribute a target’s behavior to the situation (e.g., strong pressure) even if the target person’s prior disposition is a sufficient explanation—thereby reversing the fundamental attribution error.

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                                                                                              • Ross, Lee. 1977. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 10. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 173–220. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                                                Inspired by the rapid discovery of errors and biases in the domain of judgments and decisions, the author reviews evidence for a series of such distortions in the social judgment domain. In particular, coins the term “fundamental attribution error” for the tendency to infer traits from behaviors that were actually caused by the situation.

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                                                                                                • Trope, Yaacov. 1986. Identification and inferential processes in dispositional attribution. Psychological Review 93:239–257.

                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.93.3.239Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                  Difficult article but important theoretical model of trait inferences, highlighting the importance of the initial behavior interpretation stage. This stage can be influenced by strong consideration of situational forces and, if so, lead to correspondence bias even if the situation was taken into account, just incorrectly so.

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                                                                                                  • Winter, Laraine, and James S. Uleman. 1984. When are social judgments made? Evidence for the spontaneousness of trait inferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47:237–252.

                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.47.2.237Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                    First evidence for the claim that people make trait inferences from certain behaviors without intending to and without being aware of doing so. Presents a memory paradigm to uncover automatic inferences and provide a set of sentence stimuli that was later used in many studies on trait inferences.

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                                                                                                    Limitations of Trait Inference Models

                                                                                                    People’s readiness to make dispositional inferences from single behaviors (and their disregard for situational influences) is generally described as a very robust phenomenon. Nonetheless, there are several limitations to this phenomenon. First, conditions can easily be created in which people are biased toward inferring a strong situational influence rather than a disposition. Quattrone 1982 was the first to show such a reversal when people first learn about the target person’s disposition and then observe a behavior in the context of strong situational pressures; in this case, they disregard the dispositional information even though it is a sufficient explanation of the behavior. Krull and Erickson 1995 reversed the usual pattern as well, this time by changing the judgment task: asking perceivers to estimate the strength of the situational force (rather than, as is common, asking them to estimate the strength of the disposition); in this case, perceivers overestimated the situational influence. A second limitation is the virtual absence of studies on trait inferences in natural contexts that are not as tightly constrained as the typical lab experiments. The prevalence of trait inferences (and their hypothesized dominance over situational inferences) in such natural contexts is largely unknown. As one exception, Malle, et al. 2007 shows that the prevalence of traits in naturally occurring behavior explanations is about 5 percent. Third, the simple picture of trait versus situation inferences was expanded by Read, et al. 1990, which provides initial evidence for the proposal that trait inferences rely on prior goal inferences. This proposal was overlooked for a while even though it is consistent with the original model of trait inferences (Jones and Davis 1965). Relatedly, Fein, et al. 1990 shows that, while people infer a disposition from actions that appear to pursue their expected and typical goal, the mere suspicion of an ulterior goal blocks such an inference. Reeder 2009 reviews and systematizes extant evidence and demonstrates convincingly the critical role of goal and other mental state inferences in dispositional attributions. His multiple-inference model accounts well for the previous findings on dispositional attribution. A balanced review of strengths and weaknesses of trait inference research is Uleman, et al. 2008, which also poses a number of new questions that broaden the topic.

                                                                                                    • Fein, Stephen, James L. Hilton, and Dale T. Miller. 1990. Suspicion of ulterior motivation and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58:753–764.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.58.5.753Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      Demonstrates in three experiments that although perceivers are inclined to infer a speaker’s attitude from a political speech even when the expressed political position was assigned to the speaker (correspondence bias), they no longer make such an attitude inference if they suspect the speaker has a selfish goal for expressing that particular position.

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                                                                                                      • Jones, Edward E., and Keith E. Davis. 1965. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 219–266. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                                                        Presents a detailed analysis of conditions under which social perceivers attribute dispositions (stable traits, attitudes) to other people. Suggests that inferring dispositions is the end goal of social perception. Though questionable, this claim had an enormous impact on social psychology.

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                                                                                                        • Krull, Douglas S., and Darin J. Erickson. 1995. Judging situations: On the effortful process of taking dispositional information into account. Social Cognition 13:417–438.

                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1521/soco.1995.13.4.417Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                          Experiments show that when people are explicitly asked to estimate the impact of the situational context on a target person’s behavior, such situational judgments are made effortlessly whereas dispositional corrections require cognitive resources—a pattern directly reversing the one predicted by dominant models of dispositional attribution.

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                                                                                                          • Malle, Bertram F., Joshua Knobe, and Sarah E. Nelson. 2007. Actor-observer asymmetries in explanations of behavior: New answers to an old question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93:491–514.

                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.4.491Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                            Focuses on differences between the explanations people offer for their own behaviors and explanations offered for others’ behaviors (actor-observer asymmetries). Also presents data on the prevalence of trait inferences relative to other inferences (p. 509): across thirteen hundred participants and eight thousand explanations, trait inferences occurred in only 5 percent of cases.

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                                                                                                            • Read, Stephen J., David K. Jones, and Lynn C. Miller. 1990. Traits as goal-based categories: The importance of goals in the coherence of dispositional categories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58:1048–1061.

                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.58.6.1048Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                              Suggests that goals are part of the meaning of many traits. Shows that actions that imply a certain trait are seen as more prototypical if the goal associated with the trait was fulfilled. Also shows that a behavior’s perceived relevance to a certain goal predicts people’s confidence in inferring a trait related to that goal.

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                                                                                                              • Reeder, Glenn D. 2009. Mindreading: Judgments about intentionality and motives in dispositional inference. Psychological Inquiry 20:1–18.

                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1080/10478400802615744Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                Proposes a multiple-inference model of attribution in which perceivers first determine the intentionality of an agent’s behavior, then—if the behavior is intentional—assess the agent’s motives, and finally attribute a motive-consistent disposition to the agent. Reviews considerable evidence in support of this model.

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                                                                                                                • Uleman, James S., S. Adil Saribay, and Celia M. Gonzalez. 2008. Spontaneous inferences, implicit impressions, and implicit theories. Annual Review of Psychology 59:329–360.

                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093707Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                  Reviews the accumulated research on the topic of spontaneous (automatic) trait inferences as well as related inferences of goals and causes. Relates this literature to other lines of research, such as implicit theories about mind and behavior.

