Analyzing People's Motivation Using Attribution Theory


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Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses the information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It investigates what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment. Attribution theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do, or in other words attribute causes to behavior. A person seeking to understand why another person did something may attribute one or more causes to that behavior. A three-stage process often underlies an attribution of a person’s behavior. First, the person must perceive or observe the behavior, two then the person must believe that the behavior was intentionally performed, and three then the person must determine if they believe the other person was forced to perform the behavior or not.

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Attribution theory has been used to explain the difference in motivation between high and low achievers. According to attribution theory, high achievers will approach rather than avoid tasks related to succeeding because they believe success is due to high ability and effort which they are confident of. Failure is thought to be caused by bad luck or a poor exam, i.e. not their fault. Thus, failure doesn’t affect their self-esteem, but success builds pride and confidence. On the other hand, low achievers avoid success-related chores because they tend to either doubt their ability and/or assume success is related to luck and other factors beyond their control. Thus, even when successful, it isn’t as rewarding to the low achiever because they don’t feel responsible, so it doesn’t increase their self-esteem and confidence.

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have a cognitive bias to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person. We tend to see others as internally motivated and responsible for their behavior. An example of making internal attributions whether they are justified or not is blaming the victim. If giving someone our sympathy or blaming the true culprit somehow causes us dissonance, we may hold the victim responsible for his or her own pain and suffering. ‘He had it coming,’ and ‘she was asking for it, two very common phrases in this scenario.

Fundamental attribution bias may not be universal across cultures. While American children are often seen to have increasing reliance upon character as an explanation of events observed as they grow older, Hindu children in comparison base their explanations more on situations. This information is consistent with the idea that certain cultures, like the united states, encourage the individual self-concept more than others. Americans are often seen putting praise on individual achievement and uniqueness, characters that are often associated with the self. There is a concept in the psychological literature known as locus of control that although unfamiliar to many people once explained seems fairly obvious. Locus of control is a person’s belief system concerning the causes of their experiences and the factors to which that person attributes success or failure.

This concept is usually divided into two categories: internal and external. If a person has an internal locus of control, that person attributes success to his or her own efforts and abilities. A person who expects to succeed will be more motivated and more likely to learn. A person with an external locus of control, who attributes his or her success to luck or fate, will be less likely to make the effort needed to learn. People with an external locus of control are also more likely to experience anxiety since they believe that they are not in control of their lives. This is not to say, however, that an internal locus of control is “good”, and an external locus of control is “bad.” There are other variables to be considered, however, psychological research has found that people with a more internal locus of control seem to be better off, and they tend to be more achievement-oriented and get better-paying jobs.

Locus of control is often viewed as an inborn personality component. However, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences, including children’s interactions with their parents. Children who were raised by parents who encouraged their independence and helped them to learn the connection between actions and their consequences tended to have a more well-developed internal locus of control.

The self-serving bias is defined as people’s tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attributes negative events to external factors. It’s a common type of cognitive bias that has been extensively studied in social psychology. For example, in a positive event, you get an A for an essay and you attribute it to your own awesomeness, making it internal attribution. On the other hand, a negative event occurs, you get a C on an essay and you attribute it to your professor not having explained what they wanted well enough, making it an external attribution.

Sometimes when people are depressed or have low self-esteem, their attribution style is flipped. They attribute positive events to chance or external help and attribute negative events to their own character. If someone is feeling irritable, they might attribute negative events to a combination of internal and external factors. For example, ‘I got a C because I’m useless and professors are unfair anyway.’ Or, another example, ‘I’m having problems in my relationship because I’m a defective person and because other people are generally untrustworthy.’ Overall, research on the self-serving bias and depression suggests that the bias isn’t completely flipped in people with depression, but the scale of the bias is less than in the general population.

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