Attribution: The interpretive process by which people make judgments about the causes of their own behavior and the behavior of others. (Merriam-Webster)
Whether we are aware of it or not, we make attributions about our own actions or the actions of others all day long.
To explain attribution, Fritz Heider “believed that individuals use a kind of naïve or common-sense psychology to explain the behavior of others; this common-sense psychology thus shapes their perception of and interaction with their social world.”
Attribution can be attributed to internal (me) or external (them) factors and stable (consistent) or unstable (inconsistent) factors. For example:
“The test had nothing to do with what the professor taught.” (external, inconsistent)
“I did well on that test because I’m super-smart.” (internal, consistent)
“I didn’t get a raise because my boss hates me.” (external, consistent)
“I got that raise because I’m the most dedicated employee here.” (internal, consistent)
“Cathy snapped at me; she must be having a bad day.” (external, inconsistent)
“Cathy snapped at me because she thinks I’m stupid.” (internal, consistent)
As a general rule, we attribute our successes to internal factors, attributing our failures to external factors. Positive internal attribution and negative external attribution may be due to self-serving bias. We want to take credit for the good things and deflect the bad.
Now, what to do about it? According to the Harvard Business Review, understanding Fundamental Attribution Error is critical. In addition, identifying how we attribute things to possible false sets of data points and relying on our emotional intelligence is essential.
So, the next time you do well on a test, don’t get the raise you were expecting, or a co-worker snaps at you, ask yourself, “What data do I have to support what I’m thinking?” and “What might be going on that I don’t want to acknowledge?”
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