Fundamental Attribution Theory

The need to comprehend the reason people behave differently in certain ways is sacrosanct. The human psychology is complex. Each human being has a set of behavioral patterns that are unique. Humans normally are driven to allot cause to their behaviors and actions. Trying to explain why people behave or react to the same situations differently was what gave rise to studies in fundamental attribution theory. Fundamental attribution theory enables a person to understand why he behaves in a particular way and why others around him behave in different ways. A good grasp of fundamental attribution theory will enable human beings to have a better understanding of themselves and reduce incidences of misunderstanding and conflict.


Fundamental attribution theory can be best defined as the development of theories, models, and processes by a social perceiver seeking to use information at his or her disposal to explain causal happenings. Human beings are always seeking to find the cause and effect of every action. There is always an interpretation to every move or behaviour; even the most simplistic behaviour not borne of any motive is viewed with much suspicion. Anybody that can affect how people understand and explain what happens around them may influence such persons. This is because you can use fundamental attribution theory to change them.

There are two types of attribution theories, namely internal attribution theory and external attribution theory.

  • Internal attribution theory: it is also called dispositional attribution theory. This involves assigning the cause of a particular behaviour or actions of an individual to intrinsic characteristics inherent in the individual. It is not about looking for external influences to explain the behaviour of such an individual. In fundamental attribution theory, internal attribution is normally based on the disposition of the individual to behave or react in a certain way. Internal attribution could be blamed on the individual’s personality, motives, religion, or beliefs. Internal attribution is commonly experienced between the behaviour of two persons.
  • External attribution theory: it is also called situational attribution theory. This involves assigning the cause of the behaviour of an individual or certain happenings around him to circumstances beyond his control or outside his personal limits. This involves mostly external factors, pressures, and variables in explaining certain behaviours and reactions to stimuli from an individual. Here, the situation evokes a response from the individual. It is no more about the disposition of the individual to behave in a certain manner. When an individual tries to give an insight into why he behaved in a particular manner, he uses external attributions, like situational and environmental factors, to strengthen his case.

So many theories help clarify the impact fundamental attribution theory has on human beings. They are:

  • The correspondence inference theory propounded by Edward Jones and Freitz Heider. This school of thought works on the assumption that, if it is taken that the individual can be responsible for his own behaviour, the factors that will affect the attributions the evaluator will make are choice, hedonistic relevance, personalism, social desirability, and accidental versus intentional behaviour.
  • The Covariation model propounded by Harold Kelly. This pays attention to any condition that may lead a perceiver to attribute a cause to an environmental factor the individual interacts with. Covariation means the individual is informed by many and different sources. Three types of causal information that affect our perception of certain behaviour are consensus, consistency and distinctiveness.
  • Three dimensional model propounded by Bernard Weiner. This is centred on three dimensions of attribution, namely stability, locus of causality, and control. This is mainly about how the person’s perceptions about the consequences of his behaviour may affect how he may behave if placed under the same conditions in the future. When a person gets positive feedback for behaving in a particular way, the chances of that person behaving the same way or better are high.

Examples of attribution theory

To explain fully how the concept of fundamental attribution theory works, a few examples are needed to clear any confusion or complexities involved in the discussions as enunciated above.

First example of attribution theory (internal): ‘Clement broke his leg because he is careless.’ From the statement, it can be deduced that Clement’s careless behaviour caused the breaking of his leg. Any reader or bystander will feel nobody, but Clement himself, caused his predicament. The bystanders may not really understand the terrain in which Clement broke his leg or the extraneous factors that may have led Clement into the mishap.

Second example of attribution theory (External); ‘I reported late to work because of the traffic’. From this statement, the individual is attributing blame to external factors for reporting late to work. It might not really be the case, but he feels that such an explanation may be enough to prevent him from been served a query at work. The traffic condition he is trying to blame for his lateness is an external attribution.

The third example of attribution theory will centre on how individuals see success and failure as a result of either internal or external attributions. When a student writes a quiz and scores a low grade, most times the student blames the teaching method of the teacher. He or she may also blame the complex language used in writing the textbook for that course. He may also blame his low grade on the time he or she expends on home chores. The student that failed attributes his poor performance to external factors. If the same student makes a great grade, he or she believes he always has the potential to do well. His innate ability to comprehend what was taught was what propelled him to score great grades. That means the student is praising his supposed high levels of brilliance and intelligence for such a positive performance. He is attributing his high grades to internal or intrinsic factors.

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Dispositional Attribution

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