Attribution Theory, applied to Gender and Science

 

Home Background Performance Attribution Theory IAT Explained

What is Attribution Theory?

In social and educational psychology, attribution is the process by which individuals explain the causes of behaviour and events. This refers to self-directed thoughts (intrapersonal) on the cause for success and failure, as well as to beliefs about the responsibility of others for their success  and failure (interpersonal). Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider in the second half of the 20th century, subsequently developed by others such as Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner.

The intrapersonal self-directed thoughts

The attribution theory has been and still is a dominant conception in thinking on motivation and classroom issues (Weiner, 2000)[2][3]. Research has documented three underlying dimensions that together influence the effect of the attribution.

The first dimension is ‘location’. The perceived cause may be located inside him/her self or outside him/her self. Inside located causes are (a lack of) ability or (a lack of) effort. If the succes and failure is perceived as caused outside him/her self it is seen as due to good/bad/luck or complexity of the assignment.

The second dimension refers to (un)stability. Some causes, such as good luck, are unstable while math aptitude is regarded as constant.

Then the third dimension is controllability. Causes such as effort are controllable while chance and aptitude are not.

Overview of causes of success and effects

location Attributed to Evolves to  feeling of Effect on self-esteem For the future
 inside  ability  pride increases self-esteem  same/similar behaviour
 effort  pride increases self-esteem same/similar behaviour
 outside  good luck  enjoyment  no effect seek enjoyment
 easy assignment  enjoyment  no effect no clear effect

Future behaviour is strongly influenced by the expectancy of success, by the resulting feeling of pride and the increase of self-esteem.

Overview of causes of failure and effects

location Attributed to Evolves to  feeling of Effect on self-esteem For the future
 inside  low ability  shame lower self-esteem  lower expectancy of future success, avoidance behaviour
 effort guilt  no effect increase effort
 outside  bad luck  unlucky  no effect no effect
difficult /unfair assignment anger  no effect may lead to activism

In case failure was perceived a due to a lack of ability, in comparable future situations avoidance behaviour may be the result.

In case failure was perceived as due to a lack of effort it can be expected that in future the amount of effort is increased.

The interpersonal beliefs about others

Here the attribution theory focusses on the observer (parent, teacher..) and not on the actor. The major dimension of importance to the observer is controllability.

If the cause of a negative event or failure is controllable by another person, then that person is perceived as responsible for the outcome (Weiner 1995)[4]. The emotional response of the observer will be angriness.

Overview of interpersonal reactions after a negative event or failure

Perceived cause Controllability Emotion of the observer Action towards the person
lack of ability not controllable feel sorry sympathy and support
 lack of effort controllable angriness disapproval, punishment

Examples:

The flat mate who leaves the dishes after the meal will encounter angriness and disapproval. As a next step anger may cause anti-social behaviour such as punishment. If the cause of failure is not controllable by the student because it is due to unability, the parents may feel sorry. Sympathy will evolve into social behaviour, such as support.

However if the cause of failure is not controllable by the student because it is due to unability, the parents may feel sorry. Sympathy will evolve into social behaviour, such as support.

In many cultures parents, teachers and judges prefer the combination ‘lack of ability and much effort’, over ‘high ability and lack of effort’.

Attribution Theory applied in the relation between gender and science

In 2006, a study by Dickhauser and Meyer)[5] confirmed results from other studies that compared to boys, girls attributed math success less to high ability and math failure more to low ability.This was surprising since girls and boys did not differ with respect to math performance and general ability.

The most interesting result of the study revealed the apparent differences in the system underlying ability attributions in girls and boys. These differences suggest that the two groups used partly different cues to make attributions of math ability. Of the potential cues for math ability attributions that were assessed in the study, girls seemed to rely only on perceived teacher evaluation of their ability, that is on what they thought the teacher was thinking about their math ability. In contrast, the quality of girls’ actual math performance, as reflected in their grades, had no direct effect on their ability attributions. This may indicate that girls were more sensitive to cues that signaled teacher ability evaluation.

Boys, in contrast, seemed to rely on both perceived teacher evaluation of their math ability and the quality of their objective math performance when making math ability attributions. Interestingly, furthermore, in boys the ability evaluation actually held by the teacher had no direct effect on the perceived teacher ability evaluation. This could mean that boys were insensitive to cues signaling teacher evaluation of their math ability. Rather, boys seemed to infer the teacher’s evaluation from their own math performance. The differential structure underlying the ability attributions of boys and girls may also partly account for the fact that girls, on average, made more self-derogating math ability attributions than boys.

The genders differed significantly in perceived teacher evaluation of their math ability: Girls estimated the teacher’s opinion of their math ability to be lower than boys.

Given low performance, girls and boys did not differ significantly in their ability attributions. However, when performance was high, girls attributed success less to their high ability and failure more to their low ability than did boys. Thus, the gender difference in the factors underlying math ability attributions seemed to more specifically reflect the fact that girls disregarded high math performance as a cue for inferring high ability. A possible interpretation for this finding is that boys attach a higher importance to math than girls do (Eccles (Parsons) et al., 1984). Therefore grades in math can have a higher impact on self-related beliefs (like attributions) in boys than in girls.

The results of this study raise questions about teachers’ influence on gender differences in achievement-related beliefs concerning mathematics. Despite the absence of gender differences in general ability and math performance, teachers in the present study tended to evaluate the girls’ math ability as lower than that of boys. Consistent with this tendency, girls rated the teacher’s evaluation of their own math ability as lower than boys.

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attribution_%28psychology%29
  2. Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California.
  3. Correspondence should be directed to Bernard Weiner, Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California 90095; e-mail: Weiner@psych.ucla.edu
  4. Weiner, B. (1995). Judgments of Responsibility: A Foundation for a Theory of Social Conduct, Guilford, New York.
  5. OLIVER DICKHÄUSER, WULF-UWE MEYER, Gender differences in young children’s math ability attributions, Psychology Science, Volume 48, 2006 (1), p. 3-1

Become Aware of Your Unconscious Biases