The Attribution Theory

attribution 1What is the Attribution Theory?

Attribution Theory was first introduced by Fritz Heider (1958).  It is a method that can be used for evaluating how people perceive the behaviour of themselves and of other people. Heider analysed that all behaviour is considered to be determined by either internal or by external attributes:

External Attribution: causality is assigned to an outside factor, agent or force. Outside factors fall outside your control. You perceive you have no choice. So your behaviour is influenced, limited or even completely determined by influences outside your control. Therefore you feel not responsible. A generic example is the weather.

Internal Attribution: causality is assigned to an inside factor, agent or force. Inside factors fall inside your own control. You can choose to behave in a particular way or not. So your behaviour is not within any unwanted influenced outside your control. Therefore you feel responsible. A typical example is your own intelligence.

Although numerous researches have convincingly revealed that most people are biased in their judgment, one of the most persistent features of human beings is that we believe we can explain just about anything. We tend to attribute the successes of others and our own failures to external factors. Likewise, we tend to attribute our own successes and failures of others to internal factors. We perceive these as our own merits.attribution 2

Achievement can be attributed to at least four things:

  1. Effort attributed to internal factor over which we possess a great deal of control.
  2. Ability: Attributed to internal factor which can be developed by putting the right efforts.
  3. Level of task difficulty:  An external and stable factor that is largely beyond our control.
  4. Luck: An external and unstable factor over which we exercise very little control.


One potential usage of the attribution theory is in the field of marketing communication. Applied to advertising, attribution theory argues that consumers can attribute claims either to the advertiser’s desire to sell the product (one-sided advertising) or to actual attributes of the product communicated by an honest advertiser (two-sided advertising). This theory suggests that two sided messages including negative information of the product may lead the audience to think that the advertiser is telling the truth. This enhanced perception of advertiser credibility strengthens beliefs concerning the positive attributes that the advertiser claims are associated with the product. Attribution theory in this respect is a tool for managing perception.attribution 3

Book: Fritz Heider – The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations –


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