Attributions are causal explanations used to explain the behavior of oneself or others. The study of attributions began in the field of social psychology. Fritz Heider, the “father” of attribution theory, first proposed that people are naive scientists who try to work out the causes of outcomes for themselves and other people (Heider 1958). For example, people can attribute outcomes to ability, effort, or luck. Attribution theory has made a significant contribution to the management literature over the last fifty years. During this time, attribution theory has been applied to many organizational phenomena, such as leadership, teamwork, performance appraisals and impression management, ethical issues, and others as summarized in this article. First, some basic definitions and terminology used throughout this chapter are discussed. Attributions are perceptions regarding the causes of outcomes that impact an observer in a meaningful way. In a workplace context, these outcomes can take numerous forms, such as being given a positive or negative performance review, missing deadlines, receiving a promotion, or being terminated from a job. These are often called “trigger events” in that they trigger the cognitive processes that produce attributions, but they are also commonly referred to in the literature as positive/negative outcomes, or as successes and failures. Attributions are not always accurate and objective. Instead, they often reflect attributional biases, which are relatively stable patterns of distortion that favor specific attributions for different types of outcomes. These are discussed in greater detail in Attributional Biases. The term “attribution style” is also used to refer to stable attributional tendencies, often interchangeably with “attributional bias.” Attribution styles tend to be more global in their influence than biases are, which are often triggered by specific types of outcomes; however, both are relatively predictable within-person sources of attributional distortion.
History of Attribution Theory
This section summarizes key contributions from the beginnings of attribution theory research in the 1950s through about the mid-1980s when the pace of attributional research in the management field began to slow. First to be discussed is the coining of the oft-repeated phrase “naive psychologist” by Heider 1958, followed by a summary of the foundational articles by Jones and Davis 1965, Kelley 1967, Kelley 1973, Weiner 1985a, Weiner 1985b, and Weiner 1986, which established attribution theory as a viable conceptual lens and laid the foundation for the subsequent decades of research. Next, a summary of critiques by Mitchell 1982 and Lord and Smith 1983 are included, which caused attributional scholars to take stock and reconsider some of their logic, assumptions, and boundary conditions. Finally, the synergy of the Kelley and Weiner attributional perspectives by Martinko and Thomson 1998 is summarized.
Heider, F. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley, 1958.
This book marks the birth of attribution theory, a commonsense theory based on the idea that people are “naive psychologists.” Heider explains that people tend to interpret and explain their own behavior and the behavior of others by assigning attributes to behaviors.
Jones, E. E., and K. E. Davis. “From Acts to Dispositions: The Attribution Process in Person Perception.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 2 (1965): 219–266.
This article discusses the identification and development of several key attributional constructs and tenets. The authors make the distinction between dispositional attributions and attributions of intent. Another important contribution by the authors is identifying that an observed outcome should be personally relevant in order to trigger attributional processes.
Kelley, H. H. “Attribution Theory in Social Psychology.” In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Vol. 15. Edited by D. Levine, 192–238. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
One of the seminal and most frequently cited articles from the early days of attributional research. This chapter introduces Kelley’s covariation model (“Kelley’s Cube”), focusing on the way in which causal information is interpreted by observers into attributional perceptions. The causal dimensions of consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness are introduced.
Kelley, H. H. “The Processes of Causal Attribution.” American Psychologist 28.2 (1973): 107–128.
This article reviews Kelley’s covariation model (Kelley 1967) while incorporating some of his slightly later research. The article is significant for providing one of the early discussions on the significance of attributional errors and inaccuracies.
Lord, R. G., and J. E. Smith. “Theoretical, Information Processing, and Situational Factors Affecting Attribution Theory Models of Organizational Behavior.” Academy of Management Review 8 (1983): 50–60.
This article identifies a number of ways in which the study of attributions had been overly simplistic and restrictive at the time. The authors argue that attributional processes are likely to take different forms in different situations, particularly in terms of cognitive processing levels applied to the formation of attributions.
Martinko, M. J., and N. F. Thomson. “A Synthesis and Extension of the Weiner and Kelley Attribution Models.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 20 (1998): 271–284.
The authors synthesize the two major attributional frameworks: Kelley’s covariation model and Weiner’s achievement-motivation framework. They map each combination of consistency, consensus, and distinctiveness information with the attributional dimensions of locus, stability, and globality. In doing so, they link the “front end” with the “back end” of the attribution process.
Mitchell, T. R. “Attributions and Actions: A Note of Caution.” Journal of Management 8 (1982): 65–74.
This article provides a critique, calling into question the explanatory power of attributions. It has been argued that its publication was directly responsible for a decline in attributional research in the field of management. The author argues that workplace behavior could be understood more effectively by focusing on contextual factors.
Weiner, B. “An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion.” Psychological Review 92 (1985a): 548–573.
Along with Kelley 1967, this article is one of the seminal and most highly cited works of the early attribution theory era. Weiner presents his achievement-motivation perspective, which links attributional dimensions with discrete emotions and behavioral reactions.
Weiner, B. “‘Spontaneous’ Causal Thinking.” Psychological Bulletin 97 (1985b): 74–84.
In response to earlier criticisms, Weiner provides evidence of attributional activity in response to trigger events that are unexpected and/or unfavorable to the perceiver. He concludes that attributional perceptions are indisputably present and argues that researchers should not debate whether attributions matter but rather under which conditions they matter.
Weiner, B. An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986.
This book provides one of the first comprehensive overviews of attribution theory. The author describes a conceptual framework that uses attribution theory to help predict emotions and behavioral motivation. The logic draws heavily on the framework presented in Weiner 1985a. The book also provides information about the measurement of attributions.
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