Critically analyse Weiner’s attribution theory
Weiner’s (1979, 1985, 1986, as cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 2008) attribution theory was built upon the attributional dimensions of task achievement, primarily focusing on the causes and consequences of the types of attribution made depending on whether the task in question was seen as a success or a failure. Weiner (1979) believed that when a task is completed, emotions are elicited depending on whether the task was thought of as a success or a failure; these occurrences are then evaluated to produce general outcome related effects, either resulting in positive or negative emotions. Then, to make an attribution Wiener (1979) proposed that three dimensions of performance are considered; the locus, the stability and the controllability of the causes of the task performance. These dimensions when used together produce eight separate explanations of what the performance on a task might be attributed to. This causal attribution for their performance then produces more specific emotions, such as pride if a task has been done well, and expectations which influence future performances.
The locus of causality dimension of Weiner’s (1979) theory is there to differentiate whether the performance is caused by the actor, therefore an internal cause, or by the situation, which would be an external cause. Internal factors could include reasons such as ability of the individual, or the amount of effort they put into the task, whereas external factors include influences which are out of the individuals control, for example luck or the difficulty of the task (Forsterling, 2001). This performance dimension is in line with Heider’s (1958) well accredited theory which also uses the idea of internal and external causal explanations for achievement results. Heider (1958) believed that psychological theories, for example Weiner’s attribution theory, are important in their own right, as they influence behaviour; he was of the view that individuals are actually naive psychologists. He based this idea on three principles, one of these being in the way we attribute causation of behaviour, with internal and external attributions. Heider (1958) believed that we can only use internal causes when there are no obvious external causes, as they are hidden from view, however he found that people tend to be biased towards preferring to using internal attributions, and readily attribute behaviour to stable properties. Scherer (1978, as cited in Hogg & Vaughan, 2008) found that individuals made assumptions about the stable personality traits of strangers based only on hearing their voices on the telephone. Thus, this aspect of Weiner’s (1979) work was built upon a theory already existing, indicating a likelihood of reliability as it was already a well established and accepted theory, with plenty of empirical evidence behind it.
The stability dimension of the theory according to Weiner (1985) is important, as if a failure is seen to have been caused by a stable factor, this may imply the anticipation that failure may reoccur in the future; whereas if the failure was due to an unstable factor, it may be justified to hope for success in the future. Meyer (1973, as cited in Forsterling, 2001) found performance quality to be affected by the dimension of stability. If initial failure was attributed to changeable factors then high expectations can be maintained, with the individual continuing to put effort into the task (Forsterling, 2001). In contrast, if failure was attributed to stable factors, expectancy of success rapidly decreases, causing the individual to stop exerting sufficient effort, causing task performance to deteriorate (Forsterling, 2001).
Critics have suggested that the controllability dimension of the theory may be less important than first thought (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). However, Blefare (1987) believes that this component is important; it is distinct from the stability and locus of causation, as internal and external factors can both be either controllable or uncontrollable, for example individuals can control their effort by trying harder, but they cannot very easily control their intellectual ability. This highlights the fact that the dimensions are all separate and important in their own right, and need to be included for the theory to be entire.
Soric and Palekcic (2009) carried out research where the interests, learning strategies and the causal attributions which students made towards their academic achievements were looked at. The results obtained supported the prediction from Weiner’s (1979) work, of the importance of the role of causal attribution, although only for the causal dimension of controllability. Therefore Soric and Palekcic (2009) concluded that this aspect of controllability is crucial, and plays a mediating role between the students’ academic achievement and their interests. The fact that this study found the controllability dimension to be especially important goes some way to counteract the criticisms received in this area, and demonstrate that this aspect of the theory is important.
Following criticisms received, particularly regarding the controllability dimension of the theory, Weiner (1995) went on to extend the attribution model to include an emphasis on judgements of responsibility. The model infers that in the event of there being a judgement of personal causality, also with some controllability and mitigating circumstances, then an inference of responsibility may be assigned. It is then these latter judgements (the inference of responsibility), and not the causal attributions themselves, which influence affective experience and behavioural reactions.
It has however been argued that other aspects should be considered within the causes of task performances. Hamilton (1978, as cited in Crittenden, 1983) believes that role expectations should be incorporated into the attribution model, which would be a way to bridge the gap between cognition and social structure in the area of attribution research. This does seem to be a plausible idea, and if more research into this area was done, then this may produce a more thorough theory of attribution, which could attribute performance on a task to a wider range of causes, such as expectations others have on the individual.
In order to evaluate the validity of Wiener’s (1979) model of causal attributions in respect to perceptions of the causes of success and failure, Jong, Koomen and Mellenbergh (1988) carried out research, where preference judgements were used to reveal the dimensions underlying their perceptions. Through multidimensional scaling analysis, it was found that internal, stability and excusability dimensions were vital, therefore in the main supporting Weiner’s (1979) ideas. They also found differences in the relative emphasis in the dimensions between the success and failure conditions; following success internal dimensions were more prominent compared to when after failure (Jong et al., 1988). The idea that individuals would rather attribute success to internal instead of external factors is understandable; they would rather have credit for their success than think it was down to luck or the task being easy. This empirical evidence can be used to suggest that Weiner’s (1979) theory is based on sound ideas.
