Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry

: 2020  |  Volume : 36  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 277--283

The role of “Attributions” in social psychology and their relevance in psychosocial health: A narrative review

Debanjan Banerjee1, Chehak Gidwani2, TS Sathyanarayana Rao3,  
1 Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Department of Psychology, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi, India
3 Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College and Hospital, JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research, Mysuru, Karnataka, India

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Debanjan Banerjee
Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka


Assigning motives or reasons to situations and actions have been the basic premise of human existence. Attributing cause to an action makes it logical and easier to comprehend. In social psychology, attribution is the process through which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. Various theories and models have been proposed to explain this concept, starting from the early works of Fritz Heider in the early 20th century and further advances by Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner. Attributional concepts can be used in a wide arena of behavioral science ranging from mental health stigma-related interventions to consumerism, corporate and jury psychology, and finally, attributional bias in psychosis and learned helplessness in depression. Attribution theories are viewed as the relevant concepts in the exploration and explanation of a wide repertoire of psychopathologies, especially for culture bound syndromes. Research into the translational use of attributional theories has declined in the recent years, the models being criticized for being mechanistic and reductionistic in approach. Nevertheless, the role of “attributions” in social psychology remains equally important today to explore the various facets of human behavior and reactions. The article explores the relevance of attributions in the fields of psychosocial health. It discusses various theoretical perspectives and frameworks premised on attributional models and narrates the understanding as well as the applications of the relevant theories in the realms of stigma research and consumerism. The criticism and implications in mental health are highlighted thereafter.

How to cite this article:
Banerjee D, Gidwani C, Sathyanarayana Rao T S. The role of “Attributions” in social psychology and their relevance in psychosocial health: A narrative review.Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2020;36:277-283

How to cite this URL:
Banerjee D, Gidwani C, Sathyanarayana Rao T S. The role of “Attributions” in social psychology and their relevance in psychosocial health: A narrative review. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Feb 26 ];36:277-283
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Humans are inherently motivated to assign causes to their actions and behaviors. Since evolutionary times, the discoveries and explorations of humanity have been based on this instinctive need. Assigning a cause to an action necessarily justifies it and makes it rational and understandable. Social psychology deals with this aspect of human need using the models of attribution theories. The motives, sentiments, intentions, and processes that define and guide these attributions are explained through the various models. As civilization has progressed, attributions have shaped anthropological and sociological constructs, to guide human bonds, conflict, social structures, and interpersonal interaction. Starting from politics to consumerism or prejudice, “attributions” have been fundamental in studying the phenomena. Even in psychiatric disorders, attributional models help understand psychopathology and genesis of culture-bound syndromes. Though popular in the earlier century, research related to attribution theories has diminished over time. Keeping this in background, this narrative review attempts to revisit these models, their effect on human behavior and limitations.

Attribution is the process of inferring the causes or origins of various events or behaviors that take place in our lives. Individuals formulate attributions to comprehend and attach meanings to their life experiences. These experiences have a substantial impact on the kind of interactions people have with each other. Heider was the first to theorize about attribution in the field of psychology; however, Weiner et al., developed a theoretical framework that has become a relevant research paradigm in the realm of social psychology. Heider shed light on naïve or common sense psychology in which he viewed people as amateur scientists who attempt to understand and decipher other's behaviors by collating information unless they deduce a rational inference or explanation. According to Fiske and Taylor,[1] attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver pieces together information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how is it combined to form causal judgment.

 Attributions: Typology

Attribution can be classified along two dimensions: Internal and external and stable and unstable. By coalescing these two dimensions of attributes, one can categorize a particular attribution as being internal stable, external stable or external unstable.

 Internal versus External

In a “dispositional versus internal” attribution, people infer that the event or the behavior is the result of one's abilities, feelings, and traits. In an “external versus situational” attribution, people tend to center their explanations of events and behavior around factors in the social milieu. For instance, a man is acting aggressively and violently. If his behavior is attributed to his innate aggressive drives and temperament, then this attribution will be internal or dispositional as it focuses on the inborn tendencies of the man. However, a plausible explanation could also pertain to the contextual factors of the man such as a sultry weather, or a deficit of necessary resources to lead a fulfilling life and so on. This is an instance of external or situational attribution.

