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The attributional theory of achievement motivation: Cross-cultural considerations



Based on data collected from the Navajo Indian and other comparative investigations, limitations in previous cross-cultural attributional analyses of achievement motivation are proposed. First, it is suggested that the present comparative attribution literature is characterized by several conceptual perspectives which may be ethnocentric in nature, namely (a) the definitions of success and failure assumed, (b) the causal elements which are imposed, and (c) the tendency to classify causal attributions within bi-polar taxonomic dimensions which may not be meaningful to the culture of interest. Research directions for future cross-cultural attribution work which should assist the comparative investigator in overcoming these conceptual limitations are provided. Second, it is argued that the attributional theory of achievement motivation has several epistemological assumptions inherent within it concerning perspectives of time, individualism, and the nature of causation. These assumptions might lay the basis for a theory which reflects a culturally-specific cognitive process. Further research on the nature and frequency of the attributional process among diverse cultures is advocated.
Inrernarionol Journal of Inrercultuml Relorions. Vol. 13. pp. 37-H. 1989 0147-1767/89 13.00 + .OO
Printed in the USA. All rights rcxrvcd. Copyright 0 1989 Pergamon Press plc
Purdue University
Arizona State University
ABSTRACT Based on data collected from the Navajo Indian and other compar-
ative investigations, limitations in previous cross-cultural attributional analyses
of achievement motivation are proposed. First, it is suggested that the present
comparative attribution literature is characterized by several conceptual perspec-
tives which may be ethnocentric in nature, namely (a) the definitions of success
and failure assumed, (b) the causal elements which are imposed, and (cl the
tendency to classify causal attributions within bi-polar taxonomic dimensions
which may not be meaningful to the culture of interest. Research directions for
future cross-cultural attribution work which should assist the comparative inves-
tigator in overcoming these conceptual limitations are provided. Second, it is
argued that the attributional theory of achievement motivation has several episte-
mological assumptions inherent within it concerning perspectives of time, indi-
vidualism, and the nature of causation. These assumptions might lay the basis for
a theory which reflects a culturally-specific cognitive process. Further research on
the nature and frequency of the attributional process among diverse cultures is
The purpose of this paper is to propose and discuss possible limita-
tions in cross-cultural research based on the attributional theory of
achievement motivation (Weiner, 1974, 1979, 1985). Although this theo-
retical framework has been the focus of several comparative studies (e.g.,
Betancourt & Weiner, 1982; Bond, 1983; Chandler, Shama, Wolf, &
Planchard, 1981; Cohen, vanderBont, Kramer, & vanvhet, 1986; Kashi-
ma & Triandis, 1986; Little, 1987; Louw & Louw-Potgieter, 1986; McMil-
lan, 1980; Murphy-Berman & Sharma, 1987; Nicholls, 1980; Niles, 1986;
Raviv, Bar-tal, Raviv, & Bar-tal, 1980; Watkins & Antilla, 1980), it is
The authors would like to express appreciation to two anonymous reviewers for their con-
structive and insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Reprint requests should be sent to: Joan L. Duda, Purdue University, Department of
Physical Education, Health, and Recreation Studies, Lambert 113, W. Lafayette, IN
38 J. L. Duda and hf. 7: Allison
argued that this line of research has embedded within it several conceptu-
al perspectives which may be ethnocentric in nature. Further, we suggest
that attribution theory itself appears to be based on several epistemologi-
cal assumptions which may not hold cross-culturally. Support for our
position is drawn from the recent achievement motivation literature and,
in particular, work examining the subjective goals and causal perceptions
of Navajo Indian adolescents (Allison, 1980, 1981, 1982; Allison & Du-
da, 1982; Duda, 1980, 1981, 1986a; Ladd, 1957).
Attribution theory focuses on the processes by which everyday people
form causal interpretations of the events around them and come to know
their world (Jones, Kanouse, Kelley, Nisbett, Valins, & Weiner, 1971). In
general, this theoretical perspective assumes that individuals assign a
cause for important instances of their behavior and that of others, that
this assignment is systematic, and that the particular cause that one
attributes for a given event has important consequences for subsequent
feelings and behavior.
The attributional theory of achievement motivation is based on the
work of Weiner and associates (Weiner, Frieze, Kukla, Reed, Rest, &
Rosenbaum, 1971; Weiner, 1974, 1979, 1985). According to this theoreti-
cal perspective, thoughts and affective reactions influence achievement-
related behaviors. Specifically, the attributional model of motivation as-
sumes that individuals make causal judgments concerning success and
failure experiences and that these judgments can be categorized according
to relevant dimensions influencing expectancy shifts and affective re-
sponses. Variations in achievement behavior are held to be determined by
an individual’s performance expectancy and affective state.
