Attribution Theory and Performance

Attribution Theory and Performance

PSY 331- Psychology of Learning


Ever wonder how or why we describe events the way that we do? How do we attribute connotation to our own behavior or the behavior of others? This is Attribution Theory. “Attribution theory states that individuals tend to make sense of outcomes by attributing, or ascribing, them to specific people, thoughts, feelings, or actions” (Rosser-Majors, 2017, sec. 4.4). If individuals fail at something, they tend to blame others for their failure instead of accepting their shortcomings. However, if they succeed, they attribute it to themselves and their skill set. This paper will explore attribution theory and performance via self-application, including blame, stability and controllability, self-efficacy, and learning performance.


Ever since I was younger, I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with intelligence and a real aptitude for school. Growing up, I spent a lot of time indoors reading, instead of outside with my siblings and the other children on the block. I did not enjoy playing rough or getting dirty like the other kids. I also had a very troubling childhood, so reading was my escape. By the time I entered middle school, I was reading at a college level. In school, I always got good grades and was often approached by teachers asking me to consider becoming a tutor at the tutoring center. I got accepted into every college that I applied to and was offered a Dean’s scholarship by several of them. School always came easy to me and it was always what I was best at.

When I first started attending college, I attended a community college so that I could commute from home and take care of my younger sister. I was a nursing major at the time, so I had to take several biology courses. I also chose American Sign Language as an elective, as I was very interested in learning it. At the end of my first year, I noticed that my GPA was the lowest it had ever been in my life. I had received low C’s in my biology and sign language courses. I had never received a grade lower than a high B before. I felt like a failure. I was extremely upset and confused. I had done my work the same way I always did and put in the same effort I always had. So why was my grade not just as good as it always was? As cited by Fishman & Husman (2017), “Research in attribution theory has shown that students often engage in causal thinking and that their motivation is influenced by how they attribute causes to outcomes” (Weiner, 1985, 2010). Of course, my causal thinking led me to blame external forces for my failure.


My explanation of my failure is known as an external locus of control. According to Rosser-Majors (2017), the locus of control is external when an individual accepts that external forces are largely impacting the product of a learning experience. I believed that my failure was due to my teachers not being fair or reasonable, my partners during the group work not working as hard, and my parents not handling their responsibilities, forcing me to take care of things and distracting me from my studies. I basically blamed everyone and everything else for my low grades. I did not take any responsibility. Rather than reflect on my own actions that may have led to those grades, I chose to be prideful instead and placed the blame elsewhere.

The question is: Why? Why did I blame others for my failure? Why could I not accept the truth? The truth of the matter is that I did not study. I was so used to getting A’s without having to study at all, that I just assumed it would, and should, always be that way. I refused to accept that everyone else was right when they told me that college was harder and would require more work. I enjoyed never studying and always getting perfect grades because it made me feel much smarter, so I refused to accept the fact that I actually had to study for my college courses because I no longer felt as smart. So why could I not acknowledge this at the time? Attribution theorists affirm this causal search to control. Keinan & Sivan (2001) state “These stressful outcomes threaten students’ sense of control; thus, a search for causality following such outcomes provides a sense of structure, understandability, and predictability of their environment” (as cited by Fishman & Husman, 2017). I delegated the blame to everyone else so that I could have an understanding as to why I failed and still feel that I had my studies under control.

Stability and Controllability

Stability and controllability definitely play a role in performance attributions. According to Maymon et al. (2018), controllability demonstrates an individual’s confidence regarding the degree to which the cause of the outcome was autonomous in nature and stability demonstrates an individual’s confidence regarding how probable the cause is to modify over time. The higher the stability, or the lower the controllability, of a causal explanation, the poorer the performance will be. According to Maymon et al. (2018), attribution theory proposes that causal explanations inspire an individual’s ensuing sentiments and actions. So, if an individual believes that the causal explanation is not likely to be changed (too stable), or if they feel that it was out of their volition (uncontrollable), they are less likely to change their behavior to improve. For example, I felt that my failure was due to my teachers being unfair and unreasonable, and that it was unlikely for that to change. I also felt that during group work, my partners were did not care as much and did not work as hard and that my parents were not handling their responsibilities (taking care of my sister or working to pay bills), so I felt that I had to. I felt that these things were out of my control and not my fault. Due to my beliefs that my circumstances were beyond my control and impossible to change, I felt that it had nothing to do with my behavior or actions, so I kept doing things the way I always had been. However, later when I accepted that my grades were due to my lack of effort and not studying, I realized that the causal explanation was changeable and controllable. After realizing that the causal explanation for my failure was changeable and controllable, I put in more effort and studied more and improved my performance attributes and self-efficacy.


