All about Attribution

CoolAvenues Newswire | February 03,2014 02:39 pm IST

You asked Pooja, a classmate of yours, to lend you her notes for the Economic Analysis course and she refused. Mr Goel asked his twelve-year-old son to stop watching TV.

Much to your unpleasant surprise, you learned that you have got a D-grade in Marketing when you were expecting at least a B+.

Almost invariably the question that would arise in your mind in each of these situations is why did Pooja not lend you her notes? Why did Mr. Goel ask his son to stop watching TV? Why didn't you get the expected grade in the Marketing course? In various life situations, of which no one has kept count of, we want to know why other people have acted the way they have, why events have turned out in a particular way. In most situations, each one of us has some explanation or the other for the occurrences of events in our lives.

Why do we often have to figure out and explain what caused what? There appears to be two strong motives in all human beings: the need to make sense of and form a coherent understanding of the world around us, and the need to control the environment (proposed by social psychologist, Fritz Heider, 1958). One of the essentials for satisfying these motives is the ability to predict how others are going to behave. Failure to do so will render our world random, chaotic, and incoherent. For example, we would not know whether to expect reward or punishment for our work performance. Similarly, if we can adequately predict others' behavior, we can hope to control our environment satisfactorily by adjusting our actions accordingly. Since the number of specific causes behind others' behavior is large - too large - our search for explanation of others' behavior becomes a complex affair.

The process through which we attempt to get information to explain other people's behavior is known as attribution. Everyone, not just psychologists, uses certain rules to infer the causes of observed behavior or occurrences of events in their lives. As a result, each ordinary person holds a general theory of human behavior, which Heider called naive psychology.

Because attribution is so complex, social psychologists have constructed several theories of how lay people go about understanding and explaining the cause of a certain event, assessing responsibility for outcomes of the event, and assessing personal qualities of people involved in an event. Thus, attribution theory is mainly concerned with the cognitive (thought) processes by which a person interprets behavior as being caused by (attributed to) certain cues in the relevant environment.

From Acts to Dispositions

Imagine that you are observing a person pacing back and forth on one of the corridors. He takes ten steps in one direction, pauses momentarily, turns around, takes ten steps in the other direction, and continues the process. Now, let's say you observed a second person behaving this way in the lobby of a maternity home where his wife is having a baby, probably her first. You observed a third person, a uniformed guard pacing back and forth outside the Raj Bhavan. If you see the first person again, walking back and forth, perhaps shaking slightly, you may be inclined to infer that the person is a nervous sort, an anxious type. With respect to the second, we would think that he was behaving as any father-to-be under such circumstances. In this case you have less information about the person as to what he is really like compared to the first. The third person's personality than the preceding ones, except that you know what he does for a living, you would not be able to draw any inference about his personality.

An influential theory of attribution focuses on this basic question: how do we use information about others' behavior as basis for inferring what traits or characteristics they possess. Jones and Davis call it the theory of correspondent inference. According to this theory, we decide that others possess specific traits (dispositions that remain fairly stable and carried from one situation to another) on the basis of our observations of their overt actions.

This task is seemingly simple because others' behavior provides us with a rich source of information, and if we observe them carefully, we should be able to learn a lot about them. This is true but complications arise because of two significant problems associated with our inference of dispositions from overt acts. First, many actions of others are frequently shaped and determined not because of what they are but by external factors. Think of the example of the man pacing in the lobby of the maternity home or the job requirement of the guard in front of the Raj Bhavan. In these situations, using others' behavior as a guide to their lasting traits or motives can be misleading. Jones and Davis provide an answer for coping with such complications. What we could do is to focus our attention on certain types of actions - those most likely to be highly informative. The behaviors under observation become informative, which have one or utmost a few distinct reasons. Additionally, we should consider only behaviors that have been freely chosen and not forced on the person. This is called, paying careful attention to actions that produce non-common effects - outcomes that would not be produced by any other action.

An example may make it easy to grasp. Imagine that your senior, Rahul, accepted his first job, which (1) pays a lot for someone starting a career, (2) involves challenging and interesting work, and (3) the job location is in a very attractive city. The fact that Rahul accepted the new job doesn't tell you much about his disposition and values. There are so many good reasons for his having accepted his first job which has (1) a big pay packet, (2) involves very boring work, and (3) is located in a very underdeveloped area. Given this information, it would not be too difficult for you to conclude that Rahul values money more than many other things, such as doing interesting work, or living in a nice place. Our inference-making about Rahul was made easier because his decision to accept the job under the second set of conditions yielded more non-common effects than from the ones in the first set.
Second, other people's behavior can be misleading because these are often socially desirable behaviors. Expressions like, "Thank you very much", "Nice meeting you", "The dinner was absolutely great", "I really enjoyed your lecture", do not always mean what they say. From these expressions, you cannot tell that the person is really courteous or appreciative.


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