In past work, Weiner and others (Weiner et al., 1971; Weiner, 1974)
proposed that the causes perceived as most responsible for success and
failure in achievement contexts are ability, effort, task difficulty, and
luck. Drawing from the writings of Rotter (1966) and Heider (1958),
Weiner (1974) proposed a two-dimensional taxonomy to categorize these
causal elements. One of the elements, labeled locus of causality (Weiner,
1979), refers to whether the elements are internal or external to the indi-
vidual. The second dimension, termed stability, refers to those causal
elements which are stable or unstable over time. Thus, each cause could
be classified as either internal (e.g., ability, effort) or external (e.g., task
difficulty, luck) and stable (e.g., ability, task difficulty) or unstable (e.g.,
effort, luck). Theoretically, Weiner (1974) contended that internal versus
external perceptions of causation result in differential affective responses
while stable versus unstable perceptions produce differential expectancy
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 39
Because of some conceptual problems inherent in the two-dimension
model (e.g., possibility of stable effort as characterized by an “industri-
ous” or “lazy” person) and the identification of other common causes
(e.g., mood, bias, fatigue), Weiner (1979) expanded his taxonomy to
include a third dimension of controllability. This dimension classifies
causes according to whether they are perceived to be under volitional
control (e.g., effort is held to be controllable but the causal element of
mood is not). The locus of controllability is assumed to predict an indi-
vidual’s affective reactions and the evaluations of others.
As pointed out by Bond (1983) and Little (1987), the predominant
comparative attributional study entails a determination of subjects’ rat-
ings of the four causal attributions originally proposed in Weiner’s 2x2
model (1974). In this typical investigation, the perceived contribution of
each attribution is assessed in relation to hypothetical, contrived and/or
real-life objective outcomes (e.g., grades on an examination, score on a
cognitive laboratory task) and then classified as internal or external,
stable or unstable by the researcher(s). Among those studies testing the
cross-cultural generalizability of the attributional model (e.g., Murphy-
Berman & Sharma, 1987), the expectancy and affective correlates of the
causal attributions in success and failure conditions are also examined.
Recent research on the Navajo and other cultures has suggested several
conceptual limitations in such comparative attributional analyses of
achievement motivation. First, these attributional studies typically do not
consider that there are cultural (as well as situational) variations in
achievement motivation and the resultant concepts of success and failure.
Second, they tend to ignore the possibility that causal elements vary by
culture. Third, past comparative attribution studies did not establish the
cross-cultural relevance of Weiner’s proposed taxonomic dimensions.
Moreover, the majority of these investigations ignored the possible cul-
tural bias of classifying the observed attribution ratings (in relation to the
causal dimensions) according to the viewpoint of the experimenter rather
than the subjective interpretations of the subject. Each of these limita-
tions are discussed in turn.
Variations in Definitions of Success and Failure
The underlying concept of achievement that is assumed in the attribu-
tional approach to achievement motivation (Weiner et al., 197 1; Weiner,
1974, 1979, 1985) is based primarily on the work of McClelland and
Atkinson (Atkinson, 1964; McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, & Lowell,
1953; McClelland, 1961). According to this perspective, achievement is
40 J L. Duda and M. 7I Allison
defined with respect to an individual reaching some standard of excel-
lence in a competitive context. Success, therefore, is typically equated
with the attainment of certain standards or goals such as high grades,
athletic victories, wealth, and/or a percentage of correct answers on some
cognitive task. Failure is generally viewed as the opposite of success in a
competitive setting.
Maehr and Nicholls (1980) have suggested that conceptions of achieve-
ment are multidimensional and culturally dependent. Importantly, they
argue that success and failure are psychological states and are nof always
equated to objective, competitive outcomes. In their view, the criteria
underlying subjective success/failure vary as a function of social group
membership and the situation at hand. Support for Maehr and Nicholls’
position (1980) has stemmed from comparative studies employing diverse
methodologies such as semantic differential analysis (Fyans, Salili,
Maehr, & Desai, 1983), qualitative techniques (Duda, 1985, 1986b), fac-
tor analyses (Agarwal & Misra, 1984; Steinkamp & Habteyes, 1985), and
criteria ratings (Duda, 1985; Duda & Allison, 1981).
Several studies of Navajo and Anglo adolescents (Allison, 1980, 1981,
1982; Allison & Duda, 1982; Duda, 1980, 1981, 1986a) provide evidence
which support the assumption that definitions of success and failure vary
as a function of culture and context. For example, in a study in which
Navajo high school students were asked to describe (in a free-response
format) a personal success and failure experience in achievement domains
such as the classroom and sport, Duda (1980) observed that success or
failure could be equated to a personal characteristic’ (e.g., Success is
being wise; Failure is being lazy; Success is coming from a good family),
behavior or the performance process (e.g., Success is working hard; Suc-
cess is when the movement feels right; Failure is not doing better than I
did last time; Failure is getting drunk), as well as some symbolic or
tangible consequence of an individual’s actions or attributes or the per-
formance outcome (e.g., Success is having a lot of money; Success is
being the best in class; Failure is losing). A more recent empirical investi-
gation of the subjective goals held by both Navajo and Anglo adolescents
indicated that Navajos were less likely than Anglo students to define
success and failure with reference to objective and competitive-based
criteria such as grades or athletic outcomes (Duda, 1986a). In contrast,
Navajo students tended to emphasize self-referenced or mastery-based
conceptions of achievement (i.e., success/failure is equated to personal
improvement and hard work) more than Anglo students.
