Attribution Theory of Motivation

Psychological research into attribution theory as a source of motivation began with the work of Fritz Heider [1896-1988], who is often described as the father of attribution theory. Heider was interested in how people explain their behaviors. He found that people explain themselves by attributing a particular behavior as being caused by either internal or external forces. Internal forces are labeled dispositions and include personality, motives, attitudes, and feelings. External forces are labeled situations and include societal norms, acts of nature, and random chance.

Heider’s concepts were advanced by Kelley (1973, 1978) who published a covariation model that includes three main types of information from which to make attribution decisions about individual behavior: (1) Consensus information includes data about how other people, faced with the same situation, behave. (2) Distinctive information includes data about how an individual will respond based upon different stimuli. (3) Consistency information includes data related to the frequency of the individual’s behavior in a variety of situations. An observer may use this information when assessing the individual’s behavior as either internally or externally attributable.

Weiner (1972, 1985) expanded upon the work of both Heider and Kelley by proposing that individuals search for attributions and analyze casual relations based on the behaviors they experience. This is the achievement attribution model. When the attributions they assign to causes are positive (i.e., lead to successful outcomes), these attributions should lead to additional attempts in this area. However, when the attributions they assign to causes are negative (i.e., lead to unsuccessful outcomes), these attributions result in a reluctance toward future attempts.

In summary, attribution theory attempts to explain the motivation of individuals by evaluating the processes in which individuals explain the causes of behavior. The term attribution theory is an umbrella term for a variety of models in which individuals look for explanations or causes that can be attributed to their own success or failure.

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