Attribution theory is a concept in psychology. As part of an attempt to understand the world and exert control, people usually try to attribute causes to actions and events, believing that everything has an explanation, if one digs far enough. The way in which attributions play out can be very revealing, as, perhaps not surprisingly, people have different standards when it comes to attribution. The application of these standards can feed into prejudice, power imbalances, and similar social issues.
In attribution theory, there are two possible explanations for an event or an action. One is internal, also known as intrinsic; the explanation stems from the fact that someone or something is motivated by internal forces. For example, when someone says “don't mind Sally, that's just the way she is,” they are illustrating internal attribution. Conversely, when situational, environmental, or extrinsic factors are believed to be the cause for something, someone exercises external attribution. In an example, one might say “John would have gotten the report in on time, but the server crashed.”
One interesting thing to note about attribution theory is that people are not consistent when applying attributions. When someone makes a mistake, he or she will tend to blame the mistake on external factors. When someone identifies a mistake made by someone else, internal factors are often blamed. This allows people to shift the responsibility for personal blame to external factors, while holding people personally responsible for mistakes they have made.
When someone is successful, this is often attributed to internal factors like skill or competence. When the tables are turned and success is recognized in someone else, people are more likely to suggest that external factors such as luck were responsible. These tendencies illustrate that people like to take credit for success, and avoid blame where they can.
Social interactions can be influenced by attribution theory as well. People will often use attribution theory to claim some reflected glory, as when sports fans say “we won,” even if they weren't on the team. Conversely, attributions can be used to distance oneself from failure; it may be “they lost” when one's team loses.
Understanding attribution theory can be important when challenging one's own biases, or when trying to understand the dynamics of a group. Knowing that people will claim personal responsibility for success and blame failure on others can be especially important in the workplace, where people use attribution theory as they fight for promotions, recognition, and good reputations.