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The OCR Glossary

Attribution Theory

W. Timothy Coombs

In the 1950s, Fritz Heider posited that people were naive psychologists who try to make sense of the world around them. Part of that quest for sense making involves people seeking to explain how and why events happen. For instance, a person sees a news story on television about a plane crash and automatically seeks to explain the cause of the crash. People can generate cause-and-effect relationships based on little evidence and may create such relationships where none actually exists. Returning to our example, the person might think the crash was a result of terrorist activities based simply on limited evidence from initial reports about the crash. Right or wrong, people regularly assign causation to events they encounter.

Heider noted two trends about the attribution of causes. The first is that when people explain the behavior of others, they tend to attribute the cause to internal factors. It was something about the person that caused the event. The second is that when people explain their own behaviors, they tend to attribute the cause to external factors. It was something about the situation that caused the event. For example, two friends do poorly on a driving exam. One friend is likely to attribute the other’s failure to the friend’s poor driving skill but his or her own failure to poor weather conditions, a biased evaluator, or some other situational factor. This set of observations became known as the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias.

Heider’s ideas stimulated the development of research that examined perceptions of causation and the effects of those perceptions. Most of that research has been conducted in the area of social psychology. The research falls under the general heading of attribution theory. Attribution refers to the inference or perception of a cause. Attribution theory is a collection of theories rather than one, integrated theory. These theories all involved a cognitive approach to understanding how people make causal attributions about events and the implications of those causal inferences on subsequent affect and behavior. It should be noted that not all events are equal in initiating a causal explanation. Negative events are much more likely to trigger a causal search and analysis than positive events.

This entry reviews two major lines of research in attribution theory: (1) the work of Harold Kelley and (2) the work of Bernard Weiner. Both individuals have developed distinct and influential research lines in attribution theory. After reviewing their work, the entry considers the way in which crises link attribution theory to corporate reputations.

Harold Kelley: Covariance

Harold Kelley’s attribution theory research centers on how people make causal inferences for events or behaviors when they have multiple observations relevant to the event or behavior. Kelley specified three possible causes for an event or behavior: (1) person, (2) entity, and (3) circumstances. The person is the individual who enacts the event or behavior. The entity is the task involved with the event or behavior. Circumstances are the external situational factors related to the event or behavior. An example will help clarify the three causes. Jill drops and breaks a very expensive statue at work. The cause could be that Jill is clumsy (person), that the statue was too heavy for her to carry (entity), or that there was a slippery liquid on the floor (circumstances) that caused Jill to slip. Causal attributions matter because the cause of the event or the behavior affects how people react to the people involved in the event or behavior.

Covariance holds that people utilize three information dimensions when attempting to assess causal attributions: (1) consensus, (2) distinctiveness, and (3) consistency. All three information dimensions are considered before a causal attribution is made. Consensus is the covariance between persons and indicates whether other people would perform the task in a similar manner. Consensus is high if other people would perform the same task in a similar fashion. Consensus is low if just the individual has problems with the task. If other coworkers have dropped similar statues, Jill’s behavior has high consensus. If Jill is the only employee to drop a statue, her behavior has low consensus. Distinctiveness is the covariance with the entity. Distinctiveness is high when people perform similar tasks well but have a problem with the current task. Distinctiveness is low if the person performs similarly across a range of tasks. If Jill never has problems with other work tasks, the dropped statue has high distinctiveness. If Jill fails at other job tasks too, the statue event has low distinctiveness. Consistency is the covariance with the circumstances. Consistency is high if the behavior appears only under specific circumstances and low if the behavior appears under a variety of circumstances. If Jill has dropped similar objects in the past, consistency is high. If Jill has not dropped similar objects in the past, then consistency is low.

Based on past observations, people determine if each of the three information dimensions are high or low. This information is integrated to reach a conclusion about the cause of the event or behavior. Theoretically, there are eight possible combinations of the high and low elements on the three informational dimensions. However, Kelley posited that only three patterns matter because they alone produce strong causal attributions. The cause is attributed to the person when consensus is low, distinctiveness is low, and consistency is high. The cause is attributed to the entity when consensus is high, distinctiveness is high, and consistency is high. The cause is attributed to circumstances when consensus is low, distinctiveness is high, and consistency is low. These are known as the ideal information patterns. The other five patterns result in people either not being able to determine a cause or attributing the cause to two categories.

Bernard Weiner: Attribution Theory and Motivation

Bernard Weiner views causal attributions as linked to motivation and affect. The causal attributions motivate people to react in various ways and can evoke emotions such as anger, sympathy, and schadenfreude (a German term meaning “taking joy from the pain of others”). For Weiner, attribution theory is a subset of the appraisal approaches to emotion. Weiner identifies three factors that shape causal attributions: (1) causal locus, (2) causal stability, and (3) causal control.