 Stable versus Unstable

Stable and unstable attributions are also distinguished. Individuals are said to make stable attributions when they infer that a behavior is due to stable or unchanging factors. On the contrary, while making an unstable attribution, one tends to explain the occurrence of the behavior or event by unstable or temporary factors.

 Theoretical Frameworks Centered Around Attribution

Heider's common-sense psychology (1958)

Heider believed that humans are innately intuitive psychologists who build diverse causal theories of human behavior and because these theories are premised on sociopsychological foundations, people can be viewed as naïve psychologists. His idea carries three underlying principles. First, humans have proclivities to perceive that every behavior is intentional rather than just random. Thus, our search for the causes of a particular behavior is always focused around the purpose of discovering the motivating factor of that action. Heider and Simmel[2] had explored this tendency in an experiment. Their study suggested that participants who were asked to explain and describe the movement of abstruse geometric figures described them as if they were humans with intentions to act in a particular fashion. Secondly, people have a tendency to conjure theories about causality to be able to predict and regulate the surroundings. We look for more stable and unchanging characteristics in people, situations and behaviors. Finally, whilst determining the causes for different behaviors, we distinguish between personal and contextual factors explaining the occurrence of a given behavior. Scherer[3] for instance suggested that people construct assumptions about the stable personality traits of strangers, on the basis of their voices on the telephone.

Jones and Davis's theory of correspondent inference (1965)

This theory throws light on an individual's propensity to infer than an individual's behavior corresponds to a fundamental disposition or personality trait. People like to form correspondent inferences, primarily because a dispositional cause is stable and enhances the predictability of an individual's behavior, thereby elevating one's sense of control over the world. Individuals rely on the five sources of information or cues while forming correspondent inferences. Primarily, freely chosen behavior is more suggestive of a disposition than is behavior that is influenced by external threats or constraints. In addition, behavior with effects that are relatively exclusive to that behavior rather than shared across various behaviors reveal more about dispositions. People assume that others are aware of noncommon effects and that the specific behavior was performed with intent to produce the relatively exclusive or noncommon effects, this behavioral tendency is called outcome bias.[4] Further, socially desirable behavior tells us a little about a person's disposition as it is likely to be maneuvered and governed by societal norms and values. On the contrary, socially undesirable behavior is generally counter normative and thus provides a better basis for making a correspondent inference.

Individuals construct more confident correspondent inferences about other's behavior that may produce pertinent consequences for one's self; behavior which holds hedonic relevance. Such inferences are also formed about behavior that is high in personalism or behavior that apparently has a direct intention to harm or benefit us. Jones and Harris[5] found that students making attributions for speeches made by other students were likely to make more correspondent inferences for freely chosen socially unpopular positions, for instance, freely choosing to make a speech supporting Cuban president of the time, Fidel Castro. In another experiment,[6] it was found that the participants tended to construct more correspondent inferences about an out of role behavior. However, correspondent inference theory is not devoid of certain limitations.[7] The theory contends that correspondent inferences are significantly contingent on the attribution of intentionality; however, unintentional behavior can form a strong ground for a correspondent inference. The concept of uncommon effects is also problematic. This theory also postulates that individuals examine the commonality of effects by drawing a comparison between chosen and nonchosen effects, while research suggests that people do not attend to nonoccurring behaviors and hence would be unable to perceive the commonality of effects accurately.[8]

Kelly's covariation model (1967, 1973)

