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What do you attribute your successes or failures to? Do you feel like luck and chance are involved, or do you feel like you’re in control of your achievements and behavior? This lesson will provide you with an overview of attribution theory and the principles of locus of control.

Attribution Theory and Model

‘An F! How could I make an F? Oh, that professor hates me! Maybe it was because I didn’t get enough sleep last night? This information is just too hard! I’ll never get it!’ Does this sound like you? What do you attribute your successes and failures to?Attributions are the perceived causes that individuals select or construct for events in their lives.

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A basic assumption of attribution theory is that a person’s understanding of the causes of past events influences his or her future actions.The psychologist Bernard Weiner developed an attribution theory that mainly focuses on achievement. According to Weiner, the most important factors affecting attributions are ability, effort, task difficulty and luck. He classified attributions along three causal dimensions. First is locus of control, where there are two poles: an internal locus versus an external locus. Next is stability – do causes change over time or not? Finally, there’s controllability – the causes one can control, such as skills, versus causes one cannot control, such as luck and others’ actions.

Weiner focuses on achievement in his attribution theory
Bernard Weiner Picture

There’s a lot of information here, so let’s take it dimension by dimension. Stability refers to how likely it is the probability of causes will change over time. For example, Allison failed her math test, but she attributed this failure to lack of sleep the night before. Allison might consider this situation unstable because the attributed cause – fatigue – would likely change in the future.

Stability is directly related to one’s expectancy for success.Next, let’s look at locus of control. This refers to one’s belief that his or her behavior is guided by external factors, such as luck, fate, etc., or internal factors, such as ability and effort. The importance of an attribution that is internal, for example, is the influence on self-esteem.

Success attributed to an internal cause (the person) is a source of pride. However, failure attributed to an internal cause is a source of disappointment. Success attributed to ability and/or effort is a source of pride because both ability and effort are internal attributions.The final dimension is controllability. Does the person have little control over the situation, or is the situation in their control? Control influences one’s affect (or feeling/emotion toward the situation or behavior).

Allison failed her test but feels like the teacher is against her and tries to make the tests too hard. This, perceivably, is out of Allison’s control, so in the future she may not try as hard to do well because she perceives the situation to be unchanging and uncontrollable, so why bother?Let’s put it together now. We can look at a matrix with locus of control as our columns and attributions of controllability as our rows. You can see that ability is considered an internally perceived locus but out of the control of the individual. For example, one may think they were born with the ability to be a good singer, or, on the other hand, they may think they can never play sports because they do not have the innate abilities and would not be able to learn.

Chance and luck are also attributed as no control, but are perceived as external. Effort is perceived as both controllable and internal, while task difficulty is perceived as controllable but external, because typically it’s assigned by the teacher or someone else.

How Attributions Are Communicated to Learners

A locus of control matrix based on attribution theory
Weiner Locus of Control Matrix

Attributional information is communicated to learners in a variety of ways. First, teachers communicate important information to their students through their feedback on assignments, on graded exams and during classroom instruction. When teachers communicate to students that failures are due to the use of inappropriate strategies or due to inappropriate effort, students are likely to be motivated to try harder or to use more appropriate strategies in the future. Research indicates that specific feedback is more useful to students because it can assist them in developing adaptive attributional beliefs.

Parents also communicate information to children and adolescents that affect their attributions. If a child loses a gymnastics competition, one parent might comment ‘It’s okay; gymnastics is very difficult,’ whereas another parent might state ‘You didn’t use the techniques that your coach showed you last week.’ The first statement might produce ability attributions (i.

e., ‘This is difficult, and I don’t expect you to be able to do well’), whereas the latter statement might encourage the gymnast to attribute the failure to a controllable cause, to something that can be worked on and altered for a better outcome in the future.

Attributional Biases

Now let’s talk about attributional biases. An attributional bias is a bias that affects the way we determine who or what was responsible for an action or event. Let’s look at the five most common of these biases briefly.

The first is fundamental attribution error. This type of bias is where we attribute others’ behaviors to a disposition or trait. For example, statements like ‘Mr. Smith is always mean to me’ or ‘Mr. Smith doesn’t think girls are smart’ are examples of fundamental attributional errors.

The second is actor-observer perspective. This is when we attribute others’ behavior to disposition but our own behavior to a situation – for example, ‘I hit John because he was annoying me, but now you are punishing me because you don’t like me and you always pick on me’.The third is a self-serving bias, when we accept personal responsibility for success but deny responsibility for failure – for example, ‘I made an A in chemistry because I’m good at that, but I failed English because the teacher is terrible and can’t explain anything.’The fourth is self-centered bias. This bias occurs regardless of success or failure, but when people accept more personal responsibility for a jointly determined outcome – for example, ‘Our group made an A on the project because I did more work than all other members combined.

‘The final attributional bias is false consensus effect. This is the assumption that your beliefs and behaviors are typical of most people – for example, ‘I hate math, but all girls hate math, right?’

Lesson Summary

In summary, attributions are causes that we select to understand our successes or failures. Attributions are typically constructed by how controllable we deem the event or behavior, how stable it is, and if the locus of control is external or internal. Educators and influential peers and adults relay messages of attribution to learners and can boost self-esteem or cause one to believe the situation is unachievable. So the next time you try to explain why you were successful or feel like something is too challenging, think about how you’re attributing your success or your failures.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define attributions, stability, locus of control and controllability
  • Understand how students may be influenced towards certain attributions
  • Identify and define the five common attributional biases

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