Features of Social Psychological Theories of Attribution

The social psychological theories of attribution deal with how people perceive their own and other people’s behaviour and how they use this information to gain a cognitive control over their social environment. In relation to the jury decision making process for example, if the case put before the jury is complex, then the jury may rely on their perception of the defendant and his/her behaviour to make their decision on whether they are guilty or not. Although there is no unifying theory of attribution, there are, however, three highly influential mini-theories:

Theory of Naive Psychology (Heider, 1958)
Correspondent Inference Theory (Jones & Davis, 1965)
Covariation Model (Kelley, 1967)

Best services for writing your paper according to Trustpilot

Premium Partner
From $18.00 per page
4,8 / 5
Writers Experience
Recommended Service
From $13.90 per page
4,6 / 5
Writers Experience
From $20.00 per page
4,5 / 5
Writers Experience
* All Partners were chosen among 50+ writing services by our Customer Satisfaction Team

In this essay, these three theories will be applied to the process of decision making made by juries as studies such as Efran (1974) have shown that juries make these decisions not just on the basis of the evidence but also on the attributions formed by the jury of the defendant.

Heider (1958) Theory of Naive Psychology.

Heider’s theory was based on the idea that people are ‘naive psychologists’. Without a proper knowledge of the science of psychology, they try to explain and predict other peoples’ behaviour in order to make sense of the society in which they live. This can result in them falsely believing that certain cause and effect relationships exist, which in turn can lead to a serious misunderstanding of any given situation, and in the area of jury decisions, this can in fact be fatal for the defendant if the death penalty is a potential consequence of the jury’s decision.

According to Heider, people have their own personal, pre-conceived ideas about any given situation which they have developed and internalised over time and through their cultural world view. These ideas form the basis of the attributes they will then attach to the behaviour of others in that situation. According to Heider, these attributions will be either internal or external.

Internal attributions – When jurors try to explain the behaviour of someone other than themselves, such as a defendant, they look for internal attributions, such as personality traits, thus assigning the cause of the behaviour to factors within the defendant. For example, Gordon (1990) found that jurors made an internal attribution if the crime matched certain ethnic stereotypes, i.e. black males are more likely to commit armed robbery while Caucasian males are more likely to commit fraud. This results in the defendant receiving a much harsher sentence from the jury.

External attributions – When jurors try to explain their own behaviour they tend to look for external factors, such as situational or environmental causes. For example, jurors may attribute their own behaviour to the environment of the courtroom, or the complexity of the case before them.

Heider’s theory can be criticised though for being too simplistic as it implies that people apply this general formula to all aspects of their social environment rather than take other factors such as either what type of judgement process they are going to use, (Reeder & Brewer, 1979) or the actual conscious intention of the defendant to behave in a certain manner, into account.

Jones and Davis (1965) Correspondent Inference Theory

Jones and Davis took this element of a person’s conscious intention to act (as opposed to accidental or unthinking behaviour) into account in their study. They say that we make a correspondence inference when we see a relationship between motive and behaviour. For example, jurors may see a correspondence between the defendant behaving in an aggressive way and being an aggressive person.

According to Jones and Davis, dispositional (i.e. internal) attributions would provide jurors with information from which they can make predictions about a defendant’s behaviour that they perceive to be intentional. If the defendant intended to commit the crime, then sentencing would be harsher. Jones and Davis say that there are 5 sources of information needed in order to make a correspondent inference:

Choice: If a behaviour is freely chosen it is attributed as being dispositional, i.e., the defendant must have consciously thought about all possible options and decided on this particular course of action and therefore freely chosen to commit the crime. Although this stance brings the whole debate of free will and determinism into play, and whether anyone can be said to truly choose to commit a particular act (Fischer, 1989).

Accidental vs. Intentional Behaviour: Behaviour which is perceived as being intentional is more likely to be attributed to the defendant’s personality (dispositional) and behaviour which is perceived as being non-intentional is likely to be attributed to external causes (situational), although for this information to be of any benefit it would have to be gathered at the time of the action, and this is not possible for juries assessing the level of intent, if any, long after the action has occurred.