It is a prominent theory in the repertoire of attribution theories. In the course of discovering the causes of behavior, people act like scientists. They distinguish a factor that covaries most closely with the behavior and determine that factor as a causal agent. He proposed that there are three factors to influence the way we behave. First consensus, a factor that implies the extent to which other people behave in the same way in a similar situation. Second, consistency is reflective of the extent to which the person behaves in the same way every time the situation occurs. Third, distinctiveness refers to the extent to which person behaves in same way in similar situations. Hesketh[9] assessed the impact of Kelly's theory on the self-attributions made by 82 unemployed in a field study. The field study also explored the relationship of self-esteem and locus of control to the attributions for success and failure. Kelley's theory was supplemented by the findings from the laboratory study, but only two of the twelve predicted relationships were found in the field study. Low distinctiveness (weak work-related skills) was associated with strong attributions to the lack of ability and low consistency (past job seeking activities successful) with strong attributions to bad luck. As predicted the unemployed with high self-esteem and an internal locus of control attributed failure to lack of effort and credited their success to ability. Unemployed with low self-esteem and an external locus of control attributed success to unstable factors, but failure was not attributed to lack of ability. Possible reasons offered for the lack of support for Kelley's theory in the field study included the influence of group identity, individual differences in the perception of the stability and locus of causes, the greater realism of the field setting, and the inadequacy of the assumptions underlying the model.

 Weiner's Attribution Theory

This is one of the chief and notable theories, for developing the dimensions pertaining to the experiences of attribution, integrating attribution with emotional processes, and enlightening the affective processes as well as the experiences of attribution which are embedded in achievement behavior and other concrete domains of experience. Weiner contended that there are two key factors in eliciting attributions: Unexpected versus expected events and nonattainment versus attainment of a goal. Oliver and Desarbo[10] suggest that outcomes that can be interpreted as successes or failures (e.g., good and bad) elicit causality inferences along three dimensions, namely of locus, stability, and controllability. Locus is a familiar location of a cause internal or external to the person; stability refers to the temporal nature of a cause, varying from stable (permanent) to unstable (temporary), and controllability is the degree of volitional influence that can be exerted over a cause. Weiner also argues that although there are a several perceived causes for a particular event, the specific type of cause attributed to any event holds lesser importance than it is latent dimensionality. Russel's research findings align with this explanation. He asked participants to indicate the most probable cause for a particular event and then rate the cause on the basis of locus, stability, and controllability dimensions. The dimensions tended to predict outcomes better and more accurately than the specific causes noted.

 Utility in Accounting for the Perceptions of Patients with Mental Illness

Several theoretical frameworks for understanding bias and stigma attached with mental health ailments have been drawn from attribution theory. The cardinal view of attribution theory is that people are motivated to understand and gain awareness of their surroundings.[11] In the application of the theoretical perspectives of attribution in the context of mental illness stigma, people are attempting to seek for the grounds that have given rise to an ailment. However, to the observer, there is often an apparent lack of the cause of a mental ailment as a result of which, the people may attribute the cause of the mental illness to the person, which may yield a misbelief that people diagnosed with a mental illness are accountable for the ailment they are dealing with and lack in self-control and competence in looking after themselves and their well-being. Thus, such perceptions can reinforce discriminatory behavior and attitudes against people with psychological disorders. According to Weiner et al.,[12] when a cause is considered to be unstable, it is believed that person has the ability to recover. As opposed to this, if the cause of the problem is perceived to remain unchanged over a span of time, the person is not viewed; the problem is not seen as recoverable or curable. The advancement of the idea that mental illness is caused by biological factors instead of being determined by the psychosocial factors may give rise to the impression that mental illness is stable over time. Previous literature contains some evidence which supports the idea that people perceive mental illness as something from which people cannot recover due to which individuals experiencing such ailments struggle to lead fulfilling lives.[13]

 Attribution Models in dealing with the Mental Health Stigma

There have been various attempts in the past to modify attributions as well as the resulting emotions, by targeting the problematic attribution directly.[14] Changing attribution may require provision of information that contests the present belief system. The attribution model posits that a when disability or disease which is viewed as uncontrollable, it induces feelings of pity and increases prosocial tendencies. Thus, educational efforts inculcate collective sense of sympathy and elevated assistance. This is further supported by a Crandall's study[15] in which he explored public attitudes about obesity. The findings of the study suggested that by providing information that enables participants to believe that there are various biological and genetic factors at play that influence one's metabolism, a central issue in the problem of obesity, the participants can be made to perceive obesity as an uncontrollable condition. Fat-phobic attitudes diminished after imparting such information.