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                                                                                                                  Attribution as Explanation

                                                                                                                  The dispositional attribution tradition asked how people infer stable traits from observed behavior. The causal attribution tradition asked: when people encounter certain events (e.g., an action or an emotion), how do they explain why this event occurred? Krull and Anderson 1997 offers a short, general account of how explanations unfold in the mind of the explainer. The earliest theoretical model of how people answer “why” questions was offered by Heider (Heider 1983). He noted that people distinguish between two types of events—intentional actions (governed by “personal causality”) and all other events (governed by “impersonal causality”). Heider did not elaborate on exactly how intentional actions are explained—this was studied later, described under Folk-Conceptual Approach. Heider turned instead to simpler causal problems in which the social perceiver explains unintentional events (e.g., emotions or desires) or outcomes of actions (e.g., success and failure; see section Attributions of Actions versus Outcomes). For these two problems, Heider suggested, people track the relative contribution of causes inside the person (especially motivation, effort, and ability) and causes outside the person (objective enabling or hindering forces). Subsequent research focused largely on this distinction of person versus situation attributions, exemplified by Kelley 1967 and its famous covariation (or “ANOVA”) model. Kelley postulated that, for any event (whether intentional or unintentional, action or outcome), the perceiver identifies its cause as residing in the person (“internal attribution”) or in the situation (“external attribution”). To make this selection, the perceiver consults covariation information, asking: Is the agent the only one who feels this way? Does the agent always feel this way? Empirical tests of the covariation model tended to support it, as in the highly cited study McArthur 1972. But in all those studies covariation information was explicitly presented for participants’ use. By contrast, Lalljee, et al. 1984 shows that people have little spontaneous interest in covariation information, and Ahn, et al. 1995 demonstrates that explainers are less interested in covariation information than in information about causal mechanisms. As one possible remedy, Kelley 1973 proposed that social perceivers, when they explain single events in the absence of covariation information, rely on additional cognitive processes—so-called causal schemas. This approach was refined in research on knowledge structures (discussed in Knowledge Structure Approach).

                                                                                                                  • Ahn, Woo-kyoung, Charles W. Kalish, Douglas L. Medin, and Susan A. Gelman. 1995. The role of covariation versus mechanism information in causal attribution. Cognition 54:299–352.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1016/0010-02779400640-7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    Shows in four experiments that when searching for information pertaining to what caused an event, people typically seek to understand the underlying mechanism, rather than covariation information. Even when given covariation information they do not use it heavily.

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                                                                                                                    • Heider, Fritz. 1983. The naïve analysis of action. In The psychology of interpersonal relations. By Fritz Heider, 79–124. New York: Wiley.

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                                                                                                                      This is chapter 4 of Heider’s seminal book (originally published 1958) and is a must-read for anybody who wants to know what Heider, the “father of attribution theory,” actually said about attribution, explanations, personal causality, intentions, and dispositions.

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                                                                                                                      • Kelley, Harold H. 1967. Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. Vol. 15. Edited by David Levine, 192–240. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

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                                                                                                                        Original formulation of the “covariation” or “ANOVA” model. Claims that people explain an agent’s behavior by observing what causes the behavior covaries with—whether they are internal causes (e.g., personality) or external causes (e.g., context). Enormously influential chapter, but also long and plodding.

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                                                                                                                        • Kelley, Harold H. 1973. The processes of causal attribution. American Psychologist 28:107–128.

                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1037/h0034225Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                          A somewhat more readable article than Kelley 1967. Kelley discusses both his covariation model (for repeated-event cases) and his causal schema model (for single-event cases). Offers perhaps the last detailed outline of the schema model, which was not nearly as influential as the covariation model.

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                                                                                                                          • Krull, Douglas S., and Craig A. Anderson. 1997. The process of explanation. Current Directions in Psychological Science 6:1–5.

                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.ep11512447Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                            A short, very general account of how explanations unfold in the mind of the explainer, from initial noticing to interpretation to generating and refining explanatory hypotheses. No commitment to what these explanations really are (e.g., person-situation causes, or reasons), but a process flow model that can be fleshed out by various specific theories.

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                                                                                                                            • Lalljee, Mansur, Roger Lamb, Adrian F. Furnham, and Jos Jaspars. 1984. Explanations and information search: Inductive and hypothesis-testing approaches to arriving at an explanation. British Journal of Social Psychology 23:201–212.

                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.1984.tb00631.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                              Shows that people have little spontaneous interest in covariation information; instead, they seem to test “hypotheses” about the causes of a given event. Evidence is based on three studies with short stories and participants’ choices of the information they want to acquire.

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                                                                                                                              • McArthur, Leslie A. 1972. The how and what of why: Some determinants and consequences of causal attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 22:171–193.

                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1037/h0032602Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                Classic study that tests predictions from Kelley’s 1967 covariation model of attribution. Participants read short sentences describing behaviors and emotions and were offered covariation information; participants then indicated whether the event was caused by the person, the stimulus, etc. Results tended to support predictions but also raised several questions.

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                                                                                                                                Attributions of Actions versus Outcomes

                                                                                                                                An important distinction within the attribution-as-explanation tradition holds between people’s explanations of actions and their explanations of outcomes of actions, such as success and failure. Heider in 1958 was the first to make the distinction, and his theoretical models for the two phenomena differed: people conceptualize actions as being under the actor’s control—caused by intentions, which in turn are based on reasons (see Heider 1983 cited under The Two Meanings of Attribution); by contrast, they conceptualize outcomes as largely outside the actor’s control and as being directly facilitated or hindered by person factors such as ability and environmental factors such as task difficulty. Most researchers in the early wave of attribution theories overlooked the distinction and, in particular, failed to appreciate the need for a separate model of action explanation. Jones and Davis 1965 made the distinction, but after briefly discussing action explanations at the beginning of their seminal publication they devoted the remainder of their chapter to an analysis of dispositional attributions. Ten years later, in Harvey, et al. 1976, Heider emphasized that attribution research had made great progress in clarifying outcome attributions, but not attribution of actions to motives (p. 14). He specifically mentioned Weiner’s work as having contributed to the understanding of outcome attribution, and a good source for this work at the time is Weiner, et al. 1987 (originally 1972). It took much longer for action attribution to regain attention in the literature (see sections on the Knowledge Structure Approach and the Folk-Conceptual Approach). A few authors introduced a similar distinction, contrasting actions with “occurrences.” Kruglanski 1975 was the first to argue that all actions have “internal” causes and that the internal-external dichotomy applies only to occurrences. Actions, by contrast, need to be separated into those that are “endogenously” caused (done for their own sake) or “exogenously” caused (done as means to another end). The latter terminological distinction did not have much impact on attribution theory, perhaps because it was already covered by the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (e.g., Lepper, et al. 1973). The more general action-occurrence distinction was studied by a few researchers, such as Zuckerman and Evans 1984, who examined different covariation processing for the two types of events. Eventually the distinction was superseded by the distinction between intentional and unintentional events.

