Attribution Theory


Making meaning through causal explanations

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of behaviors and justifications
  • Knowing is … behaving
  • Learner is … an actor (individual)
  • Learning is … making meaning (of experiences through attributions of cause)
  • Teaching is … channeling attentions to habits of attribution/blame




Attribution Theory is developed around the assumption that individuals are motivated to develop causal explanations of behaviors and events. Such explanations posit either internal attributions (i.e., explained in terms of personal qualities, such as ability, mood, or effort) or external attributions (i.e., explained in terms of the situational factors, such as the task, social conventions, or accident). Very different opinions of the actor arise, depending on the type of attribution. People tend to attribute their own behaviors to situational factors and others’ actions to their personal qualities. Relevant associated discourses include:
  • Attribution Retraining (Bernard Weiner, 1970s) – therapy aimed at influencing a learner’s attributions – typically away from traits beyond one’s control (e.g., “I failed because I’m tall.”) and toward qualities or conditions that one can influence (e.g., “I failed because I didn’t duck.”)
  • Fundamental Attribution Error (Attribution Effect; Correspondence Bias) (Lee Ross, 1960s) – when assigning responsibility for a person’s behaviors, the tendency to over-emphasize personal qualities (e.g., disposition) to and under-emphasize situational factors


An implicit assumption in Attribution Theory, evident in its focus on causal explanations, is that humans are rational and systematic thinkers. Current evidence suggests that this assumption is incorrect. As well, explications of Attribution Theory tend to come across as attributing internal attributions to individual. Although that tendency is consistent with the theory, it ignores social and cultural condition that cannot be tidily classified as either personal or situational factors.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Fritz Heider; Bernard Weiner

Status as a Theory of Learning

Although Attribution Theory addresses one mechanism of learning (i.e., causal explanations as a source and site of meaning-making), it falls well short of offering a nuanced and comprehensive account of the complex dynamics of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Attribution Theory is not a theory of teaching, but some of its recommended strategies to support and empower learners have become quite popular in schools. For example, Attribution Theory has been applied to address issues associated with self-motivation, learned helplessness, self-awareness, personal empowerment, empathy, and a range of soft skills. Recommended strategies revolve around supporting individuals, first by helping them hear how they explain their own and others’ actions, and then by challenging those interpretations.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Core elements of the Attribution Theory are contradicted by scientific theories of learning (esp. Cognitive Science), and its evidence base appears to be limited.


  • Attribution Retraining
  • Fundamental Attribution Error (Attribution Effect; Correspondence Bias)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Attribution Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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