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date: 25 January 2021

Attribution Theorieslocked

  • Sandra GrahamSandra GrahamUniversity of California System
  •  and Xiaochen ChenXiaochen ChenRenmin University of China


Attribution theory is concerned with the perceived causes of success and failure. It is one of the most prominent theories of motivation in the field of education research. The starting point for the theory is an outcome perceived as a success or failure and the search to determine why that outcome occurred. Ability and effort are among the most prominent perceived causes of success and failure. Attribution theory focuses on both antecedents and consequences of perceived causality. Antecedents or determinants of attributions may be beneficial or harmful, and they include teacher behaviors such as communicated sympathy, offering praise, and unsolicited help that indirectly function as low-ability cues. Seemingly positive teacher behaviors can therefore have unintended negative consequences if they lead students to question their ability. Attributional consequences are grounded in three properties or dimensions of causes: locus, stability, and controllability. Each dimension is uniquely linked to particular psychological and behavioral outcomes. The locus dimension is related to self-esteem, the stability dimension is linked to expectancy for success or failure, and the controllability dimension is related to interpersonal evaluation. Research on self-handicapping is illustrative of the locus-esteem relation because that literature depicts how dysfunctional causal thinking about the self can undermine achievement. Attribution retraining programs focus on the stability-expectancy link to strengthen individuals’ awareness of how they can alter their causal thoughts and behavior. Changing maladaptive beliefs about the causes of achievement failure (e.g., from low ability to lack of effort) can result in more persistence and improved performance. And, stereotypes about stigmatized groups are grounded in the controllability-interpersonal evaluation attributional lens. Unlike other motivational theories, attribution theory addresses the antecedents and consequences of both intrapersonal attributions (how one perceives the self) and interpersonal attributions (how one perceives other people) with one set of interrelated principles Future research should devote more attention to identifying moderators of attributional effects, multipronged intervention approaches that include an attributional component, and stronger depictions of how race/ethnicity alters attributional thinking.

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