Attribution theory is used to explain how people, who inherently work to organize and understand their life experiences, will attribute their successes and failures to four factors: ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck. Each of these factors has been analyzed using three characteristics: locus of control, stability, and controllability. Attribution theory also draws from principles of motivation theory and expectancy theory to help explain how students' perceptions of their successes and failures impacts persistence and resiliency. This article also includes some best practice suggestions based on the tenets of attribution theory.
Keywords Abnormal Psychology; Achievement & Motivation; Attribution Theory; Construct; Expectancy Theory; Homeostasis; Learned Helplessness; Locus of Control; Nature/Nurture; Polarities; Resiliency; Self-Efficacy
If you think you are beaten, you are. If you think you dare not, you don't. If you like to win but think you can't, It's almost a cinch you won't. If you think you'll lose, you're lost. For out in the world we find Success begins with a fellow's will. It's all in the state of mind (Wintle, 1969)
What makes a winner win? Is it all in one's attitude? Why do some people with apparent talents never seem to achieve as others predict? How can the interaction between a person's perceptions and the actual talents a person has be used to help each student reach full potential? These types of questions are often answered through the application of attribution theory.
Attribution theory originated as a subsection of the theories of personality. Personality psychologists were working to describe what makes individuals unique by identifying the relatively unchanging aspects of people that make them unique individuals. However, there were many different approaches to the questions. Some psychologists focused on identifying and describing personality characteristics that define mental illness and poor social adjustment (i.e., abnormal psychology). Others chose to focus on identifying and describing the personality characteristics of people viewed as mentally healthy. They wanted to understand, and eventually be able to predict, why life events affect people in different ways. During this period of time, psychologists divided into two camps that differed on whether they believed one's inborn traits are integral in determining personality or whether the key factor is the environment in which one is reared (this argument has often been referred to as the continuing nature/nurture debate). Almost everyone has come to a realization that there is most likely a mix of the two influences that work together to create uniqueness in individuals, although there is little agreement on how much of each are contributing to that mix (Ridley, 2003). Attribution theory is one of the theories formulated using an assumption that both inborn traits and one's environment will be reflected in one's personality. It posits that people will inherently work to organize their observations as they try to make meaning of their experiences.
This organizing will necessitate the creation of categories into which the observations can be sorted. The categories will be created and labeled by each person and will be influenced by both personal temperament and life experiences (Weiner, Nierenberg, & Goldstein, 1976). For example, two students might attend the same campus party and, on telling their friends about their weekends, one might describe the party as fun and exciting while the other describes it as out of control and dangerous. The two students attended the same event but, based on their temperaments and past experiences, chose different categories in which to store their memories of the party.
As the theory of attribution was further refined and developed, researchers realized its impact on how people are motivated, moving the theory from ideas about what makes personalities unique to a theory of understanding how a student's self-perceptions intersect with all learning experiences (i.e., social learning theory). More recently, researchers have linked attribution theory to expectancy theory, which has helped them to better explain the role of persistence and resiliency in the learning process.
Attribution theory says that people will interpret their successes and failures in life in a way that relates to their existing thinking and behavior. It assumes that people try to figure out why they do what they do. The types of explanations people provide to explain their own behaviors can predict how persistent they will be when faced with a difficult task in the future (Weiner, 1985).
Research suggests a student's self-perceptions will strongly influence performance and expectations for success. Self-perceptions also influence the degree of effort a person will choose to put into a difficult or complex task. In most cases, a student will interpret his or her environment in such a way as to maintain homeostasis (i.e., a stable version of one's internalized self-image) (Festinger, 1957). For instance, if a person's self-perception is one of being a poor student, any success will be attributed to factors other than personal ability, whereas a person whose self-perception is one of being a good student will tend to attribute successes to ability (Maatt, Nurmi, & Stattin, 2007).
The Three Attributes
Most theorists sort out explanations of success or failure using polarities of three attributes that can help define personality:
• Locus of control (Internal/External) – this indicates whether a person attributes successes and failures to personal characteristics and behaviors or external circumstances (Rotter, 1975);
• Stability (Stable/Changeable ) – this indicates whether a person believes the causes of success or failure can be easily changed; and
• Controllability (Controllable/Not Controllable) – this indicates whether a person believes the behavior or circumstance is something he or she has the power to personally alter or whether that person believes it is out of his/her control (Weiner, Nierenberg, & Goldstein, 1976).
Theorists believe future academic success can be predicted by listening to how a person describes her or his current successes and failures—combining the three attributes listed above with what the student expects to gain from the learning situation (Feather, 1988). These three attributes can be used to help define four constructs associated with learning situations:
• Task difficulty
Table 1 illustrates which attributes are most usually associated with each learning construct.
Table 1 Attribute Locations in Learning Constructs
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE):
Locus of Control
Locus of control is best determined by finding who or what exercises the most control over the factors that lead to a learning outcome. If a student believes personal characteristics or behaviors are primarily affecting the outcome of a situation, the locus of control is internal. Some examples of internal control characteristics include attitude, intelligence, and ability. Some examples of internal control behaviors include class attendance, time spent studying, and quality of effort put into studying. Hence, internal control factors can be defined as what the student is personally contributing to the learning experience.
If a student believes external factors are primarily affecting the outcome of a learning experience, the locus of control is external. If a student believes luck (good or bad) or classroom politics are primarily affecting the outcome of a learning experience, the locus of control is external. Some examples of statements that attribute the outcome to external control include: "good thing I brought my lucky rabbit's foot"; "the gods are against me"; and "the teacher doesn't like me." Additionally, if a student is completely unable to predict the outcome of a situation, it is considered a situation affected by external control (Rotter, 1966).
Locus of control is a very important variable in the attribution equation. Good students who believe luck is guiding their successes do not appear to gain confidence in their own abilities to initiate success. They may not acquire the sense of self-efficacy that is so very important in creating resiliency and persistence in difficult learning situations (Feather, 1988). Poor students who believe bad luck is guiding them are not motivated to work at getting a better grasp of the materials that need to be learned. On the converse, good students who attribute success solely to ability and do poorly on a test may have their faith in their abilities challenged, causing them to give up in despair. Research suggests students do better in future learning situations when they attribute poor performance to external controls and credit internal controls for their successes (Rotter, 1966).
The idea that ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck are either stable or changeable can be a bit confusing. Task difficulty and ability are identified as stable, however practice and study can increase skills (thereby decreasing task difficulty) because of an increase in ability. Students who are taught to rely on ability (which is an internal, stable factor) —and are also taught that ability can be changed with effort— will develop a healthy resilience that will help motivate them to learn and persist in the face of failure (Rotter, 1975). Luck is identified as changeable because general beliefs indicate luck changes at whim. Yet it is common knowledge that one can change one's own luck. It is detrimental for students to believe their success or failure lies purely in luck. These students will have low motivation to develop new learning strategies and will not be able to optimize the learning that can be gleaned from failures (Weiner, Nierenberg, & Goldstein, 1976).
Stability is best described as whether a student believes the causes of the learning outcome can be easily changed. People generally spend a lot of time thinking about past activities and outcomes. For example, if a student fails a major exam he or she may spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong (this is sometimes referred to as the causative effect) (Darke & Freedman, 1997; Weiner, Nierenberg,...
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