Causal locus is the location of the cause. The location of the cause can be considered to be within the person (internal) or some outside force (external). All causes can be placed on a continuum ranging from external to internal. For our earlier example, Jill dropping the statue due to clumsiness is an internal causal locus, while slipping on a liquid is an external causal locus. Weiner noted that causal locus was the most fully embraced causal characteristic. The causal locus influences people’s reaction to an event. An internal locus can stimulate anger, while an external locus can breed sympathy.

Causal stability or causal permanence refers to whether or not the cause appears regularly. Some events appear regularly, while some are infrequent. Is the cause stable or temporary? Causal stability is considered orthogonal to causal locus. Causes can be internal and stable, internal and unstable, external and stable, and external and unstable. Stability influences expectations about success in the future. When a cause is stable and internal, there is a strong attribution of the event to the person involved in the event. Again, if Jill regularly drops statues, management will blame her for the current dropping of the statue.

Causal control is the degree to which the outcome of the event could be changed. A cause is controllable if someone could have taken action to alter the outcome of the event. For instance, could someone have taken action to prevent Jill from dropping the statue? When tied to causal locus, causal control is related to intentionality. Did Jill willingly drop the statue? Did someone intentionally cause Jill to drop the statue? Note how the answers to the questions have profound consequences for attributions of responsibility and how people react to the event. While there is some overlap between causal locus and causal control, Weiner argued that they are distinct in his 2006 work Social Motivation, Justice, and the Moral Emotions: An Attributional Approach. For instance, an external factor can be controllable, while some internal factors can be uncontrollable.

Each of the three causal factors shape whether people will view the primary cause of the events or behavior as internal (the person) or external (the situation). Unlike covariance, people do not need to consider all three simultaneously. Attribution theory argues that people have a strong need to know “why” in order to help them understand the world in which they live. Attributing a cause to an event, especially a negative event, aids people in their efforts to make sense of events by supplying causes for the events and behaviors they experience. Attributions about causes do matter because they affect how people perceive and react to their world. Attributions shape motivations, affect, and future behaviors.

Attribution Theory and Corporate Reputation

Organizational crises offer a very strong connection between attribution theory and corporate reputation. A crisis is a negative event and likely to trigger a search for causality. In the 1980s, marketing researchers applied ideas from attribution theory to product recalls (product harm crises). The researchers found that the damage inflicted by a product recall on an organization’s reputation increased as attributions of the organization’s responsibility for the crisis intensified. The crisis responsibility attribution and reputational damage linkage was articulated further in the crisis research emerging from communication. Situational crisis communication theory (SCCT) used the connection as one of its fundamental assumptions about crisis communication.

SCCT was built on Weiner’s three factors that shape causal attributions. The term crisis responsibility was used to denote the amount of responsibility for a crisis that stakeholders attributed to the organization in crisis. Again, the data showed a correlation between crisis responsibility and reputational damage in a crisis across a broad range of crisis types. Moreover, crisis communication research has linked crisis responsibility to other outcomes such as purchase intention, anger, and negative word of mouth. The attributions made during a crisis do seem to have an effect on the affect and behavioral intentions of stakeholders.

Kelley’s covariance approach to attribution theory has implications for crisis communication as well. The crisis research posits that some crises are a part of multiple observations of organizations. If stakeholders have information about multiple observations, they can apply the three information dimensions from covariance in their assessments of responsibility for the crisis. Again, these attributions about crisis responsibility then have implications for stakeholder affect and behaviors relative to the organization in crisis.


Attribution theory is a collection of theories that seek to explain how people make causal attributions about events and behaviors in their lives. The core assumption is that people are driven by a desire to assign causes to events and behaviors. Hence, people routinely make attributions about causes, often based on very little information. The need to find causes is especially strong when an event is negative. Organizational crises are negative events that stimulate people to make attributions about the causes of the event. Attributions of crisis responsibility have implications for corporate reputations. The reputational damage from a crisis intensifies as stakeholder attributions of crisis responsibility strengthen.

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Coombs, W. T. (2007). Protecting organization reputations during a crisis: The development and application of situational crisis communication theory. Corporate Reputation Review, 10(3), 163–177.

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

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 192–240). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Kelley, H. H. (1973). The processes of causal attribution. American Psychologist, 28, 107–128.

Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980). Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 31(1), 457–501.

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Schwarz, A. (2012). Stakeholder attributions in crises: The effects of covariation information and attributional inferences on organizational reputation. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 6(2), 174–195.

Weiner, B. (2006). Social motivation, justice, and the moral emotions: An attributional approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Weiner, B. (2014). The attribution approach to emotion and motivation: History, hypotheses, home runs, headaches/heartaches. Emotion Review, 6(4), 353–361.

See Also

Corporate Associations; Reputation Crisis; Situational Crisis Communication Theory

See Also

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