AGS Sunday Seminar 15 February, 2004-02-15


At Gavan’s Place


Presented by our Distinguished Guest Presenter .. Mr Brett MacDonald.





Attributions can be thought of as inferences that people draw about the causes of events, other's behaviour, and their own behaviour; so if a car overtakes you in a reckless manner there could be all sorts of reasons that could motivate the driver to risk life and limb.


Some of these could be ....................


Curiously, the term wasn't really investigated formally until 1958 by Fritz Heider, who described how people make attributes.  He assumed that people make attributes so that they would understand some of their experiences. Heider asserted that people tend to locate the cause of behaviour either within the person or outside the person - environmental influences. Internal aspects include: abilities, traits, dispositions, and feelings. Explanations for their experiences may guide people in changing their behaviour to improve the outcomes. Also people sometimes make distorted attributions to maintain their self-image or to discount evidence that contradicts beliefs that they cherish.


People form attributions under particular circumstances: These include: when unusual circumstances grab their attention, when events have personal relevance for them, and when others behaviour in unexpected ways.


Internal and external attributions can have dramatic consequences on everyday interactions. How you react to a person's anger may be dependent on whether you believe that they are having a bad day or that they dislike something about you - the ripples flow into the future and influence how you treat that person henceforth.


Kelly's Covariation Model


Kelly built on the model of Heider and created other dimensions for attributes. These other dimensions are:


1. Distinctiveness: is a person's behaviour toward you, the target, caused by something particular to you - high distinctiveness, or something general?


2. Consistency: is the way a person behaves toward you the 'same' over time - high consistency, or does it vary over a period?


3. Consensus: do other people react to you in the same way as the target person - high consensus, or does the actions of the target different from others?


When these dimensions are coupled with the internal and external labels a powerful tool comes into place to make judgments that influences decisions. For example, high consistency can be associated with both internal and external attributes, while high distinctiveness aligns with external attributes, and high consensus with internal attributes.


Specifically, if a person seems irritated each time they see you each time they encounter you in a given situation, say in negotiations but other people do not then they are low in consensus, low in distinctiveness, and high in consistency.

Therefore you would have good ground to assume that their behaviour is centred around what they are experiencing rather than your influence, this being so you may be less inclined to take offence and be more at ease in the situation.



Others have added to the factors that influence what we assume to be attributes, these include: stability/unstable, controllability, and global/specific. An example being a person with clinical depression could be described as having low control, stable, global attributes, while a person who is depressed because of some event would have unstable, high control, and specific attributes.


These attributes are not 'cut and dry', and are graded rather than 'either/or. They serve as markers for decision-making - a guide, not a rule.


TASK: think of an event that has meaning for you that involves another person's behaviour and assign the above attributes to that person, but in doing so mention some of the considerations you would need to make BEFORE forming a decision that could hurt you and the other person.



Some Problems With Attributes


We need to be aware that attributes are only inferences. The initial causes of behaviour may never be known, what we are doing is guessing. Over time and many situations, however, some trends have emerged that appear to with the use of attributes, here are some of these - with these there appears to be a meta trend, what would you say it could be?


a) Fundamental Attribution Error:

In this case an observer will emphasis internal attributes over external attributes particularly for the OTHER person when something goes wrong, if it is a good thing the opposite occurs. Imagine that you see someone trip over in the street out of the comer of your eye, it is more likely they would be labelled clumsy (internal), rather than tripping on a piece of loose paving (external). Curiously if it were the observer who tripped it would probably be explained by the paving rather than clumsiness.


b) Defensive Attribution:

This can be seen to be similar to the first one. Here there is a tendency to blame victims for their misfortune, so that one feels less likely to be victimised in the same way. How often have you heard someone ask, after a girl is attacked at night, "What was she doing out at that hour?".


c) Self Serving Bias:

This occurs when people try explain success or failure, in this case successes are related to your skill etc, while failure is related to misfortune, illness etc. Some people even invest in their future feeling by saying for example how much the leg hurts BEFORE, so that if they do well it's overcoming obstacles and if they fail it's because of the injury.


Question to consider: How conscious/aware are we when we display these biases, keeping in mind that there may be various levels of awareness etc.?







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