Attribution Theory

"...individuals explained achievement related events by one of four 'attributions': ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck" (Gedeon and Rubin 1999: 20)

DOMAINS: Psychology, Education, other?
Contributors:  Sarah Chauncey         

Bernard Weiner, Kurt Lewin, Julian Rotter, John Atkinson, Friz Heider, and Harold Kelley


"Attribution theory is rooted in the work of Kurt Lewin, Julian Rotter, John Atkinson, Friz Heider, and Harold Kelley. But its prominence is, in part, the result of the work of Bernard Weiner and his colleagues in the early 1970s. Weiner, Irene Frieze, Andy Kukla, Linda Reed, Stanley Rest, and Robert Rosebaurm asserted that individuals explained achievement related events by one of four "attributions": ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck" (Gedeon and Rubin 1999: 20).

According to attribution theory, the causes individuals attribute to events have an impact on the way they cognitively, affectively, and behaviorally respond on future occasions (Schell, Bruning, & Colvin, 1995; Weiner, 1986, 1994). Four attributions are typically identified in the literature: attributions to luck, task difficulty, ability, and effort. For example, failure on an exam may be attributed to bad luck, difficult questions, low ability, or insufficient effort. These causal attributions can also be mapped according to their locus, stability, and controllability (Weiner, 1994). (Martin 2009: 333)

The control dimension is of particular interest in this review because it tends to be a significant determinant of students’ responses to setback, pressure, and fear of failure (Borkowski, Carr, Rellinger, & Pressley, 1990; Groteluschen, Borkowski, & Hales, 1990; Martin, Marsh, & Debus, 2001b). (333)

It has also been suggested that attributions in the interpersonal context give rise to socially based emotions (Hareli & Weiner, 2002). Recent work has proposed that socially based emotions are the result of attributional inferences focusing on the perceived causes of a particular outcome (Hareli & Weiner, 2002). (Martin 2009: 333)

This can have two impacts.

... it affects the observer’s emotions directly. In an adaptive scenario, a student attributing another student’s success to effort can experience positive affect and feelings of admiration for that student. On the other hand, a student attributing another student’s poor performance to a lack of ability may experience negative affect (Hareli & Weiner, 2000). (Martin 2009:333)

.....observers’ inferences about the cause of an event can shape the student’s emotions and behavior. ...., a teacher explicitly attributing a student’s success to effort can evoke positive affect. (Martin 2009:333)

and feelings of pride in the student. ...attributing poor performance to a lack of ability may evoke negative affect and shame in that student. (Martin 2009:333)

Taken together, on the matter of relatedness and attributions, these findings underscore “the interconnection of the self and others in achievement settings, and the necessity of a transactional analysis to understand the social dynamics that accompany achievement performance” (Hareli & Weiner, 2002, p. 191). (Martin 2009:333)
REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

  • Attribution Theory in Action - West Virginia University

  • (ILL) Corno, Lyn; Mandinach, Ellen B. (1983). The role of cognitive engagement in classroom learning and motivation. Educational Psychologist, 18(2), 88-108.

  • View Article  Gedeon, J., & Rubin, R. (1999). Attribution theory and academic library performance evaluation. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 25(1), 18.

  • Graham, Sandra. (1991). A review of attribution theory in achievement contexts. Educational Psychology Review 3(1).  Graduate School of Education, University of California, 90024 Los Angeles, California.

  • Griffin, Em. (1994) Attribution Theory of Fritz Heider - from A First Look at Communication Theory  McGraw-Hill, Inc. This text-only version of the article appears on the World Wide Web site A facsimile of the original article is also available in PDF format.)
  • Kelley, H. H.; Michela, J. L . (1980) Attribution theory and research. Annual Review of Psychology, 31, 457-501.

  • Martin, Andrew J.; Dowson, Martin (2009). Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice. Review of Educational Research 2009; 79; 327 DOI: 10.3102/0034654308325583 The online version of this article can be found at:

  • View Article Weiner, Bernard. (1972). Attribution theory, achievement motivation, and the educational processReview of Educational Research, 42(2), 203-215. 
    Published by: American Educational Research Association Stable URL: