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Attribution in Relationships

Extending Attribution Research To Close Relationships, Attributional Biases In Relationships, New Directions, International Research

The term attribution refers to the interpretation of an event by inferring what caused the event to occur. This interpretation may also extend to inference of responsibility for an event and judgment about the trait qualities of another person, or of oneself. As an illustration of a common situation involving attribution activity, a husband may ask why his wife left the room with a sudden burst of tears in the middle of what he perceived to be an innocent conversation about their respective days at the office (i.e., where does responsibility lie?) or whether her emotional display pertains to something about her personality (i.e., her trait to readily exhibit emotional outbursts).

The concept of attribution was developed by Fritz Heider (1958) and articulated into testable theories by Edward Jones and Keith Davis (1965) and Harold Kelley (1967). Also, in his self-perception theory, Daryl Bem (1972) extended attributional theorizing to encompass self-attributions. Bem posited that people take some meaningful form of action and then, in forming a perception about that action, use their own behavior and the context in which it occurs to judge their attitudes, beliefs, and other internal states. For example, a husband whose wife has suddenly, and in tears, ended their conversation may look back at his behavior and conclude, "I was being insensitive in those remarks I made about our friends. No wonder she was upset."

For the situation involving a wife's sudden emotional outburst, these theories suggest that observers infer the bases for the wife's behavior by logical analysis of such information as: (1) her behavior in previous similar situations (i.e., consistency information—is it common for her to show her emotions in this way?); (2) the husband's insensitive behavior toward his wife (i.e., consensus information—does she often become upset in talking with him?); (3) any specific events that distinguish this circumstance for her (i.e., distinctiveness information—something unusual and highly embarrassing happening a the office that day); and/or (4) the wife's intention to show her hurt about some past concern, or the husband's intent to upset his wife, and whether either type of intention reveals something about the wife's or husband's personality.

Attribution theory in social psychology became a prominent topic for examination in the 1970s. As early as the mid-1970s, an extension of attributional theorizing focused on heterosexual, close relationships (relationships in which two people's lives reflect strong and regular interconnections in their thoughts, feelings, and behavior). A major theoretical analysis that contributed to this extension was Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett's 1972 divergent perceptions hypothesis. This hypothesis pertains to a situation in which an actor and an observer come to different explanations for the same action. It stated that the actor would attribute her behavior to the forces in the situation, while the observer would attribute the same behavior to personality characteristics of the actor.

Jones and Nisbett's explanation for why the divergent perspective tendency occurs emphasized cognitive-perceptual dynamics, namely that: (1) the actor perceptually views the situation as central in his or her field of thought and perception, whereas the observer views the actor as central, and (2) the actor will have evidence that she has shown variation in behavior across different situations, whereas the observer often will not have access to that evidence. Another type of explanation, one that is quite germane to the situation that couples often encounter, is that actors are motivated to protect their self-esteem in situations in which their behavior leads to questionable outcomes. Actors may be inclined to attribute their behavior to the situation to better protect their self-esteem, while observers may be motivated to attribute bad outcomes to the actor's personality as a means of punishing or controlling the actor. Heider's (1958) conception of attributional phenomena emphasized this type of integration of cognitive and self-esteem or motivational elements.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships