Attribution Theory and Learning

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Figuring out the “why”
Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

Perspectives such as behaviorism and social cognitive theory show us how the consequence (reinforcement or punishment) of a particular behavior affects the extent to which the behavior is likely to appear again. Attribution theory has cast a new light on this notion, maintaining that the consequences of behavior will affect each person’s learning and future behavior differently, depending on how the individual interprets those consequences. Thus, motivation theorists consider this aspect of attribution to be key in the development of learned behavior.

In the 18th century, Hume (1739) argued that assuming there are causes for everything that happens is an inherent part of observing the world, because it makes the world more meaningful. Later, Heider (1958) was the first to propose naïve psychology, a systematic explanation of how individuals make sense of the physical and social environment. Heider found it useful to group our attributions into two major categories: personal and situational. For example, in the case of 9/11, it was natural to wonder: Was the attack caused by characteristics of the hijackers (a personal attribution), or were these individuals somehow coerced or, as some suggested, induced by the promise of a better afterlife (a situational attribution)? For attribution theorists, the goal is not to determine the true causes of this even but rather, to understand our perceptions of the causes. Building on these assumptions, Weiner (1986) developed the theoretical framework for attribution theory and causality that has become a major research paradigm of social psychology.

Attribution theory is founded on the notion that individuals are motivated to determine the underlying causes of actions and reactions in order to more fully understand and interpret human behavior, specifically in relation to their perceived success and failures. As such, it attempts to describe how individuals’ explanations, justifications, and excuses influence their motivation. Attributions, according to motivational theorists, refer to those specific beliefs and explanations about the consequences of behavior (Ormrod, 2004; Pintrich & Schrunk, 2002). In effect, attributions answer the proverbial “why?” for a sequence of events.

According to Weiner (1986, 1992) attributions of success or failure can be characterized in terms of three distinguishing dimensions, including: locus – location of the cause as internal or external to the person; stability – whether the cause stays the same or can change; and responsibility – whether the person can control the cause. A student who has performed poorly on an exam or assignment, for example, may characterize this failure in various ways, each of which will effect how he/she approaches subsequent challenges. (See Table 1 for an example of how a student’s explanations relate to the abovementioned attributional dimensions). Furthermore, according to Weiner’s research (1992, 1994), the locus dimension appears to be closely related to issues of self-esteem, the stability dimension to expectations about the future and the responsibility dimension to emotional reactions such as anger, guilt, pride and shame.
Dimensions of Causal Attributions (Weiner, 1992, p. 253)

Following Heider, Kelley (1967) theorized that people often make attributions, logically, on the basis of three types of information: consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency. To illustrate these concepts, imagine that you are standing on a street corner on a hot summer evening, when all of a sudden a stranger bursts out of a cool, air-conditioned movie theater and blurts out, “Great movie!” Looking up, you do not recognize the film title, so you wonder what to make of this candid appraisal. Was the behavior (the rave review) caused by something about the person (the stranger), the stimulus (the film), or the unique circumstances (maybe the cool and comfortable theater)? Because you are possibly interested in spending an evening at the movies, how can you explain this incident? You might seek consensus information to see how other people react to the same stimulus. Or, you might want to have distinctiveness information to see how the same person reacts to different stimuli. Finally, you might seek consistency information to see what happens to the behavior at another time when the person and the stimulus both remain the same.

Clearly, beliefs about what causes successes and failures have profound impact on one’s expectations of the future as well as on motivation.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York, NY: Wiley.

Hume, D. (1739). A treatise of human nature. London, UK: Clarendon Press, 1888.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 15, 192–238.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Pintrich, P. R. & Schrunk, D. H. (2002). Motivation in education, 2e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Weiner, B. (1980). The role of affect in rational (attributional) approaches to human motivation. Educational Researcher, 9, 4-11.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Weiner, B. (1992). Human motivation: Metaphors, theories and research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Weiner, B. (1994). Integrating social and persons theories of achievement striving. Review of Educational Research, 64, 557-575.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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