Social Desirability: Behaviour that is low in sociably desirability or that deviates from socially expected norms of behaviours leads us to make dispositional inferences. For example, when people in a particular social role (e.g. police officer, priest, or teacher) behave in ways that are not the socially expected ‘norms’ for that particular role, Jones and Davis would say that we can be more certain about what their personality or character is really like than when people behave as expected within the role.

Non-common effects: When the consequences of the chosen action are compared with the consequences of the alternative actions, the fewer the non-common effects are found then the more confident we can be in inferring a correspondent disposition. In jury decisions, the defendant’s choice of action is evaluated and depending on the choice he/she made, inferences can be made. For example, if the defendant had a choice of two victims, one wealthy and one poor, and proceeded to choose the poor victim, then we can infer that money was not a motivator for the crime.

Hedonistic Relevance: This relates to how much the effects of a particular action are experienced as either being pleasant or unpleasant. A defendant’s actions are more likely to be judged as intentional and therefore dispositional if the effects of the outcome are unpleasant.

However, Correspondent Inference Theory does not take into account how people make attributions about situational causes, as it only deals with how people make attributions to the person. Other factors such as the in-group/out-group variable can heavily influence inferences about a person’s behaviour. For example, Vonk and Konst (1998) found that when the behaviour was committed by an in-group member, participants were more likely to make situational attributions for socially unacceptable behaviour and dispositional attributions for more acceptable behaviours. The opposite effects were found for behaviour committed by out-group members.

Kelley (1967) Covariation Model

Kelley’s covariation model is perhaps the best known attribution theory. It applies to multiple instances of behaviour, rather than for just a single instance as previously discussed in correspondent inference theory. Covariation by definition means that a person has gathered information from several observations, at different times and from within different situations, and will use this information to deduce the covariation of cause and effect. Kelley argues that when people want to discover why someone behaved in a certain manner, three kinds of evidence are taken into consideration which will influence their decision regarding said behaviour.

Consensus: The degree to which other people behave in a similar manner in a similar situation. For example, the defendant took drugs when they went out with their friends. If the defendant’s friends also took drugs, then the defendant’s behaviour is high in consensus. If only the defendant took drugs then the defendant’s behaviour is low in consensus.

Distinctiveness: The degree to which a person behaves in a similar manner in different situations. If the defendant only took drugs when they were out with their friends, then the defendant’s behaviour is high in distinctiveness. If they take drugs at any time or place, their behaviour is low in distinctiveness.

Consistency: The degree to which the person behaves in this manner every time this situation occurs. If the defendant only takes drugs when they are out with their friends, consistency is high. If the defendant only took drugs on one separate occasion, then consistency is low.

Kelley’s theory was supported by the findings from (MacArthur 1972) study.

According to Kelley, Behaviour that is high in Consensus, Consistency and Distinctiveness (HHH), will be attributed as situational, and behaviour that is low in Consensus and Consistency but high in Distinctiveness (LLH) will be attributed as dispositional. In addition to these two covariations from Kelley, McArthur (1972) found that behaviour that is low in Consensus and high in Consistency but low in Distinctiveness (LHL) was attributed as being situational by participants.

So, according to Kelley’s covariation model, jurors may be attributing causality on the basis of correlation. One problem with this theory however, is that as jurors do not know the defendant, then they wouldn’t have the information to know if the defendant’s behaviour is consistent over time and therefore cannot reasonably make that kind of judgement.

Kelley’s theory can be criticised in that it does not differentiate between intentional and non-intentional behaviour, and participants are given “pre-packaged” information which they may not use in everyday situations. Other studies such as that of Alloy & Tabachnik (1984) have found that people are somewhat poor at assessing covariation between events.

In conclusion, given that researchers are not privy to actual jury deliberations, and even in mock trial studies do not always know how participants may interpret the situation or even interpret the questions that they are asked, further exploration of how people use all models is important for future research in attribution.


