In detail

Theories and attribution errors: who do we blame?

Theories and attribution errors: who do we blame?

An attribution is a cognitive activity that involves giving a causal explanation to an observed behavior.

It is an explanation of the "why" that person has performed that particular behavior. It is a very individual and circumstantial process (of the state of the observer, of the characteristics of the situation, of the relationship with which he has performed the behavior ...). When we make attributions of our behavior, we talk about self-attribution

Attribution is a very fast process and is the cognitive activity that we do most throughout the day (It is very complex). further we behave based on attribution or explanation made.

Attributing means that person A explains why B does a certain behavior and A will behave based on the attribution made. The explanation given by A may not be the reason that prompted B to execute the behavior.


  • 1 Theory of naive action analysis
  • 2 Theory of the corresponding inference
  • 3 Covariance theory
  • 4 Errors or attributions bias

Theory of naive action analysis

Heider, In the 50s, I worked with "common sense", defined as a collective thought of what seems obvious. He found that in this thought, one of the axes were the causal explanations, the attributions.

He defined two types of attributions:

  • Internal Attributions: The cause of the behavior is in the individual himself. They can also be called dispositional or personal factors.
  • External Attributions: The cause is outside the individual, in the environment. They can also be called environmental or environmental factors.

In the social relationships, the behaviors are also determined by the attribution made.

For example: Before a child who forgets to do his homework, his mother can explain:

  • My son is very clueless: Internal
  • At school they don't tell you to write them down: External

We must always keep in mind that lAttribution may be erroneous and the attributions made must be verified. In the professional field, with the person himself, through test… In the personal field, it can cause misinterpretations and deteriorate relationships.

Informative elements that we use to decide whether it is internal or external:

  1. If we think the person has the capacity of doing and avoiding that behavior
  2. If we believe it has the motives (the intention) of wanting to do it

In the event that the answers to the two questions were yes, we would make an internal attribution.

If the focus is on the random, or in The difficulty of the situation or in the opportunity of the attribution, we will tend to do it external

For example: A person gives us a push on the bus, the attribution would be external, because it was very crowded and has given an unexpected stop. If we think that the person could have taken the bar harder or was clueless (capacity) and the push has been disproportionate to the braking (intention) then it will be internal

We can perceive all the factors of the situation, but we focus on some and not others.

Not making attributions is impossible, because it is an adaptive function

In the professional field, to contrast Attributions allow you to systematize the work and have a good database (formed from the different options that you have been collecting, with which you have many possible causes of behavior that, without contrast, may not have occurred to you). For professional intervention to be effective, in addition to our powers, we must take into account what the user does.

Theory of the corresponding inference

This theory was formulated by Johns and Davis. In this theory the internal attribution, and any behavior that does not fit this description, will be considered as external attribution.

The authors propose that when we observe a behavior, we also observe the consequences of that behavior. An action can have many consequences or effects.

In the attribution, a part of the information is selected. When we look at people, we also assume or infer that the person knows the consequences of that action and also has the capacity to perform or avoid it, we assume that person has the intention of causing those effects. From here, the authors say that we infer how the person is, what are their internal provisions, what are your personality characteristics. Johns and Davis say that any behavior that cannot be explained under the following scheme is an external attribution.

For example: We observe that a person throws a stone (action) and injures another person (effect). We know that he has the ability to throw it away and knows that it will hurt, therefore he intended to harm and, consequently we infer that "Is a bad person" "is aggressive" (It is at this time that we give the person responsibility).

Covariance Theory

Formulated by Kelley In 1967, it consists of relating different variables at the same time and seeing how their values ​​move or change.

For Kelley, when we make an attribution, we make a covariance, we relate 3 criteria:

  1. Consensus
  2. Constancy
  3. Distinctiveness

To explain them, we will use an example: María (our acquaintance) congratulates us on a communication we have presented at a congress.

Maria's internal attribution: has a special predilection for us

The external: the exposure made is good

  1. Consensus

There is a certain unanimity in behavior, that is, more people do it.

