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How do we make sense of the world around us? How do we explain outcomes? In this lesson, we’ll learn about internal and external attributions and the self-serving bias. We’ll also discover how these can explain how we make sense of events in our lives.

Internal and External Attributions

Imagine a time when you didn’t do well on a test. What was the reason? Did you fail because you didn’t study hard enough? Or because the questions were unclear? Attributions are the reasons we give for an outcome or event. There are two main types of attributions: internal attributions are reasons that come from within ourselves, while external attributions are reasons from the world around us.In the test example, if you said that you didn’t do well because you didn’t study enough, that is an internal attribution. You have control over whether you study or not; that reason is based on your traits or actions.

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However, if you said that you didn’t do well because the questions were badly written, that is an external attribution. You can’t control whether the teacher makes a fair test or not, so this reason is about the world around you, not about you and your strengths and weaknesses.

Using Attributions

Why do people use attributions? They are one way that we make sense of the world around us and of events as they unfold. People tend to look for patterns in what is happening around them. If something happens, we subconsciously look for a reason why it happened.

Often, we base those reasons on patterns that we notice.For example, if you notice that every time you don’t study for a test, you get a bad grade, then you will start to attribute bad grades to not studying. Many times, these patterns lead us to the correct attribution. For example, if you notice that every time you tell a certain joke, people laugh, then you might attribute people’s laughter to the joke, and you’re likely to be correct.Sometimes, though, patterns can mislead us, and we can end up making attributions that aren’t true. Most of the time, you’re probably right that people are laughing at your jokes, but what if you’re telling a joke at a particularly rowdy party? People may be laughing because they’ve had too much to drink, in which case your attribution is wrong.

Our attributions help guide our future thoughts and behaviors. For example, if you make the attribution that not studying leads to bad grades, then you’re more likely to study in the future. If you believe that your joke is the cause of your friends’ laughter, even if it’s not, then you’re more likely to tell the joke in the future.

Self-Serving Bias

One specific type of pattern that guides many people’s attributions is called the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias is when people give success internal attributes and failure external attributes.

Let’s look at an example. Kara is a runner. She is really good at it and wins lots of races. Whenever she wins a race, she tells herself that she won because she’s talented and because she trained really hard. She attributes her win to internal forces; she won because of something within herself or something that she did.

On the other hand, sometimes Kara loses. When that happens, she makes external attributions. She believes that she lost because it was so hot that day or because the other racers took supplements that made them stronger. In short, the self-serving bias makes people believe that they are responsible for success, but that failure is not their fault.

As a result, the self-serving bias can lead to a higher self-esteem and lower chance of depression.Of course, it can also lead to people not working to overcome real obstacles to success. For example, maybe Kara didn’t train as hard as she could have before the race that she lost.

If she attributes her failure to external factors, she isn’t driven to train as hard as she would be if she attributes her failure to her lack of training.

Lesson Summary

Internal attributions are when we believe an outcome is due to a behavior or trait within us, while external attributions are when we believe an outcome is due to something outside of our control. People make attributions in order to help make sense of the world and to confirm patterns. In order to boost self-esteem, some people attribute their successes to internal factors and their failures to external factors, which is called the self-serving bias.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Differentiate between internal and external attributions
  • Describe ways in which people use these attributions
  • Explain how internal and external attributions apply to the self-serving bias

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