Attribution theories attempt to explain the process of applying causes to the behaviour of both ourselves and others.  We tend to attribute behaviour to external (situational) or internal (personal) causes and may attribute causes differently in different situations. Attribution affects how we perceive others and ourselves.

Kelly (1973) identified three factors that determine whether we are more likely to explain an individual’s behaviour in a given situation in terms of personal (internal) or situational (external) factors.

  • 1-Consistency – This is high when a person always or usually behaves in a similar fashion, and low when the person only acts that way sometimes.
  • 2-Distinctiveness -This is high when the person’s behaviour is noticeable in some way, and low when it does not seem to stand out.
  • 3-Consensus -This is high when it is considered that most people would behave in a similar way, and low when it is believed that most people would behave differently.

When consistency is high and distinctiveness and consensus are low, then we are more likely to put the behaviour down as internal (personal).

Nevertheless, people do not always consider these factors and are prone to making ‘fundamental attribution errors’, where they attribute behaviour to personal factors.

For example, many people hold the belief that ‘the unemployed are lazy’, attributing unemployment to primarily  internal causes. This can be the result of certain stereotypes that the person has formed and on lack of knowledge about very real external causes, such as economic and social trends.

People also engage in ‘actor-observer bias’s where they explain the behaviour of others as being internally caused, but their similar behaviour as being due to external factors. We do this to preserve a positive self-image, especially when our behaviour is inappropriate or involves failure. We also engage in what is known as the ‘self-serving bias’s when dealing with positive outcomes, attributing our successes or positive qualities to internal factors rather than to external factors such as good examples, help from others, or a supportive situation.  We like to take the credit in such instances.

Influence on the counsellor

Studies have linked attribution style with depression.

As well as internal and external attributions, it has been suggested that we also attribute inferences on the basis of 2 dimensions:

  • Stable/unstable (stable over time)
  • Global/specific (applies to a large number of things or one thing).

It has been suggested that a depressed person applies internal (their fault), stable (long-lasting), global (will make other things bad) attributions to negative life events. Conversely, those who blame everyone else or everything else for their woes are less likely to become depressed.

It has not been possible, however, to show that an attribution style causes depression, only that there is a correlation between them. The counsellor and client can use an understanding of attribution theory to get a clearer idea of the way in which the client constructs their world.