Example: High consensus: There are more people who congratulate us. Low consensus: Very few people or nobody congratulates us.

  1. Constancy

It refers to whether the person to whom we attribute that behavior frequently performs the same behavior.

Example: High constancy: Maria usually congratulates people. Low constancy: Maria does not usually congratulate.

  1. Distinctiveness

We talk about high distinctiveness, when the current stimulus is what has caused that behavior.

We talk about low distinctiveness, when this behavior is not distinguished (there are no differences) depending on the stimulus.

Example: High: Maria has seen us do many exhibitions and it is the first time she congratulates us. Low: Maria usually congratulates us.

Depending on the value of each of the criteria, we determine whether the attribution is internal or external.


  • 1 = high 2 = low 3 = high: the attribution is external, that is, it means that the exhibition has been good, not that Mary has a predilection for us.
  • 1 = low 2 = high 3 = low: the attribution is internal (He has a predilection for us).
  • 1 = low 2 = low 3 = low: this could be so much internal how external (because it seems that 2 = low and 3 = low it is contradicting) then the attribution we make, we will choose the one that interests us most internally or externally.
  • 1 = high 2 = low 3 = low: it could also be so much internal how external, but we will tend to choose the external because the consensus is high, many people liked it and we stay with this criterion and we don't consider the other two.

Explanatory attribution model

The theory of Weiner 1988 is the most current and the most used.

Weiner starts from internal and external attribution and calls them:

  1. Internality and externality (following the same idea as in the first theory) but he adds that it is not the only dimension, but that there are two more:
  2. Controllability and non-controllability (Control locus). In the first pole, we perceive that the person can control the cause of the behavior (controllability); In non-controllability, the cause of the behavior is beyond its control.
  3. Stability and instability. In the first pole we perceive that the cause endures over time (stability); In instability, the cause is punctual, almost by chance.

 In each situation we choose a pole in each of the three dimensions, never both, are exclusive.

Example: In a situation of school failure, a student explains the cause of his or her failure to (self-attribution), as follows:

Internality / non-controllability / stability

I would explain it in the following way: I have difficulties in learning mathematics, and I am not able to pass them.

Knowing this attribution would allow us, at a professional level, to begin by influencing the control.

When one is modified, the others are modified in the long run.

If it were the teacher who explained the student's behavior as: he has difficulty learning and I do not see him able to approve them, he could tend to consider the child as a difficult case. 

Errors or attributions bias

Attribution investigations are working on what are the usual trends before the attribution.

  1. Fundamental attribution error. When we observe the behavior of others, we tend more easily, we tend to make internal attributions to such behavior rather than external. The reason is that one of the most important social values ​​is autonomy, freedom, the ability to make decisions, and we misjudge that someone "gets carried away by the environment", so the attribution we make is internal.
  1. Error of the actor / observer. When we are actors, we tend to make attributions in terms of external or environmental factors; while without observers we tend to make dispositional or internal attributions. For example, in a couple fight, if we observe their behavior from outside, we tend to make internal attributions to their way of acting (fundamental attribution error) and if it is we who fight, we make it external.
  1. Error before self-attributions (self-serving): It tells us that more frequently if the behavior we have carried out has been a mistake, we make an external attribution of the reason for the wrong behavior, but if it has been a success, we attribute it to an internal achievement.
  1. Ego-defensive It is the tendency to make attributions internal, when we observe a behavior that has very serious consequences, either for the person or for others.

For example: We witness a traffic accident and make internal attribution (it was going very fast) to protect us or defend ourselves that could happen to us. If the attribution were external, it could also happen to us.

The exception in this attribution is in the case that the cause is very clearly external (a lot of fog, road in poor condition, very tight and dangerous curve ...).

Related tests
  • Personality test
  • Self-esteem test
  • Couple Compatibility Test
  • Self-knowledge test
  • Friendship test
  • Am i in love