Attribution theory was originally introduced by Fritz Heider in and assumes that we all want to understand and explain events. For instance, we ask why we succeeded at a task or why our friend liked a movie.
Dispositional vs Situational Attribution
For both scientists and laypersons, explanations consist of effects to be explained e. Kelley distinguishes attributions to causes that reside within the person, the entity, and the circumstances.
Person attributions e. Entity attributions imply tracing back the effect to stable properties of the object the person interacts with e.
Attribution Theory Definition
Finally, circumstance attributions are made when explaining an effect with transient and unstable causes e. But how do we come to explain a specific effect with one of such causes? Kelley postulates that laypersons use methods akin to those used by scientists, most importantly, experiments.
In such experiments, independent and dependent variables are differentiated. For instance, a researcher investigating the influence of color on mood will manipulate color as the independent variable e.
In such experiments, the independent variables are often conceived of as causes or determinants of the dependent variables e. From this point of view, events to be explained by lay scientists e.
Whether an effect is attributed to the person, the entity, or the circumstances depends on which of the causes independent variables the effect dependent variable covaries with. Covariation refers to the cooccurrence of the effect and a cause. To decide whether the entity is the cause, one has to assess whether the effect covaries co-occurs with the entity—more specifically, whether there is variation of the effect across objects entities.
Covariation with the entity is given when the effect is present if the entity is present and when the effect is absent when the entity is absent. For instance, when a person succeeds at Task 1 but fails at Tasks 2, 3 and 4, the effect i.
Kelley labels information about the covariation between entities and effects distinctiveness. Distinctiveness is considered high when the effect covaries with the entity e. Low distinctiveness indicates a lack of covariation between the entity and the effect i.
Information about the covariation of an effect with persons is called consensus.
Attribution as Perception
If covariation with this independent variable i. Finally, high consistency reflects that an effect is always present whenever a certain cause i.
By contrast, low consistency is indicative of the fact that an effect is sometimes present when the cause is absent and sometimes absent when the cause is present. Kelley suggests that there are three combinations of consistency, consensus, and distinctiveness information which give rise to unambiguous person, entity, and circumstance attributions.
We make person attributions when the effect covaries with the person and not with the remaining two causes entity and circumstances. This data pattern characterizes, for instance, a situation in which a person succeeds at a task at which nobody else succeeds low consensus , if he or she also succeeds at this task at different points of time high consistency and performs other tasks just as well low distinctiveness. In this situation, we should attribute success to the person e.
Attributions to the entity should be made when the effect covaries with the entity the person succeeds only at this but not at other tasks; high distinctiveness and not with the person everybody succeeds at this task; high consensus or the point of time the person always succeeds at this task; high consistency.
This pattern is again characterized by the fact that the effect e. Finally, attributions to the circumstances should be made when there is low consensus, high distinctiveness, and low consistency—for example, when a person who usually fails at Task 1 succeeds at it at a specific point of time low consistency , other persons fail at Task 1 low consensus , and the individual fails most other tasks high distinctiveness.
This covariation pattern differs from the cases that lead to person and entity attributions, as the effect covaries with all of the three possible causes and not as was the case for the ideal patterns for person and entity attributions with only one cause.
The model has sparked numerous theoretical developments and empirical investigations in the field of attribution and causal induction and continues to be influential into the present.