This research with the Navajo Indian (Allison & Duda, 1982; Duda,
[The category of personal characteristics is similar to the “being orientation” proposed by
Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck (1961, p. 17). An emphasis on “being” in a culture is suggested
by a preference for these activities or experiences which are “spontaneous expression(s) of
what is conceived to be ‘given’ in the human personaliry.”
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 41
1980, 1981, 1986a) also questioned the predominant perspectives on
achievement motivation which view success and failure as individualistic
phenomena. Rather, definitions of achievement were found to be oriented
to the group [e.g., Success is helping the “People”; Success is when the
team (not I personally) wins] as well as the individual.
In sum, recent cross-cultural research has indicated that the concep-
tions of success and failure are not concrete, global entities. Other studies
of mainstream, Western subjects have also shown that objective and
subjective definitions of success and failure are not necessarily equivalent
or synonymous (Reifenberg, 1987; Spink & Roberts, 1980; Taylor & Do-
ria, 1981). Most importantly, these investigations have found that differ-
ent patterns of causal attributions emerge when causal elements are de-
termined in relation to experimenter-imposed and personal definitions of
Since an examination of the causal elements elicited by a culture to
explain success and failure events is at the heart of a comparative attribu-
tional approach to achievement motivation, a sensitivity to possible cul-
tural variations in conceptions of achievement is crucial. If researchers
want to determine attributions which are meaningful and reflect a partic-
ular culture’s phenomenological perspective of achievement events, it ap-
pears critical to determine culturally-defined achievement domains and
goals beforehand.
Variations in Causal Elements
In most of the cross-cultural research utilizing an attributional analy-
sis, the four attributions originally proposed by Weiner (1974) have pre-
dominated. Work by Weiner and others in an academic context (Elig &
Frieze, 1979; Frieze, 1976; Weiner, 1979) and athletic setting (Bukowski &
Moore, 1980; Roberts & Pascuzzi, 1979) have expanded the list of com-
mon attributions. Weiner (1979, 1985), however, maintains that the four
attributions and, particularly, ability and effort are the major perceived
causes of achievement performances.
Recent research has indicated that limiting diverse cultural groups to
ratings of the four experimenter-imposed attributional responses can be
questioned in three regards. First, investigations which have determined
subjects’ ratings of ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck attributions as
well as their open-ended causal judgments have found little correspon-
dence between the two measures (Elig & Frieze, 1979; Howard, 1987;
Kimiecik & Duda, 1985). In general, these studies challenge the original
2 x2 attributional framework (Weiner, 1974) and suggest that the attribu-
tions which emerge are different and more diverse when subjects are
allowed to be active rather than passive respondents.
Second, cross-cultural investigations which have examined attributions
42 J. L. Duda and M. 7: Allison
in an open-ended fashion have revealed a myriad of perceived causes
(e.g., Kashima & Triandis, 1986; Little, 1987; Louw & Louw-Potgieter,
1986). Further, comparative studies have demonstrated that the frequency
and type of attributions which are elicited in achievement situations vary
by culture (e.g., Chandler et al., 1981; Triandis, 1972).
In research on Navajo and Anglo high school students, for example,
cultural variations in attributions for success and failure in school and
sport emerged (Duda, 1981, 1986a). Based on both qualitative and quan-
titative analyses, Navajo males and females and Anglo females were
found to be more effort-oriented in their attributional patterns while
Anglo males tended to emphasize ability inferences. Navajo adolescents
also were more likely than Anglo students to make attributions not in-
cluded in Weiner’s original model such as “witchcraft” and “the Family.”
Finally, the determination of ratings of the contribution of selected
causal elements to success and failure events tells the researcher nothing
about the meaning of those attributions among members of a particular
culture. An excellent illustration of this problem can be found in Little’s
(1987) discussion of differences in conceptions of luck attributions be-
tween British and Sri Lankan children. Only through the qualitative de-
termination of causal attributions and causal reasoning were cultural
variations in perceptions of luck revealed in this study.
As suggested by Bond (1983), it is essential that researchers consider
unstructured, free-response methodologies when determining the per-
ceived causes of achievement events in diverse cultures. This will allow
members of each cultural group to “cast their own shadows, rather than
select from the imported shadows projected by foreign psychologists” (p.
152). Once the investigator is confident that s/he has ascertained the most
frequent causal elements (and understands their culture-specific mean-
ing) through qualitative analyses, then quantitative, forced-choice meth-
ods are more appropriately employed.
Causal Dimensions
The development of causal dimensions lies in the theoretical core of the
attributional analysis of achievement motivation. As stated previously,
Weiner’s most recent model (1985) of attribution includes the dimensions
of locus of causality, stability, and controllability. It is assumed that these
dimensions reflect the causal structure underlying diverse attributions
and, therefore, provide insight into the meaning of causal ascriptions.
