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Attribution theory is a ﬁeld of social psychology
that aims at explaining how individuals deter-
mine the causes of an event or behavior, as well
as the consequence of such attribution on their
subsequent behavior. Originally introduced by
Heider (1958), the main theoretical frameworks
have been developed by Kelley (1967, 1973);
Weiner et al. (1971); and Weiner, Nierenberg,
and Goldstein (1976). Attribution theory has
since spread out of social psychology and been
used in numerous ﬁelds of management science.
THE ATTRIBUTION THEORIES
Attribution theory ﬁnds its roots in the concept
ıve psychology’’ developed by Heider
(1958), the objective of which is to understand
how laypersons determine the causes of speciﬁc
events. From this starting point, not one but
several ‘‘attribution theories’’ have been devel-
oped. Among them, two main frameworks have
been widely adopted within academic literature:
Kelley’s model and Weiner’s model.
Kelley’s model. According to Harold H. Kelley,
when observing another person’s behavior in
front of a speciﬁc stimulus at a speciﬁc moment,
one can attribute such behavior to three different
causes: the person itself, the stimulus (referred to
as the ‘‘entity’’ by Kelley), and/or the circum-
stances of the moment (referred to as ‘‘time’’
by Kelley). This type of attribution is made
through the principle of covariance: ‘‘an effect
is attributed to the one of its possible causes
with which, over time, it covaries’’ (Kelley,
1973). Covariance is qualiﬁed by three factors:
consistency (does this person always display
the same behavior in front of similar stimuli
at different moments in time), consensus (do
other people behave in the same way when
confronted to similar stimuli), and distinctive-
ness (does this person display a similar behavior
when confronted to different stimuli). According
to the levels of consistency, consensus, and
distinctiveness, observers will attribute causes
of another person’s behavior either to internal
causes (proper to the person) or to external causes
(linked to the stimulus or to the situation).
Weiner’s model. Weiner’s attribution model
studies the way people explain their success
or failure in achieving their goals or fulﬁlling
a task. Weiner identiﬁes two dimensions that
describe potential causes of success/failure.
The ﬁrst dimension is called locus of causality.
It deﬁnes the origin of the cause which can
be internal (linked to the person) or external
(linked to the situation). Internal causes are the
skills displayed by the person, as well as the
effort this person invests in the task. External
causes are the difﬁculty of the task, as well as the
luck the person may have. This ﬁrst dimension
determines the pride (or value) that the person
will experience in the event of goal achievement:
higher value will be derived from an attribution
to internal causes.
The second dimension is called stability and
deﬁnes the constancy of the causes. Such causes
can be considered as stable or instable, according
to whether they are likely to be recurrent or
not. Stable causes are people’s skills and task
difﬁculty; instable causes are the amount of
invested effort and the luck encountered. This
second dimension determines the expectancy
that people will develop regarding the proba-
bility of their success/failure the next time they
are exposed to the same situation. In the case
of a stable cause, people may expect a similar
outcome, while in the case of an unstable cause
people may expect a different outcome.
Attribution will impact on a person’s future
behavior. If a person attributes a failure to a lack
of effort (internal, unstable cause), they may feel
motivated to do better next time as this cause
can be changed (unstable) and depends on them
(internal). Conversely, someone who attributes a
failure to a lack of ability (internal, stable cause)
may feel depressed and demotivated as this cause
would be seen as more difﬁcult to modify.
Differences between the two models. The main
differences between Kelley’s and Weiner’s
frameworks are the following. First, as indicated
by Martinko and Thomson (1998), the vast
majority of Kelley’s studies deal with the way
people attribute causes to the behavior of
other people, while Weiner’s studies are more
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2 attribution theory
interested in the way individuals analyze the
causes of their own behavior. Secondly, and
more importantly, Kelley’s model is focused
on the process of attribution (the psychological
process explaining the causal attribution), while
Weiner’s model has a greater focus on the
consequences of such causal attribution (i.e., if
I attribute my failure to my own responsibility
or to an external event, what will my behavior
be the next time I am exposed to the same task).
Kelley and Michela (1980) differentiate between
the two by referring to ‘‘attribution theories’’ as
the theories that focus on the process of cause
attribution and to ‘‘attributional theories’’ as
being the ones that focus on the consequences
of the attribution process.
Researchers have found numerous biases in the
process of causal attribution (see Kelley and
Michela for a review). Such biases are linked
to the speciﬁc motivations that lead people to
attribute causes to events. Among them, one can
ﬁnd the motivation to protect the ego, the need
to believe in effective control, or the motivation
to positively present the self to others.
First, it has been determined that one of
the motivations for attributing causes to events
would be the protection of one’s self-esteem
(Riemer, 1975). To defend their ego, a person
would be prone to overestimate the importance
of internal causes in the case of success to build
pride and conﬁdence, and to overestimate the
importance of external causes in the case of
failure to avoid an effect on their self-esteem.
This is known as the self-serving bias. Second,
there is a need to believe in effective control,
leading to an attribution bias toward controllable
causes (Lerner and Miller, 1978). This allows
people to keep making efforts to reach their
goals (as they believe that effort leads to goal
achievement) and protect themselves by mini-
mizing the probability that negative events will
happen to them (Kelley, 1973). Finally, attri-
butions made by an individual may be biased
by their desire to appear in a favorable way in
front of others, for example, to appear modest
by playing down internal causes in the case of
success (Feather and Simon, 1971).
THE USE OF ATTRIBUTION THEORY IN
Attribution theory has been widely exported to
the ﬁeld of marketing, particularly since the
1970s. Those ﬁelds that have adopted it to
the greatest extent are sales force management,
consumer behavior, and advertising.