                                                                                                                                • Harvey, John H., William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd. 1976. A conversation with Fritz Heider. In New directions in attribution research. Vol. 1. Edited by John H. Harvey, William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd, 3–21. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                                                                                                  An intriguing and highly readable document of Heider’s ideas and reconsiderations of attribution and social perception, clarifying some points left unclear in his book. Importantly, Heider draws a clear distinction between outcome attribution (success and failure) and attribution of actions to motives.

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                                                                                                                                  • Jones, Edward E., and Keith E. Davis. 1965. From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 2. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 219–266. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                                                                                    The first few pages promise a model of how people explain intentional actions. Then the authors shift into an analysis of conditions under which perceivers attribute dispositions (stable traits, attitudes) to others. These two sets of questions are never reconciled.

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                                                                                                                                    • Kruglanski, Arie H. 1975. The endogenous-exogenous partition in attribution theory. Psychological Review 82:387–406.

                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.82.6.387Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                      Argues on logical grounds that the internal-external dichotomy applies only to occurrences (e.g., emotions, achievement outcomes), not to actions, which always have “internal” causes. Actions should therefore be separated into those that are “endogenously” caused (done for their own sake) or “exogenously” caused (done as means to another end).

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                                                                                                                                      • Lepper, Mark R., David Greene, and Richard E. Nisbett. 1973. Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the ‘overjustification’ hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28:129–137.

                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1037/h0035519Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                        With preschool children as participants, shows that intrinsic motivation to engage in an activity (e.g., drawing) can be undermined when the child is encouraged to engage in the activity as a means to an extrinsic reward (e.g., a gold star). Suggests that children attribute their behavior to intrinsic or extrinsic motives.

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                                                                                                                                        • Weiner, Bernard, Irene Frieze, and Andy Kukla, et al. 1987. Perceiving the causes of success and failure. In Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. Edited by Edward E. Jones, David E. Kanouse, Harold H. Kelley, Richard E. Nisbett, Stuart Valins, and Bernard Weiner, 95–120. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                                                                                                          Analyzes the causal perceptions underlying both achievement motivation (after one’s own success and failure) and achievement evaluations (after others’ success and failure). Emphasizes that perceived causes differ both along the well-known internal-external dimension and along a stable-unstable dimension, resulting in four main causes of success and failure: effort, ability, luck, and task difficulty. Originally published 1972.

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                                                                                                                                          • Zuckerman, Miron, and Scott Evans. 1984. Schematic approach to the attributional processing of actions and occurrences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47:469–478.

                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.47.3.469Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                            Distinguishes between actions and occurrences (e.g., accomplishments, emotions, reactions) and shows that people respond more easily to covariation information of the “consensus” type with regard to occurrences and to covariation information of the “distinctiveness” type with regard to actions. Eventually equates occurrences with unintentional events.

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                                                                                                                                            Extensions and Alternatives

                                                                                                                                            In the 1980s, criticism of the orthodox theory of causal attribution began to mount. Researchers recognized that both the covariation model and the causal schema model had serious shortcomings and that widely accepted assumptions about the kinds of events people explain and the kinds of causes they consider may be incorrect. This section introduces three lines of attack, one on the assumption of explanations as purely cognitive processes (Attribution as Communication), the second on the assumed abstractness of people’s causal representations (Knowledge Structure Approach), and the last on the very conceptual foundations of attribution as a selection of internal versus external causes of events (Folk-Conceptual Approach). The dispositional attribution approach has received less criticism, in part because its topic and conceptual framework is narrower; the criticism that did emerge is described in Limitations of Trait Inference Models.

                                                                                                                                            Attribution as Communication

                                                                                                                                            Heider examined the concepts of commonsense psychology in their everyday social interaction contexts because he was convinced that tools of social perception help people accomplish their goals in social communication and interaction. However, until the early 1980s, no research had actually addressed the specific constraints that conversational context puts on attributions. Coming from the sociological tradition of discourse analysis, Antaki 1981 was one of the first to consider explanations in the context of interaction. That same year, Kidd and Amabile 1981 offered a more informal and entertaining analysis of communicative process between the person who asks “why” and the person who tries to answer the question with a satisfactory explanation. Turnbull and Slugoski 1988 lays out the central issues in the study of explanations in conversation, and Hilton 1990 provides an in-depth analysis of the principles of conversation and how they apply to explanations. Slugoski, et al. 1993 delivers an empirical demonstration of how explanations change as a function of what the speaker assumes the listener already knows or does not know. And McGill 1989 offers a set of elegant studies that show the confluence of conversational demands and the cognitive comparison processes that ensue. Like Hilton 1990, Antaki 1994 characterizes attributions as communicative acts that obey the rules of conversation, but Antaki also focuses on their impression-management purposes (e.g., to appear rational or fend off blame). The insight that explanations are subject to conversational processes was a minor revolution, because it pulled attributions out of their cognitive rabbit hole and highlighted the fundamentally social nature of explanations.

                                                                                                                                            • Antaki, Charles. 1994. Explaining and arguing: The social organization of accounts. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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                                                                                                                                              Goes beyond traditional cognitive attribution research by highlighting the language in which attributions are expressed and the communicative and interpersonal functions that attributions serve (e.g., for exoneration, making claims, and debating). Explanations are treated as interactive, communicative processes between speakers and listeners.