Consequently, it is believed that the development of the three-dimension-
al taxonomy allows for the comparison of distinct attributional responses
across groups and situations (Graham & Long, 1986; Weiner, 1979, 1983,
Even though Weiner (1979, 1985) maintains that causality, stability,
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 43
and controllability seem to be “the main dimensions of causality in
achievement-related contexts,” he acknowledges that “some problems
with this classification scheme remain unsolved” (1979, p. 7). For exam-
ple, he wonders how an external cause can be controllable and suggests
that “the answer to this question depends on how far back one goes in a
causal inference chain as well as whether controllability assumes only the
perspective of the actor.” Thus, one major problem with the proposed
causal dimensions has to do with their apparent vagueness. That is, the
meaning of the dimensions themselves appears to be subject to various
interpretations. For example, given Weiner’s illustration above, exactly
what does it mean when a causal element is considered controllable or
uncontrollable? Skill may be classified as controllable because it is some-
thing that a person can purposely develop with practice. Skill may also be
perceived as controllable, however, because an individual has a choice in
terms of where or when s/he demonstrates his/her competence.
It could be argued that this lack of clarity in the present attribution
taxonomy would be exacerbated when one begins to consider the diversity
of meanings attached to the dimensions of causality, stability, and con-
trollability in different cultures. We would suggest that the meaning of
the causal dimensions must be more clearly defined before researchers
can appropriately use them to ascertain the meaning of different causal
A second problem associated with the causal dimensions has to do
with the tendency of attribution researchers to consider these dimensions
to be bipolar in nature (Frieze, Francis, Hanusa, 1982). Typically, in
cross-cultural studies, attributions are categorized as either internal or
external, stable or unstable, controllable or uncontrollable.
Our work with the Navajo (Allison & Duda, 1982; Duda, 1980, 1981,
1986a) challenges this dichotomous classification of attributions. For
instance, in this group-oriented culture (Allison, 1980, 1981; Bryde,
1971; Ladd, 1957; Leighton & Kluckhohn, 1954), attributions to self or
others are much more difficult to categorize as internal or external. When
individuals have such a group-consciousness, a bipolar locus of causality
may not be appropriate. Based on our qualitative analyses, for example,
when a Navajo attributes success to his/her People, family, or team, this
causal explanation appears to be both internal and external. Such an
attribution seems to be reflecting a belief that success is a shared respon-
sibility (as well as a shared accomplishment). In essence, our Navajo
subjects did not seem to conceptually separate themselves from the signif-
icant others in their causal reasoning.
With respect to the controllability dimensions, a similar problem arises
when we consider Navajo adolescents and their attributions to witchcraft
(Allison, 1980; Allison & Duda, 1982; Duda, 1981). Again, a bipolar
causal dimension seems inadequate. To the Navajo, witchcraft is control-
44 J. L. Duda and M. 7: Allison
lable in that the individual knows which behaviors are proper or improp-
er, moral or immoral. Actions which are not acceptable in Navajo society
typically elicit threats of witchery by the community. Once witchcraft is
present, the individual falls out of control and usually behaves in an
aberrant manner. From the perspective of the person witched, what hap-
pens in his/her life is now beyond volitional control. It is possible, howev-
er, for the individual to regain control by having certain curing ceremo-
nies called “sings.” Thus, the cycle goes from control to a loss of control
back to possible control again by the individual. As in the case of the
dimension of causality, perhaps a continuous dimension of controllabil-
ity would better account for such an attributional process.
Similar considerations concerning the classification of attributions ac-
cording to bipolar dimensions have been highlighted in other cross-cul-
tural work. Little (1987), for example, has pointed out the difficulty of
classifying a Sri Lankan’s attribution to karma according to the controlla-
bility and stability dimensions. She explains that (p. 77):
. * The problem with a concept like karma is that it defies easy classification in
terms of time, since it appears in a number of forms. Past karma refers to good
and bad deeds performed during a previous life, but karma can also refer to
present action, including present effort. Present karma becomes past karma for
the next life. Since life is a continuum, one’s effort becomes future karma and
one’s past karma reflects earlier effort . . . Moreover, a bad karma from the past
life can usually be overcome, especially if it is weak. Only a belief in a very strong
past karma leads to feelings of resignedness and uncontrollability.
The inherent bias of holding to bipolar causal dimensions in cross-
cultural research becomes even more pronounced when one considers
who is doing the classification. As pointed out by Little (1987), a third
problem in comparative studies has been the tendency for the researcher
to impose the causal dimensions on the subject. Weiner himself (1983,
1985) has stressed the importance of allowing the layperson to indicate
his/her perception of the location of a particular cause on each of the
three dimensions. Importantly, this more recent perspective holds that
each causal dimension is a continuum and that the placement of a causal
ascription along that continuum should be subjectively determined.