Weiner’s attribution theory can be merited as it has a wide range of applications, for example in relation to academic success. Graham (2004) investigated the attitudes of English students towards learning the French language, and their thoughts on the reasons behind their success. It was found that the students whom attributed their success to effort, high ability and effective learning strategies had higher levels of achievement, whereas students with a lack of achievement attributed this to their low ability and task difficulty. As a result it was argued that students should be encouraged to make links between the learning strategies which they use and their academic performance, therefore changing their attributions for success or failure. This backs up Weiner’s (1979) theory, and it shows that through the changing of attributions to internal factors, success can be achieved more readily than when students believed that their failure was due to external factors.
Weiner’s (1979) work on the attribution theory led to the design of the Causal Dimension Scale by Russell (1982), using the dimensions Weiner (1979) identified, to assess perceptions of casual attributions for different events. The model consists of a nine level scale which included measures of causality, stability and controllability. This though was later revised, with the controllability dimension being split into internal and external controllable dimensions, causing the scale to change to a twelve level scale (McAuley, Duncan, & Russell, 1992). The Casual Dimension Scale has been shown to have the ability to predict a variety of cognitive and affective variables, in a spectrum of settings; this however is used to assess the insight of the causes of a particular event, in contrast to methods which assess attributional style. This scale is good as collecting data is easy as it is in a questionnaire format, and it also makes data which would otherwise be qualitative, quantitative, which means it is easier to analyse, therefore it can be tested for significance. As the Casual Dimension Scale links directly to Weiner’s (1979) theory, it is more dependable as research had already been found to back up that the attribution theory. One drawback of this scale is that some people may find it difficult to answer, and it is easy for the participant to fall into the middle of the scale, which would not give very meaningful data for the experimenter.
A possible downfall of Weiner’s (1979) theory is that in several investigations which have been carried out, cultural differences have been observed. Miller (1984) found that Americans held more individualistic cultural views compared to those of Hindus’, whose views were more holistic cultural orientations. Following these findings, Miller (1984) concluded that it should be recognised that objective information may produce contrasting effects depending on the cultural values held by the attributor interpreting the information. It should be recognised, however, that these cross-cultural differences result from contrasting cultural conceptions acquired during development in the differing cultures, rather than from individual differences between attributors such as cognitive or experimental variances (Miller, 1984).
A limitation of the research in the attribution field is that the experimental effects found in the laboratory must extend into natural settings to enable it to be generalised, however most research in this area are conducted in experimental environments. Myers (1980, as cited in Crittenden, 1983) argued that field research should be carried out in order to provide general information about social norms and roles, and generate specific hypotheses, which can then be used to text in experimental settings, where variables can be better manipulated. These experiments could then be used to highlight dominant psychological mechanisms and account for variances in attribution processes, within a single context (Myers, 1980). However, as Hogg and Vaughan (2008) suggest, it may be a little ambitious to suggest that in the real world, outside laboratory controlled conditions, individuals use this theory to make an attribution to the cause of the performance on a task.
After considering the aspects involved in Weiner’s (1979) attribution theory, it has become clear that there are a variety of different views surrounding this work. Although there is evidence for and against the validity of the theory, it seems that the evidence supporting Weiner’s work outweighs the limitations. The work of Weiner is logical, and this combined with the evidence of other psychologists such as Heider (1958), Blefare (1987) and Meyer (1973), leads to the conclusion that at the present time, this theory seems to be worthy of being accepted as a sound basis for the understanding of attribution.
Crittenden, K. (1983). Sociological aspects of attribution. Annual Review of Sociology, 9(1), 425-446.
Forsterling, F. (2001). Attribution: An introduction to theories, research, and applications East Sussex: Psychology Press
Graham, S. J. (2004). Giving up modern foreign languages? Students’ perceptions of learning French. The Modern Language Journal, 88, 171-191.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Wiley: New York.
Hogg, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2008) Social Psychology (5th ed.). Essex: Pearson Education Limited
Jong, P. F., Koomen, W., Mellenbergh, G. J. (1988) Structure of causes for success and failure: A multidimensional scaling analysis of preference judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 55(5), 718-725.
McAuley, E., Duncan, T. E., & Russell, D. (1992). Measuring causal attributions: The Revised Causal Dimension Scale (CDSII). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 566-573
Miller, J. G. (1984). Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 961-978.
Russell, D. (1982). The Causal Dimension Scale: A measure of how individuals perceive causes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 1127-1135.
Soric, I. (2009). Regulatory styles, causal attributions and academic achievement. School Psychology International, 30(4), 403.
Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573.
Weiner, B. (1995). Judgments of responsibility: A foundation for a theory of social conduct. The Guilford Press.