Sales force management. Sales management is
one of the ﬁelds that have extensively borrowed
from attribution theory. This framework is
used to analyze the causes to which salespeople
attribute their performance, such as their sales
skills, the effort they put in to the sales process,
the client’s characteristics, or the quality of
the product. Numerous researchers have also
studied the impact of the causal attribution of
the success or failure of salespeople on their
motivation to carry on and their behavior
intentions the next time they are confronted
to similar selling situations (Dixon, Spiro,
and Jamil, 2001). Attribution theory has also
been used to investigate how sales managers
evaluate their supervisees, attribute the causes
of their failures, and manage the feedback they
provide to them (DeCarlo and Leigh, 1996).
For a complete review of the contribution
of attribution theory to sales management
literature, one can refer to the extensive work of
Consumer research. Marketing has also exten-
sively used attribution theory to better under-
stand consumer behavior. It has, for instance,
been shown that a consumer’s causal attribution
of product quality impacts on ﬁnal satisfac-
tion (Tsiros, Mittal, and Ross, 2004). The fact
that consumers have the impression of being
in a coproduction process (such as when they
assemble a piece of IKEA furniture) may have
an impact on the satisfaction they derive with
respect to themselves and the product they are
using. Another stream of research attempts to
determine the best strategies to make consumers
attribute their satisfaction to the product rather
than to themselves. It has been, for instance,
shown that the more consumers self-disclose
information about themselves to the company,
the less they incline to the self-serving bias. For
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attribution theory 3
a complete review of the contribution of attribu-
tion theory to consumer behavior, one can refer
to Folkes (1988).
Advertising. Attribution theory has been
proved to be useful in the study of persuasion
in advertising (Sparkman and Locander,
1980). Indeed, consumers will be more easily
persuaded by an ad if it can convince them to
attribute speciﬁc qualities to the product itself
rather than to the desire of the advertiser to sell
their product. Research has shown, for instance,
that carefully selecting some speciﬁc attributes
with respect to which there can be a claim that
the product is superior to others will actually
make consumers attribute these characteristics
to the product. In this context, researchers
have investigated the advertising elements that
maximize the attribution to the product or the
minimization of consumer reaction to negative
See also advertising;consumer perceptions;decision
weom090383 making;sales force
DeCarlo, T.E. and Leigh, T.W. (1996) Impact of sales-
person attraction on sales managers’ attributions and
feedback. Journal of Marketing,60, 47–66.
Dixon, A.L., Spiro, R.L. and Jamil, M. (2001) Successful
and unsuccessful sales calls: measuring salesperson
attributions and behavioral intentions. Journal of
Feather, N.T. and Simon, J.G. (1971) Attribution of
responsibility and valence of outcome in relation to
initial conﬁdence and success and failure of self and
other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,18,
Folkes, V.S. (1988) Recent attribution research in
consumer behavior: a review and new directions.
Journal of Consumer Research,14 (4), 548– 565.
Heider, F. (1958) The psychology of interpersonal relation-
ships, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.
Johnson, M.S. (2006) A bibliometric review of the contri-
bution of attribution theory to sales management.
Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management,26,
Kelley, H.H. (1967) Attribution theory on social
psychology, in Nebraska Symposium on Motivations
(ed. D. Levine), University of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln, pp. 192– 238.
Kelley, H.H. (1973) The processes of causal attribution.
American Psychologist,28, 107–128.
Kelley, H.H. and Michela, J.L. (1980) Attribution theory
and research. Annual Reviews of Psychology,31,
Lerner, M.J. and Miller, D.T. (1978) Just world research
and the attribution process: looking back and ahead.
Psychological Bulletin,85, 1030– 1051.
Martinko, M.J. and Thomson, N.F. (1998) A synthesis
and extension of the Weiner and Kelley attribu-
tion models. Basic and Applied Social Psychology,20,
Riemer, B.S. (1975) Inﬂuence of causal beliefs on affect
and expectancy. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology,31, 1163– 1167.
Sparkman, R.M. and Locander, W.B. (1980) Attribu-
tion theory and advertising effectiveness. Journal of
Consumer Research,7, 219– 224.
Tsiros, M., Mittal, V. and Ross, W.T. (2004) The role of
attributions in customer satisfaction: a reexamination.
Journal of Consumer Research,31, 476–483.
Weiner, B., Frieze, I.H., Kukla, A. et al. (1971) Perceiving
the causes of success and failure, General Learning Press,
Weiner, B., Nierenberg, R. and Goldstein, M. (1976)
Social learning (locus of control) versus attribu-
tional (causal stability) interpretations of expectancy
of success. Journal of Personality,44, 52–68.
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Please note that the abstract and keywords will not be included in the printed book, but
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Abstract: Attribution theory attempts (i) to explain how people attribute the causes of events or
behavior and (ii) to analyze the impact of such attribution on their future behavior. In the ﬁrst part, this
article explains the nature of attribution theory. More speciﬁcally, it describes how attribution theory
is derived from ‘‘na¨
ıve psychology’’ and has been developed through two main theoretical models:
Kelley’s model and Weiner’s model. In the second part, several attribution biases are reviewed and
an explanation is provided as to how individuals misattribute the causes of certain events, either to
protect their self-esteem or to keep up the illusion of having effective control over their life. Finally,
this article shows how attribution theory has spread out of the ﬁeld of social psychology ﬁeld to be
adopted by, among others, the marketing ﬁeld.
Keywords: attribution theory; causal explanation; attribution biases; self-serving bias; sales force
management; consumer behavior; advertising
Author(s) and Afﬁliation(s):
Aston University, Birmingham, UK