Intracultural studies which examined the relationship between subjects’
and experimenters’ ratings of causal attributions along the causality, sta-
bility, and controllability dimensions have revealed low correlations (see
Russell, 1982). Subject ratings have also been found to significantly differ
from the classifications suggested by Weiner’s model (Chandler & Spies,
1984). Among those few comparative investigations which have deter-
mined the perceived dimensional properties of causal attributions, signif-
icant cultural differences have emerged. For example, Betancourt and
Weiner (1982) found Chilean students to perceive external causes as more
external, stable attributions as less stable, and controllable ascriptions as
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 45
less controllable than U.S. students. Thus, the imposed dimensional clas-
sification of attributions does not capture the psychological perceptions
of the layperson. Further, variability in the dimensional location of a
cause appears to be culturally-dependent.
A final consideration which should be addressed in cross-cultural work
employing Weiner’s taxonomy is the possibility that the dimensions them-
selves are not relevant to the culture of interest. Although Weiner (1985,
p. 555) suggests that the “dimensions are conceived as invariant,” support
for this statement stems from empirical research conducted on American
subjects. In comparative investigations, we cannot assume that the di-
mensions of stability, causality, and controllability represent the proper-
ties of perceived causality in diverse cultures. Empirical and qualitative
analyses are needed which determine the underlying causal structures
which exist cross-culturally. Perhaps such cross-cultural work will indi-
cate that the present attributional taxonomy needs to be redefined or
qualified as culture-bound. Future comparative research may even pro-
vide supportive evidence for other dimensions which have been suggested
in the literature (e.g., Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale’s (1978) global-
ity dimension; Rosenbaum’s (1972) locus of intentionality) or help deline-
ate new taxonomies of causes. The challenge for attribution theorists
interested in comparative research will be to determine those causal di-
mensions which best lead to conceptually-based and relevant cross-cul-
tural comparisons.
It has been argued that past comparative research based on Weiner’s
attributional theory of achievement motivation has typically ignored pos-
sible cultural differences in definitions of success and failure, the types
and saliencies of causal elements, and the underlying dimensions. A
“locally inductive” (Malpass, 1977) approach to the cross-cultural testing
of the attributional model is recommended which entails operationalizing
the components of the theory according to the subjective viewpoint of
each culture under consideration. The adoption of such an emit perspec-
tive is essential before researchers can begin to determine2 whether the
hypothesized links between attributions, affective responses, expectations
and achievement behavior hold cross-culturally.
In this section of the paper, we have suggested that culture can have a
pronounced effect on the conceptual content (e.g., causal elements and
2It is important to point out that the affective elements (e.g., pride, shame, guilt) which are
assumed to be important mediators of achievement behaviors in Weiner’s theory would also
be culturally-dependent. A discussion of cultural differences in affective responses, howev-
er, is beyond the scope of this paper.
46 .I L. Duda and M. T. Allison
dimensions) implicit in attribution theory. We will now discuss ways in
which culture may influence the basic attributional process itself.
The attributional theory of achievement motivation (Weiner, 1974,
1979, 1985) is also founded on several epistemological assumptions about
the way people think and perceive their world. Although much research is
needed in this area, we would suggest that these assumptions can also be
questioned on the basis of their cross-cultural generalizability. If future
studies find this to be the case, then it could be argued that attribution
theory reflects a culture-specific cognitive process.
Many of the epistemological assumptions inherent in attribution theo-
ry are based on the work of Kelley (1967, 1971, 1972). He suggests that
causal judgments are influenced by cognitive structures, such as causal
schemata. A causal schema is a relatively permanent structure that refers
to the beliefs that a person holds about the relationship between an
observed event (an effect) and the perceived causes of that event. Kelley
(1971, p. 153) argues that causal schemata are formed from past experi-
ences and . . . reflect the individual’s basic notions of reality and his
assumptions about the existence of a stable external world.”
Although this notion of cognitive structures is at the epistemological
core of an attribution approach, it is important to point out that modes
of thinking and perspective of causality are culturally determined. It is
reasonable to believe that cultures which hold distinct orientations to the
role of the individual, time and nature, for example, would operate on the
basis of very different causal schemata. That is, causal structures might
vary in complexity and form from culture to culture.
As pointed out by Bond (1983, p. 146), one epistemological assump-
tion fundamental to all theories of attribution is the “concept of the
separate person.” That is, it is held that on certain occasions, the individ-
ual is perceived to be the primary causal agent and, consequently, events
are attributed to the person’s physical and/or psychological characteris-
tics. Bond questions this assumption cross-culturally because it . . .
presuppose(s) a conception of the person as a distinct entity that can be
set apart from other persons and his or her natural environment” (1983,
p. 146). Among cultures such as the Navajo which maintain a strong
group consciousness and view man and nature as highly interdependent
(Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961; Leighton & Kluckhohn, 1954), the rele-
vance of a theory which views the actor as a unique and discrete cause of
behavior is debatable.
A second epistemological assumption embedded in attribution theory
which may not hold cross-culturally concerns perceptions of time. As
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 47
stated by Kelley (1967), it is believed that “effects covary over time with
their causes.” Moreover, the typical time interval between the cause and
effect is held to be of rather short duration. In the view of Ladd (1957, p.
