What Is Attribution Theory in Social Psychology?


Martha Robinson

Attribution theory is a concept in social psychology that refers to how people explain the actions or behaviors of others. It focuses on how individuals interpret events and situations, specifically how they attribute causes to behavior. Attribution theory is an important area of study because it provides insight into how people perceive others and make judgments about their behavior.

The Basics of Attribution Theory

According to attribution theory, individuals tend to make attributions based on two main factors: internal (dispositional) and external (situational) causes. Internal causes refer to personal traits or characteristics that are inherent in an individual, while external causes are related to environmental or situational factors that influence behavior.

For example, if someone sees a person fail at a task, they may attribute the cause of the failure either to internal factors (such as a lack of skill or effort), or external factors (such as difficult circumstances or lack of resources). The way someone attributes the cause of a behavior can have important implications for their perceptions and interactions with others.

Types of Attribution

There are two main types of attribution: dispositional attribution and situational attribution. Dispositional attribution refers to attributing behavior to internal factors such as personality traits, while situational attribution refers to attributing behavior to external factors such as the environment or circumstances.

Dispositional Attribution

Dispositional attribution occurs when individuals explain someone’s behavior based on their innate qualities or characteristics. For instance, a person who consistently arrives late for work may be seen as lazy or irresponsible by their colleagues. In this case, the colleagues are making dispositional attributions by assuming that the person’s lateness is due to their personality traits rather than any external factors.

Situational Attribution

Situational attribution occurs when individuals explain someone’s behavior based on external circumstances. For example, if someone fails a test, but the room was too noisy or the test was too difficult, they may be given situational attribution instead of dispositional attribution. People tend to use situational attribution when they themselves are in similar situations.

The Importance of Attribution Theory

The process of attribution has significant implications for interpersonal relationships and group dynamics. Attribution theory provides insights into how people make judgments about others and the factors that influence those judgments. It can help people understand how their actions and behavior are perceived by others and how to communicate more effectively.

Real-world Applications of Attribution Theory

Attribution theory is used in many real-world applications, including education, healthcare, and business. For example, teachers may use attribution theory to understand why students are struggling in class.

Doctors may use it to identify the causes of patient behavior or symptoms. Business leaders may use it to improve employee performance by understanding the factors that influence job satisfaction and motivation.


Attribution theory is a fundamental concept in social psychology that provides insight into how people interpret events and situations. By understanding how people make attributions about behavior, individuals can improve their communication skills and build stronger relationships with others. Whether in personal or professional settings, attribution theory can be a valuable tool for enhancing interactions with others.