 The Concepts of “Learned Helplessness” and “Perpetual Salience”

Seligman and Maier described “learned helplessness” based on their experiments on dogs in which they were classically conditioned to electric shock (which they could not escape) and subsequently failed to escape in a similar situation. They argued that this concept applied to human psychopathology. In context of attribution theory, individuals who “attribute” negative outcomes to internal, stable, and global factors reflect a view in which they feel no control of their situation. It is suggested that this particular “attributional bias” might alter mood state and bring about melancholia and clinical depression. When people try to make attributions about another's behavior, the information processed is focused on the target individual. Their perceptions at that time are lacking accountability for most of the external factors that might affect that individual.[16] The gaps tend to be skipped over and the attribution is made based on the perceived information that is most salient. The most salient information dominates the perception at a given point of time. For individuals making behavioral attributions about themselves, the situation and external environment are entirely salient, but their own body and behavior are much lesser so. This tends to lead to an external “attribution” to their own behavior, neglecting the internal locus of control, a concept often known as “perceptual salience.”

 Attribution and Culturally Bound Syndromes

Culture plays a vital part in the understanding of psychopathology as well as its origins and evolutions. Certain psychiatric disorders and mental health concerns are exclusive to a particular culture. These disorders are referred to as culture specific or culture bound syndrome. Culture bound syndrome was first used as a term in the fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental disorders. In the Indian context, some disorders are viewed as manifestations of culture specific syndromes. Some prevalent culture bound psychiatric abnormalities include Possession syndrome, Dhat syndrome, Koro, Bhanmati, Gilhari syndrome, Culture Specific Suicide (Sati, Santhra), Compulsive spitting and Jhinjhinia, Ascetic syndrome, and so on.

Attributions play an integral role in the comprehension of the culturally bound syndrome and enables us to attach meaning and formulate rational perspective around such concerns. Every culture provides explanations and causal attributions for somatic symptoms. Such explanations establish expectations that determine the manner in which individuals perceive their bodies and the kind of symptoms they identify and report to others. The prevalence of explanatory models and prototype may also impact the rates of prevalence of specific clinical presentations of several symptoms.[17] Symptomatic attributions and interpretations are continuously evolving instead of being stagnated. They are malleable and tend to reorganize cognitively in the process of psychological adaptation and social positioning. Specific somatic symptoms are related with popular cultural explanations that have been illustrated on the basis of somatic syndromes. For instance, loss of semen in the urine is associated with the “Dhat syndrome” in India based on the cultural belief that semen concentrates vital energy.[18] Certain symptoms may be more pertinent and prevalent as they are a part of the illness prototype of a specific culture. Cultural models not only influence symptom reporting but can also shape psychopathological processes. Hinton et al.[19] conducted study among South Asian migrants in the United states. The findings of their study described an array of culture specific vicious cycles whereby ethno-physiological concepts have an interaction with memories and bodily conditioning engendering disabling symptoms.

Thus, the social and cultural processes can propagate particular meanings and interpretations of psychological distress which may further direct help seeking behavior. Cultural models can have an impact on cognitive processes such as attention, interpretation, and coping through which, cultural models can modulate symptom experience, reporting, help seeking behavior, adaptation, treatment response or disability.

 Attribution and the Field of Consumerism

According to Weiner's attribution theory,[20],[21] a consumer would first evaluate the product outcome or event as either good or bad which determines its success or failure. It is also suggested that primary evaluation will result in a primary effect. The customer seeks to discover the reason behind a product's success or failure by making an attribution that will give rise to attribution-dependent emotions. Causal attributions and the underlying dimensions of locus, stability, and controllability generate differentiated affective reactions which are considered to exist along with initial primary effect produced by the goodness or badness of the product. Consequently, general affective reactions associated with the outcome get diversified as more complex attributional thinking is included in the process.[21]

Oliver and Swan[22] suggests that a summary judgment is formed which encapsulates the common satisfied/dissatisfied responses. Attribution processing is seen as impacting satisfaction through the means of definite emotional responses supplementing the main evaluation which influences the satisfaction/dissatisfaction through primary affect. Folkes[23] conducted a study which highlights that attribution theory predicts that the perceived reason for the product's failure influences how the consumer reacts thus suggesting the importance of the theory in consumer psychology and how vital it is to comprehend consumerist behaviors and attitudes.


