Heider and Kelly in Attribution Theory


Attribution Theory explains how people make sense of other’s behaviours, or their own. The term “attribution” have two meanings. First meaning is explanation of behaviours by answering the why question and the second meaning is to ascribe to an individual who seeks for the meanings from inferred behaviours. The founder of attribution theory was Fritz Heider who believed that people are social perceivers by making sense the social world (Heider, 1958). Further, Kelley (1967) suggested his covariation model by developing a logic in attribution theory. This assay focuses on the work by Heider and Kelly by proposing important points that they proposed.

Heider’s Theory of Attribution

Heider tried to understand the link between sensory information and real objects by asking how people make sense about the perception of objects in the world despite they are sensations in the mind. Heider debated that those real objects shape media in which media includes remarkable degree of variance in the case of many real objects are reflected by one thing.  However, reconstruction of real objects occurs by means of characteristics influencing media. Acoording to Heider (1920), sensory information that perceivers faced result in attribution of the sensory data through their basic cause in the world. For example, despite the colour is the property of perceived objects, one may directly sense to an object by means of interpreting as  sense data through its sense organs.

In his early works, Heider investigated how social interactions have association with the perceptions of people. Heider (1958) proposed that person perception is the more complex situation compared to object perception. Because, in the person perception, there are variables such as beliefs, emotions and traits as well as observational data are included. He thought that during perception, people can intentionally harm us or we can get benefit from the individuals. The abilities, emotions and desires of the people result in a purposefully act in the perceptions of people. Those intentional social perception and inference of wishes or any other mental constructs leading to  meaningful behavioural data in order. Person perception differs from object perception with two features. Firstly, he prosed the terms “variance” in social domain as ongoing behaviour of an agent’s and “invariance” as inferred perceptions, intentions or emotions.  He suggested that the invariances play key process where people display themselves in overt behaviour. In Heider’s proposed model, the causes of events such invariances of perceiver, confers on meaning to the experiences of agent’s. Heidel used invariance and disposition terms as mental state in his dissertations. Secondly, during the people analyse human behaviours, judgments they utilize two conceptual model. In the first model, he applied impersonal causality for physical and unintentional human behaviours. However, second model named personal causality was applied to the intentional behaviours and purposive actions of human.

As a result, Heider’s theory confirms in the difference between personal causality and impersonal causality for intentional and unintentional events, respectively. Those analysis reveals the construct of mental states centred on intention, where people make sense of intentional behaviours with the inference of beliefs, emotions and wishes.

Kelly’s Theory of Attribution

Kelly’s theory of attribution generally thought in casual judgements. In his paper, Kelly (1967) focused on two important idea where the Heider’s theory was expanded. In first central idea, Kelly proposed that the choice in attribution process occur between external and internal attribution. In the second main suggestion, Kelly found that those external and internal attributions are analogous to experimental methodology. In the developed logical model of Kelly, basically the information that person have from multiple observations can be perceived by its causes in terms of covariation of an observed effect. Kelly, argued that three types of casual information has an effect in our judgements. Consensus is the one which refers the beliefs of other people have an influence in similar situations. For instance, the smoking behaviour of one was influenced by the smoking behaviour of others. Distinctiveness is the second type of casual information which refers the beliefs of one person is the same in similar situations. For example, the one who only smokes with her friends in outside, the behaviour would in high distinctiveness. Lastly, consistency is the term referring the behaviour of one is the same every time the situation occurs. For example, high consistency event occurs when one smoke always with the friends outside whereas low consistency occurs when the one only smokes on important days. The covariation model assumes that people attributes in causality on the basis of correlation. Two things occur at the same time where one causes the another in our judgements.

As a result, Kelley’s model for attribution begins with two main ideas: (a) attribution is the choice between external (personal environment) and internal (characteristics to the person) causes and (b) the cognitive events during the choice of an individual in covariation evaluation. However, the problems appear in both ideas. In the first one, the internal and external causes may differ in the explanation of unintentional events, however, there is no explanation through intentional action in this idea. In the second one, covariation evaluation is not a useful method in terms of explaining intentional actions.     

Discussion and Concluding Remarks

The work of Heider and Kelly were the important contributions to the attribution studies. Heider’s deep view into the social perception provided the centre of attribution theory in social psychology. Basically, humans display behavioural and social events under the social influence and relationships. According to the Heider, people as naïve psychologists make sense to the world by means artificial of cause and effect relationships. Internal attribution is used to analyse the behaviour of one according to its motives, believes and personality. However, in external attribution, the environment is involved during explanation of our behaviours. Kelley (1967) simplified and expanded the nature of attribution behaviour by proposing three major assumptions in our judgements: consensus, distinctiveness and consistency. Those attribution occurs in causality, and multiple observations of people experience can be perceived with the covariation and observable cause and effect events. In the theory of Kelly, the casual attributions occur in a logical and rational manner where attribution of decision may be internal or external with high or low levels.

As Heider stated certain cognitive biases may result during the distortion of our perception causality. Therefore, attribution theory might have some limitations. As a result, by the initial contribution of Heider and further research by Kelly demonstrate that we do make sense our behaviour either intentionally or unintentionally, with our external and internal environment.


Heider, F. (1920). Zur Subjektivität der Sinnesqualitäten [On the subjectivity of sense qualities]

Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Graz, Austria.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska

Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 129–238). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Caglar Cil hakkında
Türkiye'nin kendimce en güzel şehirlerinden birinde, Denizli'de, dünyaya geldim. Liseyi Denizli Anadolu Lisesi'nde okudum. İzmir Yüksek Teknoloji Enstitüsü (İYTE) Moleküler Biyoloji ve Genetik mezunuyum. Glasgow Üniversitesi'nde İmmunoloji ve Enflamatuvar Hastalıklar üzerine yüksek lisansımı burslu olarak yaptım. Lisans hayatım boyunca Lodz Üniversitesi, Göteborg Üniversitesi ve Toronto Üniversitesi'nde araştırmalara katıldım. Bu çalışmalar sonucunda Cardiovascular Research ve Journal of Dental Research'te yayınlanan çalışmalarımız var. Öykü yazmayı seviyorum. Öykü Fanzin'de yayınlanan öyküm ve İYTE'de almış olduğum bir "birincilik" bir de "ikincilik" ödülüm var. Almanca öğreniyorum, İngilizce konuşabiliyorum, keman çalmayı öğreniyorum. Amacım Türkiye okuyucusuna bilimi sevdirmek, zaman buldukça eğlencesine bilimsel haberleri paylaşmak.

İlk yorum yapan olun

Bir yanıt bırakın

E-posta hesabınız yayımlanmayacak.