Attributions are the cognitive and communicative processes involved in making sense of why someone acted the way he or she did. This sense-making usually revolves around attempts to determine the cause (i.e., why) and/or who is responsible for an action. Studied initially as a largely internal, psychological process (e.g., Heider 1958), researchers in communication often look to verbal explanations as examples of expressed or communicated attributions (e.g., Burleson 1986; Roghaar & Vangelisti 1996). Generally, attribution processes are considered an offshoot of people’s tendency to want to understand the world around them. This sense-making transpires in our thoughts (cognitive attributions), and we talk it out with others (communicated attributions). In fact, as we talk about why we think someone acted as he or she did, we often change our minds about the attribution we originally held.
History Of Attribution Scholarship
Early work focused on attributions of what Heider (1958) called causal locus, or the judgment of where a cause came from (i.e., internal or external to the person who engaged in the action). Since then, researchers, most notably Weiner (1995), have identified a large number of other attributional dimensions, including assessments of a behavior’s intentionality, controllability, stability, specificity, and valence. These dimensions help to reflect the variety of attributions people can make, both in their heads (the internal of cognitive attributions noted above) and in their talk (the expressed or communicated attributions noted above).
A number of theories have been developed to explain and predict attribution processes and outcomes. The first set of theories is often referred to as normative because they explain the ways that people ought to make good or valid attributional judgments (e.g., Jones 1979). For example, Kelley (1971) found evidence that we rely on three types of assessments to determine the best explanation for an event. He called these factors “distinctiveness” (i.e., our assessment of whether or not a person’s behavior is different in one situation from other situations); “consistency,” or the extent to which a person’s behavior is the same over time; and “consensus,” which concerns the behavior of similar others in similar situations.
As researchers looked more toward how people make cognitive attributions in interaction, however, they became increasingly interested in the errors or biases in people’s attributions (see, e.g., Ross 1977). For example, researchers have identified a “fundamental attribution error” that involves people assessing the cause of another’s action to largely internal or dispositional characteristics (e.g., personality) rather than to the myriad external or environmental influences that may have influenced an action. A corollary of the fundamental attribution error, the “actor – observer bias,” concerns the tendency to attribute one’s own behavior to situational factors while attributing the behavior of others to internal characteristics. People also make what have been called “self-serving attributions”: rather than find the most likely cause, we often take cognitive shortcuts that allow us to find a cause that works well for our own sense of self and our self-presentation.
Contemporary Directions In Attribution Scholarship
Although attribution processes occur across a large number of situations, contemporary research on attributions tends to focus on what can be thought of as applied communication contexts. For example, researchers from a number of academic fields study the attributions that people make in their close relationships, most notably marriage. A general bias has been found when looking at the link between relational satisfaction and attributions. Specifically, people who are more satisfied tend to make what have been called relationship-enhancing attributions, providing attributions that distance their partners from unfavorable behavior and giving their partner credit for positive behavior. Those in less satisfied relationships tend to make what have been labeled as distress-maintaining attributions, judgments that blame the partner for undesirable actions and do not give him or her credit for more favorable actions. Research also shows that satisfaction and attributions may be mutually causal: people tend to be more satisfied later in their relationships when they make more benign attributions early on; they also tend to make more negative attributions if they are dissatisfied (see, e.g., Johnson et al. 2001).
Attributional processes have also been examined for what has been termed communication’s “dark side.” Specifically, researchers have looked toward the ways in which people who abuse their spouses or children make different patterns of attribution for their own and their family’s behavior. Abusers tend to see their own behaviors as unstable and external (that is, they may say, “I am not an abuser; I hit her only because she provoked me”). They also tend to see the other person as blameworthy and as having behaved negatively intentionally (“I would not have pushed him if he had not said what he said; he said that to upset me”). Other research on attribution processes focuses specifically on attributions that occur during communicative interactions, such as conflict. Researchers have found that people are more likely, for example, to avoid conflict if they believe that another’s behaviors are unlikely to change, i.e., they make a stable attribution for the source of the conflict (for an expanded review of this literature, see Manusov & Spitzberg, in press).
There are also moral and legal consequences to the attribution processes that people make. For instance, people treat those with HIV differently when they attribute the person’s HIV status to something internal and controllable (e.g., one’s own “risky behavior”) rather than to something external and uncontrollable (e.g., getting HIV from a blood transfusion or via childbirth). People are also likely to get shorter prison sentences when they are seen as less responsible for the crime. Recently, one court case in Australia found the parents responsible for their child’s behavior and fined them on the basis of this attribution (White 2005).
Whereas attribution processes occur about and within communication interactions, their study has been criticized in a number of ways. Some scholars argue that attributions are more of a psychological rather than a communicative process and should therefore not be studied by communication scholars. Conversely, some who study communicated attributions assert that they are a language act and not a cognitive one and should be assessed more as a language form than a cognitive process. Others have argued for the salience of attributions themselves in communication but argue that attribution theories are not viable as theories. Still others are concerned with the best ways to assess attributions (i.e., with rating scales, in talk, based on what dimensions). Overall, however, attribution processes are, for many in our field, a vital part of communication.
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