Attributions Essay

Consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus

In the attribution model proposed by Kelley, 1967, the attributions made by individuals are assumed to be logical and correct - Attributions Essay introduction. The main aspects are consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus. Consistency questions, whether the behavior of the same actor is consistent in different situations. Distinctiveness questions, whether the behavior of one actor varies depending on a situation. Finally, consensus questions, whether different actors have the same behavior in a specific situation.

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I would like to describe a situation, where the causes of actor’s behavior were unclear. A good friend of mine refuses to help me to explain a chapter of a study book that I did not understand, though I really need his help. In order to determine the reasons, we can consider consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus aspects. First of all, let’s look at consistency. The friend did agree to help when I had difficulties in studies earlier, which means that there must have been an external cause in this specific situation. Further, let’s consider distinctiveness. The friend has been helpful in various situations, for example, once he helped me to paint my room. This again leads to a conclusion that the causes must be external. At the end, consensus questions whether other actors behave in the same way.  I ask for help from other study mates, but they don’t help me either. This leads to a conclusion that the causes are external, e.g., the study material is too difficult.

Fundamental attribution error

Fundamental attribution error was described by Jones & Harris (1967), who performed an experiment showing that people are prone to attribution errors – they do not evaluate the situation, and tend to attribute the behavior of actors, whether negative or positive, to internal causes.

I will provide an example of assigning internal causes of negative behavior of other people, when I appear in stressful traffic situations. I was recently loudly cursing the drivers of the cars in front of me for going too slowly, and not considering me and my time. In reality, the reason was heavy traffic load, and the cause of the cars going slowly was purely external. The consequence is frustration and reasoning that people with bad to me personally.

Actor-observer effect

            The actor-observer effect is a special case of fundamental attribution error, when internal causes are assigned to negative behavior of other people, and external causes are assigned to negative behavior of oneself. The concept was described by Jones & Nisbett (1972). For example, I was in a hurry, and I still had to do my groceries. In the shop, I was pushing people around and talking impolitely to the cashier. Although it was my own fault, I blamed the inconvenient layout of the supermarket, and the slow service. My anger in this situation was directed  to external actors, and to the situation. In addition, it helps to perceive myself as a “good person”, somebody that behaves well unless forced otherwise by the situation.

Self-serving bias

Researchers still argue, whether self-serving bias is dependent on culture, race, or gender, and if it is widespread in the whole world.  Mezulis et al. (2004) have performed a comprehensive study and they concluded that self-serving bias is common to all cultures. Although western culture is especially prone to self-serving bias, in United States the authors did not find a statistically significant difference between gender, race, and ethnicity.

I tend to attribute failures in studies, e.g., uncompleted tasks and bad performance in tests, to external factors, i.e., too difficult tasks and too little time for too much work. The direct consequences are preserved self-esteem and good mood, or, at least, the direction of anger is external instead of internal. The long-term consequence is a repetitive bad performance. The only way to avoid bad performance in the future is to internalize the causes, and to admit that it is lack of effort that causes failures, and to change the pattern by increasing the effort.


Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1–24.

Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1972). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In E. E. Jones, D.  Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 79-94). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution in social psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 15, 192-238.

Mezulis, Amy H., Lyn Y. Abramson, Janet S. Hyde, and Benjamin L. Hankin (2004). Is There a Universal Positivity Bias in Attributions? A Meta-Analytic Review of Individual, Developmental, and Cultural Differences in Self-Serving Attributional Bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 711–747.

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