Alloy, L.B., and Tabachnik, N. (1984). Assessment of covariation by humans and animals: The joint influence of prior expectations and current situational information. Psychological Review, 91(1), 112-149.

Efran, M.G. (1974). The effect of physical appearance on the judgment of guilt,

interpersonal attraction, and severity of recommended punishment in a simulated jury

task. Journal of Research in Personality, 8, 45-54.

Fischer, J. M. (1989). God, Foreknowledge and Freedom. Stanford, Califonia:

Stanford University Press.

Gordon, R. A. (1990). Attributions for blue-collar and white-collar crime: the effects of subject and defendant race on simulated juror decisions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20, 971-983.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 15, 192-238, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Jones, E. E.; Davis, K. E.; Gergen, K. J. (1961). Role playing variations and their informational value for person perception. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63(2), 302-310.

Jones, E. E. and Davis, K. E. (1965). From acts to dispositions: the attribution process in social psychology, in L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, 2, 219-266, New York: Academic Press.

McArthur, Leslie A. (1972). The how and what of why: Some determinants and consequences of causal attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22(2), 171-193.

Reeder, G.D., and Brewer, M.B. (1979). A Schematic Model of Dispositional Attribution in Interpersonal Perception. Psychological Review, 86(1), 61-79.

Vonk, R., & Konst, D. (1998). Intergroup bias and correspondence bias: People engage in situational correction when it suits them. British Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 379-385.

WORD COUNT: 1,360.

Q 3: Discuss the relevance of qualitative methods to critical social psychology.

In order to understand the relevance of any methodology to critical social psychology, one must first understand what critical social psychology is and how it differs from mainstream psychology.

Psychology, by definition, is the scientific study of the human mind, its mental states and the behaviour of both humans and animals. The main subject of this scientific study, the human, is what Taylor (1985) calls a `self-interpreting animal ‘. We do not only seek to understand ourselves but we are also governed by that understanding. As a consequence of this, theories and methods are required in order to gain said understanding of the complexities of interpreting not only the cognitive processes that are used but also the data that is produced by any such investigative processes.

In the 1960s and 1970s ‘radical psychology’ rejected mainstream psychology’s focus on the analysis of the individual and of the individual being the sole source of psychopathology. Instead, radical psychologists studied society as both the cause and possible source of treatment for psychopathological problems and investigated aspects of social change as an alternative treatment for mental illness and a way to prevent future psychopathology. Critical Psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with finding alternatives to the reduction of human experience by mainstream psychology to the level of the individual and mainstream psychology’s apparent inability to facilitate possibilities for radical social change.

One of the most important texts in the field, published in 1983, is the ‘Foundations of Psychology’ by Klaus Holzkamp, who many consider to be the theoretical founder of critical psychology. Holzkamp considered perception and cognition as very specific concepts of meaning that identified themselves as being both historically and culturally constructed. In other words, humans create conceptual structures with a purpose that is closely related to culture and is within historical patterns of social reproduction.

It was from this phenomenological perspective that Holzkamp launched a devastating methodological attack on behaviourism that is based on linguistic analysis, showing in detail the rhetorical patterns by which behaviourism created the false impression of scientific objectivity while simultaneously losing the significance of understanding intentional human actions that are positioned within a culture. One important concept that Holzkamp developed was the ‘reinterpretation’ of theories that had been developed by conventional psychology. This incorporated their informative insights into critical psychology while concurrently ascertaining their limitations. Such as in the case of behaviourism with its rhetorical reduction of both the subject and the intentional action.

Over 30 years ago, in the ‘crisis’ period of social psychology, Moscovici observed that no discipline can be healthy if the methods by which questions are asked within that discipline are overshadowed by the methods by which those questions are investigated (Moscovici, 1972). This is perhaps most apparent within the particular discipline of psychology.

So what methodology works best for critical social psychology? Positivism is the theory that knowledge can be acquired only through direct observation and experimentation, and not through metaphysics or theology, thus it was thought that psychology’s success as a legitimate science would only be ensured by the emulation of the hard sciences’ laboratory methods and statistical analyses, known as Quantitative (Q1) Research. It was this search for scientific legitimacy that led to the discarding of what came to be seen as the ‘softer’ traditions of Qualitative (Qa) research methods such as participant observation and field work.

