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Attribution Theory

Explanation of Theory:

Attribution Theory attempts to explain causes of behavior.  It attempts to explain the causes of people's behavior and attributing or explaining reasons as to why people behave the way they do.  Theorists Heider

Date: 1958

Primary Article:

    Heider, Fritz.  The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations.  (New York:  Wiley, 1958).

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Attribution Theory is a humanistic theory. There is not a direct relationship between our behavior and its causes. There can be a variety of behaviors that are perceived resulting from a variety of causes. Because Attribution Theory is Humanistic, Epistemological assumption says that there are multiple realities, or truths as opposed to only one truth. Humanistic Ontological assumption says that our human nature is of free will and not predetermined. Lastly, Axiological assumption says that as opposed to objectivity, values are important in studying the discipline of Communications. 


Being a Humanistic Theory, its critique is based on Farrell's categories that make up a good theory.  These categories are, Analytic Consistency, Methodological Rigor, Intuitive Credibility, and Heuristic Value (1987).  This is good theory based on its strong Heuristic Value, because it is very applicable to many different situations and can be perceived in many different ways. It also has Intuitive Credibility. The theory makes sense relative to our actual communicative practice. In other words, it has practicality. On the other hand, this theory is not as refined as other humanistic communication theories. There exists room for improvement.


Say you are expecting a very important phone call but you have to run out to the store.  Your roommate is the only one home and you tell her to be sure to answer the phone because of this call. She says that she will take a message. When you return home, you ask your roommate if she answered the call and took a good message, and she said someone called, but she forgot who and how to reach them.  There are several different reasons that this could have happened. One, she could have gotten a call right before your call, learning that her grandmother was ill, and she could have been too upset to remember to write it down. Or, the caller could have been short with her and not wanted to leave a message, and so on. As you can see, there are several different kinds of causal attributions to behavior, for example, situation causes, personal effects, ability to do something, obligation to do something ect. The attribution
assigned to behavior centers on perceived causes. It is important to look very carefully at the context in which the behavior took place.

Communication Scholars Who Have Made Use Of The Theory:

Hewstone, M. (1983)
Kelly, H. (1973)
Sillars, A.( 1980)
Kassin, S. & Baron, R. (1985)

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

   Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. N/A

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp. 132-134.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. N/A

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  N/A

Relevant Research:

Hong, Ying-yi, Dweck, Carol S. (1990). Implicit Theories,      Attributions, and Coping:  A Meaning System Approach. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Issue 3, p588.

Reinertsen, Konish, Don. (1999). What does it all mean?  Electronic Design. Vol. 47 Issue 26, p54.

Wall, Terri N., Hayes, Jeffrey A. (2000). Depressed Clients' Attributions of Responsibility for the Causes of and Solutions to Their Problems. Journal of Counseling & Development. Vol. 78 Issue 1, p81.