If there is one thing that I’ve learned from studying psychology, it’s that people are fascinated by it. All of us want to know a little bit more about why people do the things they do. We want to be able to explain the behaviors of our friends, family, partners, and colleagues.
In fact, we already try to explain human behavior, without thinking that we are doing so. Have you ever tried to analyze the behavior of the guy that your friend is dating? Or maybe you saw someone running in public and thought, “He must be running from the police.” Maybe your colleague is acting strange, and you think, “They are hiding something from me.”
Humans are meaning-making creatures. And while psychologists attempt to understand and explain behavior, they are also attempting to understand how humans attempt to understand and explain behavior. This process is called attribution. The ways that people explain behavior, and the mistakes they make while doing so, may be just as insightful as the actual explanations for behavior.
History of Attribution Theory
Attribution was first brought into the world of psychology in the early 20th century by Gestalt psychologist Fritz Heider. Although he did not dive too deep into the process of attribution, he did define two types of attribution that are still commonly discussed in attribution theory today: Dispositional vs. Situational Attribution.
Dispositional Attribution, or Internal Attribution, occurs when you believe that a person’s behavior is driven by internal factors. For example, a person may cry on the subway because they are emotionally unstable or they cry easily.
Situational Attribution, or External Attribution, occurs when you believe that a person’s behavior is driven by external factors. Maybe you see this same person crying on the subway, but you assume that their behavior might be due to an external situation. Maybe they saw something traumatic on the subway. Or they just got broken up with by the person sitting next to them on the subway.
Either process could give you the “right” answer, but attribution focuses more on how people come to these conclusions. For example, theories on actor-observer bias suggest that we are more likely to use internal or external attribution depending on whether we are the person performing a behavior or whether we are observing it.
Correspondent Inference Theory
Some attribution theories focus specifically on dispositional attribution. Take, for example, Jones and Davis’ Correspondent Inference Theory (1965.) Jones and Davis believed that we are more likely to use internal attribution under specific circumstances. If a person acted freely and intentionally, we may be more likely to attribute their actions to their character.
Other factors that lead us to make internal attributions include:
- If the behavior is particularly unusual
- If the behavior is directed at a person
- If the behavior may directly harm or help another person
Let’s say you are walking down the street and hear someone harassing you. It’s not a usual behavior and it is directed at you. You believe that street harassment is done to negatively get a reaction out of people. You are more likely to attribute that behavior to the harasser’s character, rather than some external stimuli that is driving their behavior.
Kelley's Covariation Model
But attribution theory does not stop with Correspondent Inference Theory. In 1973, Harold Kelley created a model that is arguably one of the most well-known attribution theories. Kelly’s Covariation Model suggests that we use three factors to determine if we choose internal or external attribution.
Let’s say you’re at a dinner party and your friend orders very expensive champagne during a night out with other friends. Is this because they prefer the finer things in life, or because external factors are motivating them to do so?
Kelley suggests that you might use these factors to figure out the answer:
- Consensus: This is how everyone else is behaving in the same situation. You may look at what everyone else is ordering. If everyone at the table is ordering expensive drinks and caviar, consensus is high. If everyone is sticking to appetizers and cheap beers, consensus is low.
- Distinctiveness: This is how your friend behaves in similar situations. Let’s say your friend always orders the fanciest item on the menu or buys the most expensive clothes in the mall. If they do, distinctiveness is low. If they like to save their money, buy from thrift stores, or choose restaurants with cheap prices, distinctiveness is high.
- Consistency: This is how your friend behaves every time this situation occurs. Maybe your friend always likes to buy very expensive champagne when you’re out with this particular group of friends, at this particular restaurant. If so, consistency is high. If this is the first time your friend has chosen to buy drinks for this group of friends, consistency is low.
If you find that your friend’s behavior is on the “low” side of the spectrum, you are more likely to attribute that behavior to your friend’s personality. They are just a flashy guy that values the finer things in life. But if your friend’s behavior is on the “high” side of the spectrum, you are more likely to attribute that behavior to external stimuli. Maybe your friend feels as though they made a bad impression on this group of friends, and they want to make up for it. Maybe your friend got a raise. Maybe they were hurt by some bad news and want to make the evening special.
Of course, we can’t always use this model with strangers. If a stranger orders very expensive champagne, you can’t just look at every single purchase they’ve made with everyone in their dinner party. In these cases, Kelley suggests that we look to past experiences and attribute necessary and sufficient causes to the person’s behavior. You might look at the stranger’s fancy suit and assume that he is just a high roller.