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                                                                                                                                              • Antaki, Charles, ed. 1981. The psychology of ordinary explanations of social behaviour. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                                                                                                Critical of the entirely cognitive analysis of explanations at the time, the authors of this volume encourage the study of explanations in social interaction rather than merely in laboratory situations. Several chapters analyze the impact of language on explanations and the strategic communicative use of explanations.

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                                                                                                                                                • Hilton, Denis J. 1990. Conversational processes and causal explanation. Psychological Bulletin 107:65–81.

                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.107.1.65Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                  A thorough and insightful analysis of the fundamental logic of conversation and the empirical research examining this logic. Applies general conversational principles to the social use of explanations and also reconsiders well-known attribution principles of covariation and causal schemas.

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                                                                                                                                                  • Kidd, Robert F., and Teresa M. Amabile. 1981. Causal explanations in social interaction: Some dialogues on dialogue. In New directions in attribution research. Vol. 3. Edited by John H. Harvey, William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd, 307–328. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                                                                                                                    An entertaining and illuminating call for the study of attributions in conversation. Authors shed light on the interaction process between the person who asks “why” and the person who answers with offering an explanation. The answerer is cognizant of the asker’s expectations, background knowledge, and the conversants’ relationship.

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                                                                                                                                                    • McGill, Ann L. 1989. Context effects in judgments of causation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57:189–200.

                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.57.2.189Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                      Shows that several factors influencing people’s attributions (e.g., covariation information, actor-observer role) operate through the explainer’s selection of the causal background against which a given event is being explained: For example, “Why did you choose X in particular?” versus “Why did you in particular choose X?”

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                                                                                                                                                      • Slugoski, Ben R., Mansur Lalljee, Roger Lamb, and Gerald P. Ginsburg. 1993. Attribution in conversational context: Effect of mutual knowledge on explanation-giving. European Journal of Social Psychology 23:219–238.

                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2420230302Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                        A direct empirical demonstration of “audience design” in attribution—the speaker’s shaping of an explanation in light of what the audience does or does not already know. Authors also highlight the fact that explanations typically focus on what is “abnormal” about the event in question.

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                                                                                                                                                        • Turnbull, William, and Ben R. Slugoski. 1988. Conversational and linguistic processes in causal attribution. In Contemporary science and natural explanation. Edited by D. J. Hilton, 66–93. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

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                                                                                                                                                          Discusses the central issues in the study of explanations in conversation. In particular, conversations demand that partners take the other’s perspective into account and create mutual knowledge. Reports convincing research on the effects of presupposed knowledge, later published in Slugoski, et al. 1993.

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                                                                                                                                                          Knowledge Structure Approach

                                                                                                                                                          Kelley 1987 recognized that people do not often perform a covariation analysis over an effect and its causes because people rarely encounter repeated instances of the relevant cause-effect pairings. Instead, they often need to identify a cause for a single novel event, and Kelley postulated that in this case people use “causal schemas.” These schemas were highly abstract and content-free (e.g., categorizing an event as one with multiple necessary or multiple sufficient causes). A number of researchers concurred with Kelley on the importance of schemas and scripts, but they recognized that such knowledge structures need to contain concrete information about events in the world. Schank and Abelson 1977, in a book cited over eight thousand times, offered a systematic (and partly formal) analysis of the nature and elements of knowledge structures—for example, all the elements that are expected to be part of a going-to-a-restaurant script. Lalljee and Abelson 1983 applies this perspective to attribution topics and argued that the primary events that social perceivers are concerned with are actions (which they distinguished from outcomes; see Attributions of Actions versus Outcomes); moreover, in explaining actions, people search for the agent’s motives and goals, core elements of real-world action scripts. Other researchers examined in further detail the critical role of goals in trait inference (Read 1987), behavior explanations (McClure and Hilton 1997), and moral judgment (Reeder, et al. 2002). McClure 2002 provides a thorough review of this literature. Hilton and Slugoski 1986 takes the knowledge structure approach in a slightly different direction. They tried to improve on the covariation model of causal attribution (see Attribution as Explanation) by emphasizing how knowledge and norms about the event to be explained define the contrast against which the event is assessed. The cause that is most “abnormal” in this assessment (e.g., unusual agent or unusual context) is favored as explaining the event.

                                                                                                                                                          • Hilton, Denis J., and B. R. Slugoski. 1986. Knowledge-based causal attribution: The abnormal conditions focus model. Psychological Review 93:75–88.

                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.93.1.75Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                            Presents a model of explanation in which to-be-explained events are compared to contrast cases, identified by the norms and knowledge invoked by the event. Attempts to improve on the covariation model by showing how such contrastive knowledge structures select the most useful covarying information.

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                                                                                                                                                            • Lalljee, Mansur, and Robert P. Abelson. 1983. The organization of explanations. In Attribution theory: Social and functional extensions. Edited by Miles Hewstone, 65–80. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

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                                                                                                                                                              Critiquing mainstream attribution theory on several fronts, authors highlight the importance of people’s action explanations by means of goals and the critical activation of knowledge structures (e.g., scripts) in doing so. Also tie this approach to the conversational context for explanations.

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                                                                                                                                                              • McClure, John. 2002. Goal-based explanations of actions and outcomes. In European review of social psychology. Vol. 12. Edited by W. Stroebe and Miles Hewstone, 201–235. New York: Wiley.

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                                                                                                                                                                Examines the theoretical approaches that account for goal explanations and reviews the empirical research on the topic. Also attempts an integration of models of goal-based explanations and folk-conceptual models, on the one hand, and the covariation tradition, on the other.

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                                                                                                                                                                • McClure, John, and Denis J. Hilton. 1997. For you can’t always get what you want: When preconditions are better explanations than goals. British Journal of Social Psychology 36:223–240.

                                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.1997.tb01129.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                  Demonstrates the difference between explanations that refer to goals and explanations that refer to preconditions (factors necessary for the action to occur). Goals were judged to be better explanations than preconditions for most actions except for those that were difficult and occurred despite obstacles.

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                                                                                                                                                                  • Read, Stephen J. 1987. Constructing causal scenarios: A knowledge structure approach to causal reasoning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52:288–302.

                                                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.52.2.288Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                    Theoretical article introducing a model of how people use knowledge structures such as scripts and plans to connect sequences of actions and to explain them within a coherent “story.” Draws heavily on Schank and Abelson 1977 and sketches how classic attribution theories may be subsumed under the story model.