This positivist approach, with its narrow focus and hypothesis driven methodology does have its place in psychology, as long as the research question requires a merely ‘quantifiable’ answer. In relation to critical social psychology however, Kidder & Fine (1987) defined Qa research as having two distinguishable features:

The Big Q – consisting of unstructured research, inductive work, the generating of hypotheses and the development of ‘grounded theory’ (cf. Glaser & Strauss, 1967) in field work, participant observation and ethnography.

The Small q – consists of open ended questions fixed within a survey or experiment that has been structured or designed.

They also put forward the idea that there are other elements of Qa research that facilitate critical analysis:

An Open-ended Stance – Starting with an intuition on a particular subject, researchers form and continuously reform hypotheses. It encourages a broad inquiry into previously undocumented social spaces.

Reflexivity – Researchers subjectivity is considered as an extra piece of data alongside those of their respondents and how these differences or similarities affect the data collection and analysis.

Analysis – The process of analysing Qa data can bring forth surprising patterns and yield further hypotheses that require yet further investigation.

Qa researchers are interested in answering the questions of why rather than what. It is just not enough on its own to know that a certain number of people said yes to a particular ‘closed’ question. That is not to say that when placed alongside Qa evidence, Q1 evidence is both clear and powerful. Unfortunately it sometimes has the effect of being so powerful to some individuals that it overpowers the opinions of the people involved and this is particularly dangerous. In addition there are still many researchers who are not prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ and add the extra understanding to the figures they have collected.

Schostak (2002) espouses that Qa researchers develop their theories from the everyday experiences of their respondents and report the research findings in terms that would be familiar to those respondents. They conduct their research on a much more face to face level of interaction that focuses on the respondents’ everyday routine. Qa researchers do not have the objective detachment from their data that limits Q1 researchers. Rather the Qa researchers engage respondents in the research and it is this engagement which gives respondents an understanding of the research. This is considered to be a basis for the facilitation of radical social change that is a defining feature of Critical Psychology.

Qa research should not be seen as an attempt to reflect social reality in objective terms, but rather as the production of a set of interpretations that allow a greater and more detailed understanding of a particular social phenomenon. There is a move towards placing the researcher and their interpretations as the axes of the investigation, so as to support the findings.

This happens through a narration by the respondent, however narration is not merely a medium of communication, but a descriptive and analytical tool with which the researcher seeks to produce an interpretation of the reality experienced by the respondent.

In a typical Q1 experiment a small number of variables are manipulated and the consequences of that manipulation are observed. Q1 research however, does not take into account that some important factors in a phenomenon cannot be manipulated in this way. One of these important factors is that of people’s behaviour which is often complex. It cannot be reduced to simply a straightforward reaction to a stimulus or some measurable aspect of the immediate surroundings (for instance, the number of

people present). Rather, it is framed and given meaning by people’s personal histories and by the beliefs, values and moral principles of the society and communities to which they belong. These things cannot be conceptualised adequately as experimental variables, and such concerns have led to an increase in the use of qualitative methods. When critical psychologists talk about experiments ‘decontextualising’ behaviour (Hepburn, 2003), they are often referring to this more ‘distant’ personal and

social context as well as to features of the more immediate situational context that can inform our understanding of a person’s conduct, which is all too often lost in the hypothesis driven Q1 research.

In conclusion, the relevance of qualitative methods to critical social psychology can be best summed up in this direct quote from a famous 19th century Scottish mathematician and physicist:

“It was a great step in science when men became convinced that, in order to understand the nature of things, they must begin by asking, not whether a thing is good or bad, noxious or beneficial, but of what kind it is? And how much is there of it? Quality and Quantity were then first recognised as the primary features to be observed in scientific inquiry”.

James Clerk Maxwell (1870)

You Might Also Like

I'm Alejandro!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out