According to Carey & Forsyth (2018), self-efficacy is an individual’s certainty in their own aptitude to implement actions obligatory to achieving specific goals. Self-efficacy plays a critical role in how we process our learning behaviors because it is a self-motivation that urges an individual to work hard and persist, despite difficulties or obstacles. For example, when I realized that my poor grades were due to my lack of effort and studying. I knew that I was smart enough and that I was capable of improving my grades if I tried, so that motivated me to study and work harder. In contrast, my sister never believed she was smart enough (and still does not), so she never bothered trying and once she graduated high school, she decided not to pursue a college degree. Even though she wants a degree and wants a career, she refuses to go to college because she does not think she is capable of succeeding. Our belief in ourselves affects our ability to adapt and learn. If we do not believe we are capable, or if we do not believe we have the necessary knowledge, then we do not make an attempt. Our learning behaviors grow as our schema grow. So, when we have poor self-efficacy, we miss out on experiences, which means we miss out on acquiring new knowledge and enhancing our schemas.

Learning Performance

There are several strategies that could be applied to utilize what we know about self-perception and attributions to increase learning performance. I believe the best strategies are persistence, resilience, and critical thinking. According to Rosser-Majors (2017), “The ability to persevere through difficulty and recover from failure enables the learner to overcome challenges and attain increased learning success” (sec. 4.4). As long as an individual does not give up, and can accept and improve from their failures, they will continue to increase their knowledge acquisition and learn more effectively. Also, the ability to think critically about a situation and assess all the factors will greatly increase an individual’s learning performance. As cited by Duron, Limbach & Waugh (2006, para. 1), “Critical thinking is an important and necessary skill because it is required in the workplace, it can help you deal with mental and spiritual questions, and it can be used to evaluate people, policies, and institutions, thereby avoiding social problems” (Hatcher and Spencer, 2005). Critical thinking allows an individual to analyze and evaluate information to effectively process and learn.


In sum, attribution theory plays a pivotal role in our everyday lives. Attribution theory describes how individuals make sense of outcomes by attributing them to other people, actions, or feelings. I experienced this after my first year of college, when I received my lowest grades ever and felt like a failure. I attributed my failure to others by blaming them for my low grades instead of taking responsibility for my own role in my failure. Individuals engage in causal search for a sense of control. Stability and controllability play a role in performance attributes because they impact an individual’s self-efficacy. Self-efficacy plays a role in how we process our learning behaviors because it gives us motivation to persist, despite difficulties and obstacles. Finally, persistence, resilience and critical thinking are crucial strategies that can be applied to increase learning performance.


Carey, M. P., & Forsyth, A. D. (2018). Self-Efficacy Teaching Tip Sheet. Retrieved October 21, 2018, from

Duron, R., Limbach, B., & Waugh, W. (2006). Critical Thinking Framework For Any Discipline. Retrieved October 22, 2018, from

Fishman, E. J., & Husman, J. (2017). Extending attribution theory: Considering students’ perceived control of the attribution process. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(4), 559–573.

Maymon, R., Hall, N. C., Goetz, T., Chiarella, A., & Rahimi, S. (2018). Technology, attributions, and emotions in post-secondary education: An application of Weiner’s attribution theory to academic computing problems. PLoS ONE, 13(3), 1–36.

Rosser-Majors, M. L. (2017). Theories of learning: An exploration. Retrieved from

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