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                                                                                                                                                                    • Reeder, Glenn D., Shamala Kumar, Matthew S. Hesson-McInnis, and David Trafimow. 2002. Inferences about the morality of an aggressor: The role of perceived motive. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83:789–803.

                                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.83.4.789Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                      Argues that social perceivers put considerable weight on the agent’s apparent motives when they make trait inferences and moral judgments. Presents studies showing the strong influence of motives (compared to, for example, situational factors).

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                                                                                                                                                                      • Schank, Roger C., and Robert P. Abelson. 1977. Scripts, plans, goals, and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                                                                                                                                        Characterizes the understanding of human actions as an application of knowledge structures (memory networks organized around goals and plans in particular contexts). Also analyzes the nature and specific elements of such knowledge structures—for example, all the elements that are expected to be part of a going-to-a-restaurant script.

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                                                                                                                                                                        Folk-Conceptual Approach

                                                                                                                                                                        When Heider 1983 (originally 1958, cited under Classics) set the foundation for attribution theory, he tried to identify the system of concepts that ordinary people use to understand human behavior—their commonsense (or folk) psychology. He suggested that people fundamentally distinguish between intentional actions and all other events. People further assume that intentional actions are mediated by the unique state of intention, which turns goals and desires into manifest behavior, and perceivers explain such intentional actions by reference to reasons. Heider did not elaborate on exactly how reasons explain actions. Subsequent attribution research followed Kelley 1967 in eschewing the intentionality distinction. Some dissenting voices insisted on the distinct attributions of actions and outcomes (see section Attributions of Actions versus Outcomes), but it was Buss 1978 that argued explicitly that ordinary people explain unintentional behaviors with causes and intentional behaviors with reasons. Buss proposed that attribution theory must be revised to incorporate these fundamentally different types of explanation. The proposal was met with negative responses from attribution researchers, well illustrated in the commentary by Harvey and Tucker 1979. Another attempt at integrating reasons into attribution theory can be found in Locke and Pennington 1982, but mainstream research remained unaffected by this contribution. Meanwhile, the field of cognitive development thoroughly documented how children’s “theory of mind” (another term for “commonsense psychology”) helps children grasp human behavior. Central to this developing framework is the distinction between unintentional and intentional behavior and the role of beliefs and desires as explanations for action. Bartsch and Wellman 1989 discusses belief and desire explanations in children; Wertz and German 2007 demonstrates their automatic activation in adults. Malle 1999 picked up these threads—Heider’s original model, the demand to incorporate reasons into attribution theory, and the progress made in developmental psychology—and offered an empirically supported theory of explanation that recognizes people’s own “folk concepts” of behavior and derives distinct types of explanations from them. According to the theory, people explain unintentional behaviors with causes and intentional behaviors with three distinct types of explanation: primarily reason explanations, sometimes causal history explanations (causal background contributing to the actor’s reasons), and occasionally enabling factors (preconditions cited for difficult and rare actions). The theory further specifies the social and cognitive conditions that govern people’s choices among these explanations. An updated and extended version of the theory, along with accumulated evidence, can be found in Malle 2011. A related folk-conceptual model that examines people’s perceptions of psychiatric disorders is offered in Levy and Haslam 2005.

                                                                                                                                                                        • Bartsch, Karen, and Henry Wellman. 1989. Young children’s attribution of action to beliefs and desires. Child Development 60:946–964.

                                                                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.2307/1131035Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                          Examines whether young children, like adults, use belief-desire reasoning to explain human action. Shows in two studies that three-year-old children make competent use of both desires and beliefs when explaining actions, but they are often unable to predict the character’s action on the basis of beliefs.

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                                                                                                                                                                          • Buss, Arnold R. 1978. Causes and reasons in attribution theory: A conceptual critique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36:1311–1321.

                                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.11.1311Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                            Highlights that causes and reasons are two different species of explanation. People cite causes to explain unintentional behaviors, and they cite reasons to explain intentional behaviors. Unfortunately, the author intermingles this important conceptual distinction with the actor-observer asymmetry and does not clarify what an overall new attribution theory would look like.

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                                                                                                                                                                            • Harvey, John H., and Jalie A. Tucker. 1979. On problems with the cause-reason distinction in attribution theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:1441–1446.

                                                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.9.1441Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                              Criticizes Buss 1978 for not clarifying how to test empirically the cause-reason distinction of attributions. Rightfully points to vagueness in Buss’s treatment of intentional versus unintentional events and identifies real problems in applying this distinction to actor-observer differences. However, instead of improving the imperfect proposal, the authors eventually reject it.

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                                                                                                                                                                              • Levy, Meredith, and Nick Haslam. 2005. Lay explanations of mental disorder: A test of the folk psychiatry model. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 27:117–125.

                                                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1207/s15324834basp2702_3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                According to the folk psychiatry model, people evaluate mental illnesses along three dimensions: moral, medical, and psychological. Use of Malle 1999 and its folk explanations scheme provides evidence for this model, showing that people cite reasons to explain moralized illnesses, causal histories to explain psychologized illnesses, and causes to explain medicalized illnesses.

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                                                                                                                                                                                • Locke, Don, and Donald Pennington. 1982. Reasons and other causes: Their role in attribution processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42:212–223.

                                                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.42.2.212Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                  Uses philosophical literature to improve on Buss’s treatment of the cause-reason distinction of attributions. Partially succeeds in reconciling the internal-external distinction with the cause-reason distinction and unraveling the confusion over actor-observer differences for causes and reasons. But for unknown reasons, this excellent essay left no mark on mainstream attribution work.

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                                                                                                                                                                                  • Malle, Bertram F. 1999. How people explain behavior: A new theoretical framework. Personality and Social Psychology Review 3:23–48.

                                                                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1207/s15327957pspr0301_2Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                    The first comprehensive formulation of a folk-conceptual theory of explanation. Shows that people distinguish between explanations of unintentional behaviors (by causes) and explanations of intentional behaviors (by reasons, or causal histories, or enabling factors). Provides a detailed analysis of reasons and offers evidence for their conceptual and linguistic properties.

