Situational Attribution (Definition + Examples)

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Do you use situational attribution to make judgements? You might not know, and that's okay. This page is here to help. The distinction between situational attribution and dispositional attribution is important to understand because it could make a huge difference in the way that you reflect, and possibly change, your judgments about others.

What Is Situational Attribution?

Situational attribution is the process of attributing someone’s behavior to external factors. These external factors could be as specific as the traffic on the road to as broad as a global pandemic. When you use situational attribution, you "blame" the world at large rather than the person exhibiting the behavior. 

Situational attribution is often confused with dispositional attribution, which in many ways is the opposite process.

What Is the Difference Between Dispositional Attribution and Situational Attribution?

Dispositional attribution takes place when you attribute someone’s actions to their character or personality. At first glance, this seems like an obvious choice. If someone shows up to an interview in unprofessional attire, they’re probably unprofessional, right? If someone shows up late, they’re unprofessional, right?

Not always, but this attribution is often the easiest to accept. Our brains do not like to do a lot of work. They are constantly making meaning out of events, actions, and behaviors. If the brain can find an easy explanation for someone’s behavior or conduct, they will accept it. It’s not just your brain or my brain, either.

Studies show that individualist societies are more prone to dispositional attribution. Individualist societies, like those in the West, are more likely to teach people that each individual is responsible for their own actions. These beliefs confirm the idea that a person’s character is directly linked to their behavior.

We have all witnessed or even displayed behaviors that speak directly to someone’s, or our own, character. But does someone’s character explain all behavior? Do we have to use dispositional attribution when making a judgement call?

Example of Dispositional Attribution

Let’s say you are the hiring manager at a small business. You have narrowed your interview pool down to a handful of candidates. The first candidate comes into your office wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Are you going to hire them?

If you said no, you’re not alone. 71% of hiring professionals throughout the country said they would not hire someone who “missed the dress code memo.” Of course, not every business these days has the same dress code - but if a candidate doesn’t fit the style, professionals are likely to believe they don’t fit in the company.

Is this fair? Is this right? Not everyone will have the same opinion. That hiring professional may feel that style is a dealbreaker because they used dispositional attribution to make judgements. This type of attribution may lead to an error in judgement about a person, group, or whole population. Understanding and being aware of situational attribution can help you, a hiring professional, or anyone make a more fair and just assessment of another person’s behavior.

Example of Situational Attribution

There are a million reasons why someone could be late to an interview or wearing the wrong clothes, right? Maybe their bus was late or their kids were being fussy at home or they pulled over to save someone’s life on the way to the interview. If the hiring professional relies on situational attribution, rather than dispositional attribution, they are likely to respond very differently to someone’s lateness, manner of dress, or other actions.

Situational Attribution Can Prevent Divorce

You read that right! In an article titled "The Strain the Covid Pandemic Is Putting On Marriages," experts say that situational attribution can help couples stay together. ""When your spouse does something that upsets you, it’s easy to veer into blaming it on some character flaw. That is not a good sign,” she says. Couples that tend to see “situational attribution,” she says, do better. “If I have the mentality that this is because of the situation and not my partner, that should be beneficial.”"

Read the full article and a discussion about the article on the adultery subreddit!

Actor-Observer Bias

When do we tend to lean toward situational attribution vs. dispositional attribution? The answer depends on who is conducting the behavior. The actor-observer bias explains that when we are the observer of a behavior, we tend to lean toward dispositional attribution. When we are reflecting as the actor of a behavior, we give ourselves some slack and use situational attribution. Situational attribution is much easier to use as the actor, because we (for the most part) understand the situation and the context that led to our behavior.

Put yourself in the shoes of the interviewee. If you walk into the office in jeans and t-shirt, your explanation for your attire may be very different from the hiring professional’s assessment of your character. After all, there could be many different explanations for your choice to wear jeans and a t-shirt:

  • You recently suffered a financial hardship and cannot afford a nice suit
  • You have spent the past 10 years working in an industry that accepted jeans and a t-shirt at work, and believed this company to have the same vibe
  • All of your suits were recently destroyed because your home flooded
  • At the last minute, you spilled coffee on your suit and your only extra set of clothes was this pair of jeans and a t-shirt
  • You just moved across the country and your suits are in a box
  • Someone that you trust told you that wearing jeans and a t-shirt was a bold move, and that it would stand out (in a good way) to interviewers
  • This outfit is your “lucky outfit”

Sure, some of these reasons seem silly. But they are all entirely possible, and have nothing to do with one’s “character.” A person could think jeans and a t-shirt is a lucky outfit and still be qualified to do the job at hand. For the person experiencing financial hardship, this t-shirt and jeans shows their dedication to getting the job, not laziness or apathy. The reason why someone shows up to a job interview late or in the “wrong” outfit may have nothing to do with their character or ability to complete the responsibilities of a specific job position. But dispositional attribution gets in the way.

In fact, you could argue that many “dealbreakers” are the result of dispositional attribution. Touching your phone during an interview, “appearing arrogant,” bad hygiene, or not having authorization to work in the country are all dealbreakers. Do these actions speak directly to a person’s character and ability to do a job, or are interviewers just relying on dispositional attribution?

We Look to Confirm Our Assessment

Once we have made a decision about someone’s character through dispositional attribution, we go one step further: we continue to look for evidence that confirms our assessment. If you believe that someone is unprofessional based on their dress, you will be more likely to take notice of their slouch, the times they stumble over their words, or other “unprofessional” behaviors. If you believe that someone is a positive person because of one behavior, you are more likely to take note of other positive behaviors. (This is also known as “The Halo Effect.”)

This again, is the brain taking the easy route. Our minds do not like to hold opposing thoughts - this is a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. If you hold the belief that someone is lazy, your brain will steer away from evidence or meanings that suggest the opposite. If you hold the belief that someone is the smartest person in the world, your brain will make excuses for them (or justify their actions) if they prove to be otherwise.

Be Mindful of Your Attribution

Attribution bias, actor-observer bias, and dispositional attribution can do more than just influence one judgement - it can influence a whole string of judgements about a person or even a whole group of people.

In an individualist society, we tend to lean on dispositional attribution. When we are the observer of someone else’s actions, we tend to lean on dispositional attribution. This bias transcends beyond intelligence, education, political party, race, sex. And the consequences aren’t just unfair. They can be downright dangerous. When we attribute all votes for Trump to a lack of intelligence or all votes for Biden to a heightened sensitivity, we fail to grasp the larger motives and context behind each individual’s actions.

What can you do about this? How can you make more fair judgements about people, the way you would want people to make fair judgements about you?

Consider Biases and Attribution

You’ve already completed the first step. You’re aware of situational attribution. You know that in an individualist society, you tend to attribute someone’s behavior to their character, even when you attribute your own behaviors to external factors. As you continue to make judgements, be more mindful of what type of attribution you are using to explain someone’s behavior. Is the woman in line a rude person, or are they just having a bad day? Is your mother-in-law out to get you, or has she had bad experiences with their child’s previous partners? Is someone complaining for no reason, or have they experienced things that you have not due to their age, race, sex, or religion?

There is an infinite amount of internal and external factors that could contribute to someone’s beliefs, behaviors, or actions. Understanding situational attribution, and acknowledging that you may not default to external factors when making a judgement, may just prevent you from letting your bias steer you in the wrong direction.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, November). Situational Attribution (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from

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