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Attribution Theory

Attribution theory is the study of the psychology behind how people attribute causes to the way they behave and the resulting outcomes.

There are two types of attribution.

  • Internal: With internal attribution, the cause of the behavior is believed to be a function of the characteristics and personality traits of a person.
  • External: External attribution, also known as situational attribution, assigns the cause to environmental factors related to a situation that the person is put in rather than personal characteristics.

Not surprisingly, people tend to attribute external factors to their own failures and internal characteristics to their successes. Similarly, when looking at other people’s behaviors, the reverse is true. They tend to ascribe luck to other people’s positive outcomes, and blame their motives or personality for the bad ones.

High functionally people are able to step back and make a more realistic assessment of why things happen. This helps them in two ways.

  1. They are able to make a realistic assessment of why they got the outcome that they did, and are then able to take action to repeat positive ones or avoid negative ones.
  2. They are able to maintain better relationships with people. They will be less resentful of those that get good results through hard work than those that are handed benefits.


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