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                                                                                                                                                                                    • Malle, Bertram F. 2011. Time to give up the dogmas of attribution: A new theory of behavior explanation. In Advances of experimental social psychology. Vol. 44. Edited by Mark P. Zanna and James M. Olson, 297–352. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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                                                                                                                                                                                      Revises and expands a folk-conceptual theory of explanation. Reviews accumulated evidence for the theory, which identifies the conceptual and psychological conditions under which people choose different types of explanations (e.g., causes, reasons) and for what social functions the explanations are used.

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                                                                                                                                                                                      • Wertz, Annie E., and Tamsin C. German. 2007. Belief–desire reasoning in the explanation of behavior: Do actions speak louder than words? Cognition 105:184–194.

                                                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2006.08.002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                        Learning about a person’s action, adult observers appear to infer automatically both beliefs and desires as reasons for the person’s action. These inferences are driven in part by specific features of the action, such as what physical location or physical objects the person approaches.

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                                                                                                                                                                                        Core Questions of Attribution

                                                                                                                                                                                        Attribution research spawned many questions, but some have become inseparable from the topic of attribution itself. One is whether people explain their own behavior differently from the way they explain other people’s behavior (Actor-Observer Asymmetries); another is whether people construct explanations of their own behavior in such a way that they portray themselves as favorable (Self-Serving Attributions). These questions have generated interesting answers in their own right but have also raised the tension between cognitive and motivational forces in explanations. A third question that has gained strong interest in the past twenty years is whether attributions are subject to cultural variations and what aspects of attribution are—such as their cognitive and motivational underpinnings and their degree of accuracy (see Cross-Cultural Variations).

                                                                                                                                                                                        Actor-Observer Asymmetries

                                                                                                                                                                                        The 1970s saw a rapid rise in research on self-perception and self-concept, and one of the instigators of this trend was Jones and Nisbett 1987 (first published in 1972). The chapter offers anecdotes and arguments for why people’s self-perceptions should differ from their perceptions of other people. In particular, the authors introduce the famous hypothesis of an actor-observer asymmetry in attribution, suggesting that when people explain their own behavior (in the “actor” role) they refer more often to external causes (e.g., “I chose psychology as my major because it’s interesting”), but when they explain other people’s behavior (in the “observer” role) they refer more often to internal causes (e.g., “He chose psychology as his major because he wants to help people”). The first test of this hypothesis supported it (Nisbett, et al. 1973). Storms 1973 is a widely cited article that replicates the basic asymmetry and also suggests that actors’ and observers’ unique visual perspectives are responsible for the asymmetry: in the experiment, after switching people’s perspectives by video (from actor to observer and vice versa), the asymmetry disappeared. Watson 1982 reviews the first ten years of actor-observer research, with evidence seemingly confirming the hypothesis, but many studies were missing from this review. Robins, et al. 1996 finds that the actor-observer asymmetry holds inconsistently over repeated dyadic interactions. Malle 2006 presents a meta-analysis of 173 published tests since 1972 that contradicts the actor-observer hypothesis (Malle 2006). The average effect size for the predicted asymmetry was zero. Also, the highly cited finding in Storms 1973 did not replicate across five subsequent tests. Thus, it does not appear that actors and observers differ in citing internal versus external causes, either in normal circumstances or when their visual perspective is switched. One might therefore conclude that in the domain of explanations there is no asymmetry between self-perception and other-perception. However, Malle, et al. 2007 suggests that there may indeed be such a self-other (actor-observer) asymmetry, but it is not reflected in comparisons of internal versus external causes. Rather, in six new studies the researchers find strong and consistent actor-observer asymmetries in terms of distinctions provided by an alternative theoretical framework that more fully captures the nature of people’s explanations. This framework returns to Heider’s original distinction of intentional and unintentional events and the critical role of motives and reasons (see Folk-Conceptual Approach).

                                                                                                                                                                                        • Jones, Edward E., and Richard E. Nisbett. 1987. The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior. Edited by Edward E. Jones, David E. Kanouse, and Harold H. Kelley, Richard E. Nisbett, Stuart Valins, and Bernard Weiner, 79–94. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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                                                                                                                                                                                          Originally published in 1972, this is the first formulation of the actor-observer asymmetry in attribution (that actors explain their behavior more with external causes and observers explain other people’s behaviors more with internal causes). Provide anecdotes, theoretical arguments, and initial data to support this hypothesis.

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                                                                                                                                                                                          • Malle, Bertram F. 2006. The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 132:895–919.

                                                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                            Meta-analyzed the classic actor-observer hypothesis in 173 published studies. Average effect sizes were around zero, varying by estimation and scoring. Under some, mostly methodological, conditions the asymmetry held: when actor and observer were intimates, for highly idiosyncratic actors, for hypothetical events, and for free-response explanations instead of rating scales.

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                                                                                                                                                                                            • Malle, Bertram F., Joshua Knobe, and Sarah E. Nelson. 2007. Actor-observer asymmetries in explanations of behavior: New answers to an old question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93:491–514.

                                                                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.93.4.491Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                              Pits the classic actor-observer hypothesis against three very different predictions about actor-observer differences derived from the folk-conceptual theory of behavior explanation. Across six studies there was no evidence for the traditional actor-observer hypothesis but systematic support for the actor-observer asymmetries hypothesized by the folk-conceptual theory.

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                                                                                                                                                                                              • Nisbett, Richard E., Craig Caputo, Patricia Legant, and Jeanne Marecek. 1973. Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:154–164.

                                                                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1037/h0034779Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                The first published test of the actor-observer hypothesis. However, only Study 2 actually tested the hypothesis by asking people to explain choices and coding their verbal responses as referring to external or internal causes. Study 1 examined predictions of behavior and Study 3 examined the complexity of trait ascriptions.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                • Robins, Richard W., Mark D. Spranca, and Gerald A. Mendelsohn. 1996. The actor-observer effect revisited: Effects of individual differences and repeated social interactions on actor and observer attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71:375–389.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.375Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                  Finds that the actor-observer asymmetry holds for some variants of the internal-external distinction (e.g., personality, interaction partner) but not for others (situation, mood). Across successive dyadic interactions, actors increasingly emphasized the importance of their interaction partner rather than the situation in influencing their own behavior (contradicting the classic hypothesis).

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                                                                                                                                                                                                  • Storms, Michael D. 1973. Videotape and the attribution process: Reversing actors’ and observers’ points of view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:165–175.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1037/h0034782Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                    Examines whether visual perspective underlies the actor-observer asymmetry. Two interactants saw a videotape of their interaction; “switched actors” explained their behavior while watching themselves from an outside viewpoint and “switched observers” explained their partner’s behavior while watching what the partner saw during the interaction. Switching eliminated the normal asymmetry. Not consistently replicated.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                    • Watson, David. 1982. The actor and the observer: How are their perceptions of causality divergent? Psychological Bulletin 92:682–700.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.92.3.682Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Narrative review and summary of ten studies testing causal attributions by actors and observers. Finds support for the asymmetry, primarily for actors referring to more situational/external causes than observers did. Inexplicably, fails to incorporate more than thirty studies relevant to the hypothesis that, on average, did not support it.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                      Self-Serving Attributions

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Another oft-cited attribution pattern is that of “self-servingness”—a motivational bias toward explaining events in ways that serve the explainer’s self-interest or social standing and do not entirely reflect reality. Attribution theory does not specify whether specific causes are generally more self-serving; self-servingness lies in specific combinations of causes and valence. Attributing one’s positive behaviors or outcomes to internal causes and negative ones to external causes is considered self-serving. Miller and Ross 1975 provides an early review of studies purporting to show such a bias but argued that the alleged motivational patterns can be accounted for by cognitive biases or rational considerations. Bradley 1978 counters with a review of new studies that did seem to support the influence of genuine motivational processes. Over the decades, studies consistently found more external attributions to negative events and more internal attributions to positive events. Mezulis, et al. 2004 is a comprehensive meta-analysis of a slightly different pattern: that actors offer more internal/stable/global causes for positive events than for negative events. The effect was strong and highly consistent across subpopulations. But the pattern was not compared to anything, and one might argue that anybody, including observers, would see negative events to be reflective of less internal or stable or global causes. Malle 2006 meta-analyzed studies with actor-observer comparisons and found that actors endorsed internal causes for positive events and external causes for negative events more than observers did. However, even in this comparison it is difficult to determine whether self-serving attributions are necessarily inaccurate or even self-deceptive. For example, actors have more knowledge of their typical pattern of behaviors and outcomes and if these patterns are reasonably positive, actors may rightfully see a negative event as an aberration and deny “internal causation” (e.g., a desire or trait). Such considerations are lucidly analyzed by Wetzel 1982, using a Bayesian perspective on attribution. Similarly, Anderson and Slusher 1986 emphasizes that actors may strategically select particular knowledge structures in light of which they evaluate behaviors and outcomes. These actors may then form causal attributions that are unbiased given the knowledge structures but are favorable because the knowledge structures were pre-selected. Thus it may be the interpretation of events that is motivationally biased, not the causal explanations of the event thus interpreted.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      • Anderson, Craig A., and Morgan P. Slusher. 1986. Relocating motivational effects: A synthesis of cognitive and motivational effects on attributions for success and failure. Social Cognition 4:270–292.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1521/soco.1986.4.3.270Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Proposes a two-stage model of explaining events: people first select different knowledge structures to conceptualize the event and then form causal attributions about the event in light of those knowledge structures. Reports three studies in support of the model.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                        • Bradley, Gifford W. 1978. Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36:56–71.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.1.56Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                          In response to Miller and Ross 1975, reviews the literature on self-serving biases and argues for genuine motivational biases at least under circumstances of self-esteem concerns. Also suggests that self-serving motives can favor different kinds of causes under different circumstances (e.g., external causes for positive outcomes to appear modest).

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                                                                                                                                                                                                          • Malle, Bertram F. 2006. The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 132:895–919.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Presents a meta-analysis of the actor-observer hypothesis across 173 published studies. Shows average effect sizes to be around zero but points to valence as a strong moderator: For negative events, actors offer more external causes and fewer internal causes than observers do; for positive events, the reverse is true.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                            • Mezulis, Amy H., Lyn Y. Abramson, Janet S. Hyde, and Benjamin L. Hankin. 2004. Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin 130:711–747.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                              Examines 266 studies in which people provided causes for success and/or failure. Analyzes composite attributions to an “internal, stable, global” cause such as ability and finds that people consistently and strongly see negative events, compared with positive events, as being caused by less internal, stable, and global factors.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                              • Miller, Dale T., and Michael Ross. 1975. Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin 82:213–225.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1037/h0076486Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Reviews previous studies that claimed a motivational bias in people’s causal attributions. The authors conclude that people’s alleged self-serving choice of causes (e.g., external causes for one’s own failures) can be accounted for by cognitive biases and rational considerations.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                • Wetzel, Christopher G. 1982. Self-serving biases in attribution: A Bayesian analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 43:197–209.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.43.2.197Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Introduces an analysis of attributions in a Bayesian framework—a prior belief about having an attribute is updated by new evidence—a behavior that is more or less diagnostic of having the attribute. Suggests that differences in prior beliefs and diagnosticity assumptions can explain many biases, including the self-serving bias.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Cross-Cultural Variations