220), based on . . . Western philosophy it has usually been assumed
that cause and effect must be contiguous in time.” That is, it is assumed
that usually people perceive that something happens (like a successful
event) because of something one does (e.g., tries hard), something one
possesses (e.g., ability) or the characteristics of the situation (e.g., a
difficult task) at that particular moment in time.
In his research with the Navajo, Ladd (1957) challenges this assump-
tion cross-culturally. Based on extensive anthropological work on the
Reservation, he concludes “that the Navajo conception of time is quite
different from our own (and the) . . . difference appears striking in their
thinking about causality” (p. 220). Specifically, in Navajo thought, it is
often the case that the “cause is quite removed from the effect.” Accord-
ing to Ladd, the Navajo operates on the principle of “temporally remote
causal efficacy.” To a Navajo, it is possible to witness a sickness today and
causally attribute the illness to something done, or eaten 20 years ago.
Somehow, the link between cause and effect is kept intact over a long
period of time.
When doing comparative attribution research, it is necessary for inves-
tigators to consider such cross-cultural differences in causal temporality.
It may be that the attributional process is quite different in a culture
which often separates cause and effect by large blocks of time in compari-
son to those cultures which emphasize temporal proximity in their causal
At the heart of attribution theory also lies an assumption of linearity-
you have a cause and then an effect. According to Kelley (197 1, p. 7), “the
effect must not, of course, precede a possible cause if that cause is to be
perceived as the effective one.” It is possible, however, in certain cultures
and contexts to observe “retroactive explanations” (von Wright, 1971). In
a retroactive perception of causality, the effect is perceived to precede the
cause (e.g., natural disasters or poor interpersonal relationships between
people are happening now because the world is going to end in the
future). There is certainly a question as to how, if at all, the current
attributional framework would detect or incorporate such causal expla-
nations. Once again, if we are to do cross-cultural research focused on
attributions, we must be aware of the existence of such cause-effect
Similarly, because of this unidirectional assumption of linearity, a
cause and effect could not really happen simultaneously [Kelley (1971),
however, acknowledges this possibility in social situations]. This assump-
tion holds quite well in mainstream American society which is basically
48 J. L. Duda and M, Z Allison
“monochronic” and, therefore, emphasizes one thing happening at one
time (Hall, 1977). But what of “polychronic” societies which perceive
several things occurring in the same temporal period? In such cultures,
“time is apt to be considered a point rather than a ribbon or a road”
(Hall, 1977, p. 17). Consequently, antecedents and consequences need
not be temporally separate in the perspective of members of polychronic
societies. This distinct orientation to causality, of course, must be recog-
nized in a cross-cultural analysis of attributions.
Attribution theory . . . begins with man’s motivation to understand
the cause and effect relations that underlie and give stable meaning to the
shifting surface of events” (Jones et al., 1971, p. XI). According to
Weiner (1985, p. 549), the “desire for mastery and functional search, two
of the generators of causal exploration, do not seem to specifically char-
acterize one geographical area or one period of human history.” In his
view, the “timeless aspect of causal search and exploration . . . (is) . . .
pancultural.” Thus, attribution theory assumes that man seeks control by
predicting and applying the cause-effect relations to his environment.
In many cultures, however, man’s relationship to his world and nature
is one of equilibrium and harmony or passivity and subservience (Kluck-
hohn & Strodtbeck, 1961). Such cultures may not be so concerned with
“controlling” their environments with causal understanding, technologi-
cal advancements, etc. as they are with keeping peace with those un-
known and unpredictable powers in their world.
To the Navajo, for example, there are “general laws which govern the
whole of reality” (Ladd, 1957, p. 219). These general laws can be equated
to mechanical processes which are conceived of “nonteleologically.” That
is, in the viewpoint of the Navajo, the ways of nature are often inevitable,
indifferent to human purpose, and consequently, not explainablee3 Thus,
in contrast to the assumptions implicit in attribution theory, the need to
establish cause-effect relationships and cognitive control of the world
may not be universal. The attributional approach which is based on the
existence and importance of antecedent-consequence relationships, there-
fore, may not be applicable to all cultures. Consequently, aligned with the
viewpoint of Bond (1983, p. 149), we believe that there is a need for
research which tests “the ecological validity of attribution” cross-cultural-
ly as well as for more comparative studies which test “theories about
3ln general, the Navajo does make cause-effect inferences. However, as pointed out by Ladd
(1957, p. 219): “The Navajo is a mechanist par excellence in two senses; namely that he is a
determinist and that he rejects final causes. He assumes that every event has a cause even
though an ordinary human being may not always be able to identify the cause of a certain
event or predict the effects of an event.”
