Individual Differences


Personality & Attributions

Last updated:
21 Oct 2003


How do people organise information relevant to events; in particular how do they attribute causes to events or if you like explain the causes of an event?

We see someone hit or yell at someone and we infer reasons for these actions:
a) A generally hostile person?
b) Something harmful was done to him/her?
c) Was our previous picture of this person inaccurate and we must now view them in a new way?

These are the kind of inferences and attributions we are constantly making in our daily lives.

Actor/Self = attribute to the situation
Observer = attribute to personality

Remember from Rotter’s locus of control and learned helplessness that people maintain beliefs about their ability to influence or control events in their lives? A related area concerns peoples explanations for success or failure. Bernard Wiener (1979, 1986, 1990) suggests people’s attributions vary in terms of their locus of causality and their stability.

Locus of causality = internal (a part of yourself such as ability or effort) or external (factors outside yourself such as task difficulty or chance/luck)
Stability = stable (some causes seem to be fairly stable e.g. ability) or unstable (other causes seem to vary from time to time e.g. effort)

In general people tend to see success as reflecting a cause that is BOTH internal and stable (their ability, probably because this enhances their self-esteem)

Whereas people in general tend to see failure as having an unstable cause which might be internal or external (bad luck or not enough effort).

You can see the implications of this: if you see the causes of failure as being unstable then you don’t need to constantly worry that you’ll fail in the future: things will probably be different next time. If however you think the causes are stable (i.e. because you don’t have the ability or the world’s against you) then you’ll expect to fail all the time. Obviously your behaviour, thoughts and feelings can be deeply influenced by these types of expectations. Many theorists suggest that if you perceive bad outcomes as being due to stable factors or reasons, this likely leads to depression (e.g. Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989).