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The interest in the impact of culture on cognition skyrocketed in the 1990s, and attribution researchers also examined which aspects of attributions are universal and which ones are culturally variable. A pioneer was Miller 1984, who found that the use of trait concepts showed different developmental paths between East Indian and North American participants. Much subsequent cross-cultural attribution research focused on the test of well-known effects or biases among East Asian populations, such as the question whether East Asian people show the correspondence bias (Choi and Nisbett 1998, Masuda and Kitayama 2004) or the self-serving bias (Kashima and Triandis 1986). Menon, et al. 1999 ask a slightly different question—whether people from Western and Eastern cultures attribute causality more to individuals or more to groups. The results of all these studies do not yield an entirely consistent pattern, in part because different experimental paradigms suggested different conclusions (Masuda and Kitayama 2004). No cross-cultural research on explanations has so far looked at the impact of communicative processes on explanation or at explanations as knowledge structures. One recent article examines effects of explanations on the perception of abnormal behavior, using a folk-conceptual approach (Ban, et al. 2012).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  • Ban, Lauren, Yoshi Kashima, and Nick Haslam. 2012. Does understanding behavior make it seem normal? Perceptions of abnormality among Euro-Australians and Chinese-Singaporeans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 43:286–298.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1177/0022022110385233Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Understanding the psychological causes of an abnormal behavior increased the perceived normality and moral acceptability of that behavior for western Europeans but not for East Asians. Concludes that in the West abnormality is equated with irrationality; in the East it is equated with violations of social conventions, which are not ameliorated by understanding an individual’s mental states.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • Choi, Incheol, and Richard E. Nisbett. 1998. Situational salience and cultural differences in the correspondence bias and actor-observer bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24:949–960.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1177/0146167298249003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Examines the susceptibility of Korean and American participants to the attitude attribution paradigm, which is used to trigger the correspondence bias. Results are not entirely consistent as participant groups differed only when situational constraints were strongly emphasized: in that case, Koreans no longer showed the bias.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                      • Kashima, Yoshihisa, and Harry C. Triandis. 1986. The self-serving bias in attributions as a coping strategy: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 17:83–97.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1177/0022002186017001006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Find little support for a cultural difference in self-serving attributions for success and failure (on only two of eleven measures). Overall neither cultural group showed clear self-servingness, presumably because the task was unfamiliar and nobody had past experiences of success (or failure) that were violated and needed to be explained away.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • Masuda, Takahiko, and Shinobu Kitayama. 2004. Perceiver-induced constraint and attitude attribution in Japan and the US: A case for the cultural dependence of the correspondence bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40:409–416.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2003.08.004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Like Choi and Nisbett 1998, these researchers do not find a cultural group difference in the standard attitude attribution paradigm, but they find one in a more blatant setting in which the participant directly induces the situational constraint. Here, Japanese participants no longer showed the correspondence bias.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                          • Menon, Tanya, Michael W. Morris, Chi-yue Chiu, and Ying-yi Hong. 1999. Culture and the construal of agency: Attribution to individual versus group dispositions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76.5 (May): 701–717.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.76.5.701Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            On the basis of newspaper analyses and laboratory vignette studies, authors showed that when a complex event allowed causal ascriptions both to individuals and to groups, Asian participants were more inclined than North American participants to see groups as having substantial causal impact.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                            • Miller, Joan G. 1984. Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46.5 (May): 961–978.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.46.5.961Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Assesses dispositional versus situational explanations for deviant and prosocial behaviors. Participants were children (eight, eleven, and fifteen years old) and adults in India and the United States. Among children, no cultural differences in explanations emerged. Only among adults did US participants offer more dispositional and fewer situational explanations.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Traditions in Other Sciences

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Research on attributions has often been isolated from the study of explanations in other areas of psychology and in other disciplines. Below is a short selection of relevant work that complements and expands social psychological approaches to attribution phenomena. Some of the most sophisticated thinking about explanations and especially action explanation has been developed within the philosophy of action tradition. A good collection of recent contributions can be found in Sandis 2009. Most essays focus on reason explanations for intentional actions. Crossing philosophy and the cognitive sciences, Hutto 2007 discusses various approaches to understanding folk psychology and highlighted the social practice, and not just cognitive process, of explaining actions by way of reasons. Gopnik 1998 characterizes explanations as a state of satisfaction that rewards human “theory formation,” the developmental refinement of conceptual structures in the service of understanding the physical and social world. Keil 2006 provides an overview of work on explanations in cognitive psychology and related fields, but with a focus on causal explanations of the physical world, not the social world. Lombrozo 2010 begins to bridge this divide by comparing people’s physical explanations with their “teleological” explanations, in which they cite functions and goals. Sloman 2005 is a readable introduction to the theory and research on causal models—a formal approach to capture people’s representations of causal structure. Wellman 2011 calls for a deeper exploration of explanations in developmental psychology, beyond what has already been done within the theory of mind tradition, and integrating other fields and disciplines.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              • Gopnik, Alison. 1998. Explanation as orgasm. Minds and Machines 8:101–118.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1023/A:1008290415597Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Argues that the experience of satisfaction people achieve when explaining events is to human conceptual development as orgasm is to reproduction: it is the reward that motivates the ultimate pursuit. Author characterizes conceptual development as “theory formation,” the successive sharpening of conceptual structures to understand the physical and social world.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                • Hutto, Daniel D. 2007. The narrative practice hypothesis: Origins and applications of folk psychology. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 60:43–68.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1017/S1358246107000033Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Proposes that explanations are not a fundamental (and developmentally early) cognitive ability but rather develop as a result of narrative practice, primarily through hearing “stories” from others for why they acted a certain way. A highly contentious argument that does, however, provide a tight connection between explanations as social and as cognitive.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  • Keil, Frank C. 2006. Explanation and understanding. Annual Review of Psychology 57:227–254.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190100Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Comprehensive review with a great deal of information about the nature of explanations, their functions, development, cultural differences, and criteria of what makes explanations satisfactory. Highlights that explainers often have only a coarse understanding of the world and rely on the expertise of others.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    • Lombrozo, Tania. 2010. Causal–explanatory pluralism: How intentions, functions, and mechanisms influence causal ascriptions. Cognitive Psychology 61:303–332.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Argues that people explain the world from two different perspectives: teleological (citing functions or goals) and mechanistic (citing causal mechanisms). Two studies show that a teleological perspective makes people sensitive to counterfactual dependence between cause and effect, while a mechanistic perspective creates sensitivity to physical connections between cause and effect.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      • Sandis, Constantine, ed. 2009. New essays on the explanation of action. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        A rich collection of insightful philosophical essays on the role of reasons in action explanation. The reader would benefit from some background in philosophy, but many of the contributions can stand on their own and provide an enticing introduction into the topics and arguments of the philosophy of action.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        • Sloman, Steven A. 2005. Causal models: How people think about the world and its alternatives. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Introduces Bayesian networks without heavy formalism. Shows how those networks can model how people represent the causal structure of the world and how they adjust those representations in light of new evidence—especially evidence generated by people’s own active interventions in the world.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          • Wellman, Henry M. 2011. Reinvigorating explanations for the study of early cognitive development. Child Development Perspectives 5:33–38.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2010.00154.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Calls for continued and broadened research into the role of explanations in development, beyond that of extant theory of mind research. Children appear to find explanations natural, easy, and highly useful, so they provide a promising vehicle for teaching and learning.

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