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 49
The Search for an Epidemic Process
As highlighted above, the attributional approach to achievement moti-
vation (Weiner, 1974, 1979, 1985) is based on several epistemological
assumptions which may not be cross-culturally valid. Kruglanski (1979)
has suggested an alternative theoretical approach to attribution episte-
mology which might provide an interesting framework for future compar-
ative work on achievement motivation. In his view, “the attribution
framework, constrained as it may be to explanatory statements, deals
with an extremely small segment of the domain to which general episte-
mological laws are assumed to apply” (p. 145). General epistemology,
according to Kruglanski, can be partitioned “between the contents of
knowledge (epistemic contents) and the process of knowledge acquisition
(epistemic process).” Epistemic contents refer to the set of all proposi-
tions which an individual tries to validate. The epistemic process is the
“sequence of cognitive operations performed by an individual on the way
to a given bit of knowledge” (p. 145). In short, process refers to systemat-
ic change and content to the object of such change.
In the perspective of Kruglanski (1980), causal statements for condi-
tional relations between objects are classified as epistemic contents. Actu-
ally, any statements whether causal or non-explanatory in nature, fall
under the rubric of epistemic contents and are influenced by the epistemic
process. The epistemic process entails a choice, made by the person,
among a variety of propositions or statements focused on some topic
(called the epistemic problem). Through the solving of epistemic prob-
lems via the same epistemic process, knowledge is acquired.
Kruglanski’s perspective on epistemology suggests a “unitary theory of
process applicable . . . to divergent contents of knowledge? (1979, p.
1456). In a cross-cultural context, this perspective acknowledges that
different social groups have distinct conceptual repertoires. Specifically,
it is assumed that epistemic contents will vary as a function of culture and
situational characteristics. Kruglanski (1979) suggests that the present
attributional framework is “restricted to a narrow set of contents” and,
consequently, is quite “particularistic.” Based on his perspective, any
hope for a generalizable theory of attribution must be based on the
epistemic process. Therefore, in Kruglanski’s opinion, a cross-cultural
analysis of attributions which is based on particular causal elements,
classification schemes, and assumed causal relationships will never lead
to a global theory of motivation. Rather, understanding how man ac-
quires knowledge about this world and determining how this knowledge
effects his behavior would be the crucial components in a universal theo-
ry of attribution and achievement motivation.
Drawing from methodologies developed in the area of social cognition,
50 J. L. Duda and M. T. Allison
Bond (1983) advocates relatively unobtrusive techniques as a means of
ascertaining the nature and frequency of the attributional process among
diverse cultures. He also suggests that more insight into the cognitive
processes underlying attributions will be gained if comparative research-
ers determine private (anonymous) as well as the more typical public
attributions for behavioral events. In general, the examination of the
scope and characteristics of the epistemic process cross-culturally will
entail careful and detailed qualitative analyses.
In this section, some of the epistemological assumptions in the attribu-
tional theory of achievement motivation were questioned on the basis of
their cross-cultural generalizability. We suggested that one possible ap-
proach which might overcome some of these limitations is Kruglanski’s
(1979, 1980) epistemological paradigm. Perhaps, in agreement with Lowe
and Kassin (1980), what we are advocating is future cross-cultural attribu-
tion studies which consider group and situational differences in perceptu-
al (how do people make causal inferences ?; by what principles do individ-
uals formulate causal judgments?) as well as cognitive processes (e.g.,
how do causal attributions influence expectations?). Importantly, such
research might indicate that attribution theory is a culturally-determined
cognitive strategy operating on culture-specific content. That is, given the
epistemological assumptions previously highlighted, attribution theory
may be found to encompass an epistemic content and process particular
to the Western world.
According to Weiner (1979, p. 3), “the attributional approach to . . .
motivation and experience has proven exceedingly rich” in rather “conclu-
sive . . . empirical and theoretical relations” and, consequently, . . . a
general theory of motivation is under development.” Since most of the
supportive research on this topic (see Weiner, 1985, for a review) has not
been replicated in diverse cultures, such a statement should be qualified.
As pointed out by other comparative researchers (Bond, 1983; Little,
1987), the majority of attribution work has been done in the classroom
setting among white, middle-class, Western subjects. The limited number
of cross-cultural investigations which have been conducted tend to be
poor in comparative methodology. Specifically, as highlighted in this
paper, the majority of these investigations have not been sensitive to
problems of conceptual equivalence, equivalence of measurement, and
comparability of stimuli in the testing of attribution theory (Warwick &
Osherson, 1973; Berry, 1969). Further, this literature has not considered
possible cultural differences in the process of causal reasoning.
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 51
In terms of future research directions, we agree with Little (1987, p. 77)
who suggests that . . . the blind acceptance of the white American,
Western model of attribution in Japan, China, India, or Nigeria will lead
to a proliferation of confirmatory studies, but how far will it advance our
understanding?” We hope that the present paper has suggested ways in
which we could move beyond simple cross-cultural replication studies so
that any hope for a universal theory of attribution and achievement
motivation can be realized.