Attribution theory has been largely criticized as being mechanistic, subjective, and reductionistic for making assumptions that individuals are generally rational, logical, and systematic thinkers. The fundamental attribution error, however, demonstrates that most are “cognitive misers” and “motivated manipulators.” It also fails to address the social, cultural, and historic factors that shape causal attributions. This has been further criticized and explained in the branch of “discourse analysis,” that uses qualitative methods including language and descriptions extensively to understand psychological phenomena. A common example is that what we speak and how we categorize our language based on our sociocultural milieu explain our attribution style that is otherwise unexplained by the original attribution theory. The subjectivity can be considered as a narrow lens of “intellectualization” that limits the causal attribution of humans into “set” patterns, disregarding the flexibility and pragmatics of changed thinking and patterns of causality.[24]

 Utility in Clinical Practice

Attribution theories form an important interface between social cognition and behavior. As clinical practice fundamentally depends on understanding the nuances of human behavior, “attributions” might help us understand the thought processes, causes of certain specific “reactions,” and finally help in behavioral and social modifications. A common example in daily life is the use of cognitive behavior therapy for dysfunctional thoughts or public stigma reduction measures based on the prevalent knowledge-attitude-practice in the community. Even in criminology and the field of terror management, attributional theories help in exploring and understanding intentional and unintentional behaviors, which form a vital component of social responsibility and legal implications. The “folk-conceptual theory of behavior explanation” posits “belief” and “desire” to be fundamental for “intention” in an individual, with gets transited to “intentionality” through skill and awareness.[25] Hence, essentially five requirements are considered necessary for an action to be “intentional.”

It needs to be based on desire for an outcomeOne needs to believe about the action's relationship with that outcomeThe above two parameters need to result in an intention to perform the particular actionPresence of required skills to perform itAwareness of the action being performed.

Further, “cause” explanations and “reason” explanations based on subjectivity and rationality can be used to construct the context, outcome, consequences, and expression related to a certain action or belief, be in a healthy person or in someone suffering from a psychiatric disorder. Sexual myths and attributions are common examples, where sexual knowledge and practices can be heavily influenced by the “causes” and “reasons” attributed to sexuality, which has varied sociocultural connotations. It is highly individualized and may also form the basis for various sexual dysfunctions and disorders. Similarly, “attributions” can shape the concepts of self-esteem, self-identity (including gender or cultural identities), and self-stigma, which is an important barrier in the path of help-seeking for psychological wellbeing.[26] In daily interaction with clients, attributions form important relationship between triggering events, mediating stigma, emotional reactions, and discriminating behavior. This is helpful in understanding any form of age, gender or race-based “othering,” xenophobia and prejudiced stereotypes against certain groups, communities, and populations.

Few important areas where attribution theories can be practically applied are summarized in [Table 1].{Table 1}


Attribution theory can be seen as a viable concept for the explanation of a wide array of psychopathologies. The importance of this theory in clinical psychology cannot be overemphasized. Questionnaires such as Attributional Style Questionnaire and Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanation are fundamentally based on this theory to assess individuals with different mental state and their corresponding attributional styles. Although the construct validity and the subjectivity of the offshoots of this theory have been largely criticized, it still forms a unique avenue of stigma research, consumer experience and satisfaction (used in marketing), and as explanatory models for mental illness. Mental health-related stigma, especially self-stigma forms a significant deterrent to any therapeutic service. Interventions targeting this are primarily focused on changing a person's attributional styles and the way they perceive their “abnormal behavior.” Even in criminal psychology, attribution theory has been traditionally used to determine the “situational or dispositional” attitude of the juror toward the defendant. Literature on the applications and importance of attribution theories in mental health has been limited over the last decade, with more emphasis given on the neuroscience of social cognition, one of its related offshoots. However, understanding of attribution theories in social psychiatry and psychology might help in appreciating the cognitive and social processes behind the various psychiatric disorders, which might shape management strategies beyond medications and also help in compliance to treatment.[40] Like any other psychological theory, it might have its own share of biases and errors, but in-keeping with the basic human need of assigning causes to their actions, “Attribution theory” stands as a strong pillar to explain, describe, and explore this very facet of human nature and much more beyond.

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