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Les aralyaes cross-culturelles et attriixlticnelles ck la
motivation a la r&site effect&es pr~&mient sur &s don&es
prwenant d’indiena Navajo et d’auttes &u&s aznparativea sent
Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation 55
1 irnit&s. D’atord, il est sug#ri q~? les &udes amqaratives
sue l’attritution sent caract&i&s pr c&s prspectives
axxze~tuelles qui rzwxnt he 8 mtuce ethnooerkrique
a.x& (1) -les~&finiticns h stxx& et d’&ec;‘(2) les
6lf5nents de causalit& im~~s&: et (3) la tencktnoz a classifier
les attritutiabs causaleS selcn des dimensions tax0wn1iques
Des diredzicns de recherche pw cks &u&s
uoshxlturelles futures sur l’attributian c8ns ube prspctive
aqarative eDnt pop&s et cizvraient aider les herchews B
depsser ozs limites oonoqtwlles. Ensuite, il est suggfZr4qLle
la thbrie attritxticnelle & la mctivaticn au sucds est bsee
sur @&ems p5.5un*ions C@t&alogiqrrts irhQerkes ax-bosrrant
la ration de tenp, d’ indivicbalisne, et dz la nature cks
QlJSeS. (Author-supplied abstract)
E!aearb en informacidn reoDgic!a & 10s indios navajos y ctras
iwestigachnes axnprativas, se popnen limitaciones en pevios
estudios cualitativos intercultursles pira el logo h
motivaci 6n. Se sugiere que la actual a&i&d ck la literatma
axqarativa se caracteriza pr v&as perspectivas o3naqtlales y
episteaalhgicas quc sx etrxxhntri~s px natursleza, es ckcic:
1) las definidanes de ixito y fraaw asunidbs, 2) 10s elementos
causales impestos, 3) la tencencia a clasificar las atrikudones
calsales Bntro de las dimeksiaws taxorxhicas hiplares qle
p&n II0 sig7ificar nada pra la cultura interesIIda, y 4) las
asuxicnes intrhecas amaxnientes al tienp y la wturaleza dz
la wma. Se &n cnnssjos pra la irnrestiqacibn ck futrnos
trabajm h cualilhd intercultural, que ayudan al iruestigidx
axnprativo a superar esas limitacicnss. (Authcc-su@ ied
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The importance of attributions for classroom settings has already been highlighted by several authors. it has been also documented that attributions have an antecedent in culture. However, there exists very few studies aimed at determining the attributions and its dimensions This study examined the attribution and dimensions of attributions of 300 students df two institutions of higher education in Mexico. Students were administered an Attributional Scale with 16 academic and affiliative situations. Situations presented were typical of success and failure. Differences were found between the attributions and dimensions for the two institutions. In the same way, differences were found by sex, and academic program. Conclusions are established in terms of dimensions, culture, and academic and affiliative situations.
One of the challenges facing the field of applied sport psychology involves addressing the needs of athletes of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. An important step in facing this challenge is providing sport psychology graduate students with training in multicultural issues. A review of current models of sport psychology graduate training reveals a lack of emphasis on multicultural training. In this article we offer a description of multicultural training. We also provide a rationale for its inclusion in sport psychology programs and present several models and ideas for implementing multicultural training.
Previous sport attribution studies have generally asked subjects to make attributions for outcomes to the four elements of ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty. These studies have assumed that these elements are the most important causes of outcomes. The present study tested this assumption. An open-ended questionnaire was given to 349 male and female subjects to determine the causal elements used in sport situations. Results showed that the four traditional elements of ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty were used 45% of the time. However, the theory advocated by Weiner (1974) is based on the dimensions of locus of control and stability, and not on the elements per se. When the responses of subjects were content analyzed for dimensional properties, it was concluded that 100% of the responses could be placed within the four cells of the Weiner model. These results support the applicability of the Weiner achievement behavior model to sport environments, but only when careful analysis of causal attributions is made to determine their dimensional relevance. The evidence suggests that situationally relevant elements be included in addition to the traditional elements of ability, effort, luck, and task difficulty.
The purpose of this study was to analyze the situational perspectives on achie vement motivation held by two distinct social groups in a multicultural setting. It was assumed, in contrast to previous perspectives (Atkinson, 1964; McClelland, 1961; Weiner, 1974), that the motivation to achieve is a complex and multidimen sional construct. In this investigation, it was deemed important to consider that achievement motivation evolves around the demonstration of a desirable and valued characteristic, behavior, and/or outcome. This demonstration is based on some standard of excellence which entails social comparison (ego-involvement) or is dependent on personal goals on the requirements of a task (task-involvement). Further, in an achievement situation, it was assumed that individuals attempt to secure success and/or avoid failure which reflect on the individual and/or group. The present study found cultural, sex-linked and situational variations in achievement goals (or definitions of success and failure) and the preferred means to attain these goals (achievement orientations). An awareness of such differences between distinct cultures in diverse achievement situations may help us better understand the achievement behaviors of individuals.
Almost any study one conducts on achievement motivation is likely to turn up sex differences, provided subjects of both sexes are included. At an earlier time, these differences seemed to represent nuisance value for achievement motivation re-seachers. The scene has changed dramatically. The cry is now, “vive la difference.” We actively seek sex differences, though the ultimate aim is often their elimination.