Situational And Dispositional Factors Essay


  • Address the question 
    • In the psychological world, there are many different methods and approaches to the understanding and explaining of why or how people behave in certain situations. 

  • Introduce Fritz Heider 
    • Heider (1958) suggested that all people have a tendency to try to predict, understand and explain human behaviour, in terms of what causes people to behave in the ways that they do. 

  • Introduce "attributions 
    • One way that people interpret and explain causal relationships in the social world is through attribution --> which has laid the foundations for the attribution theory (AT) proposed by Heider (1958). 
    • Attributions are "the beliefs about why people behave as they do" the end result of a process in which people use available information to make inferences about the causes of a particular behaviour.
    • Therefore, AT is concerned with explanations of how each of us attributes causes for our own and others" behaviour.

  • Introduce Heider"s assumptions 
    • According to Heider, when we observe somebody"s behaviour we are inclined to attribute its cause to either dispositional (internal) factors of that person or to situational (external) causes. 

  • Describe the two types of attributions, with examples
    • Dispositional attributions: We explain people"s behaviour in terms of factors which are specific to them as a person, such as their personality or other internal and generally unchanging characteristics, traits, feelings, moods and abilities. 
      • Can be positive or negative 
      • An example of a dispositional attribution (commonly seen as innate factors)
        • They are always late; they have been like that since they were born, etc. 
    • Situational attributions: One"s behaviour is assumed to be/dependent upon their current circumstances, situation or the environment that they are in. 
      • An example: Blaming the weather for something that has happened

  • Example of attribution situations you could use for your essay. There are many real-life examples of how these two attributions are used in a daily basis.

  • The following scenario was observed by Evans-Pritchard among the Azande people of Central America.
    • Situation: The situation was that several people in the village were killed when a granary doorway collapsed.
    • This resulted in the villagers to have attributions on why the door collapsed and killed so many people.
    • Their attributions for this circumstance was that:
      • The Azande attributed their deaths, or the fact that they were standing next to the walls when it collapsed was to witchcraft. 
      • However, although E-P noted and told the villagers that the doorway had been eaten through by termites (representing its unstableness), the Azande people still attributed the situation to occur because of witchcraft. 

Connection of Study to Question 
  • This study shows how people may have different ways of attributing causes to events.
  • Another scenario would be for example,
    • Situation: A person is sitting in a restaurant, waiting for their date to show up, but he or she is late.
    • This would result in us looking for explanations or "attributing" possible situations as to why he or she has not yet arrived.
    • Possible attributions might be:
      • We attributed his lateness to the dispositional factor of their nature as being late all the time. 
      • Or towards a situational basis, that he had missed his/her bus, or heavy traffic may have occurred or even the result of their car breaking down. 
  • Thus, outline the purpose of your essay
    • As such, this essay response will aim to give a detailed account in the role of dispositional and situational factors in explaining behaviour.


  • Provide a brief explanation of why we tend to attribute behaviour?
    • We tend to attribute behaviour because humans are "social animals" (as underlined by one of the fundamental principles of the SCLOA) and have a need to understand why things happen in the world around us.
    • People tend to make attributions based on when they are performing it themselves or if they are observing it happen. This is known as the actor-observer effect.
  • State the problems and possible errors that concerns making attributions
    • However, when judgements are passed there is usually some form of bias, as both situational and dispositional factors are not considered from every viewpoint/angle.
    • Errors can occur when attributing tne"s behaviour, however it is also important to note that people can accurately attribute causes of behaviour to these factors (situational or dispositional) as well.

  • Give an example of an error that could occur in attribution
    • An example of a common error when attributing one"s behaviour is humans tendency tver- emphasize dispositional factors over situational factors, especially when they are judging other people"s behaviour; this is known as the fundamental attribution error (FAE).

  • Generally attributions follow this trend (optional) 
    • Positive outcomes (individual behaviour) 
    • Negative outcome (individual behaviour 
    • Positive outcome (other individuals) 
    • Negative outcomes (other individuals) 
  • Explain FAE"s role in attributing one"s behaviour to dispositional/situational factors 
    • Exploring FAE gives us more insight on the roles of situational and dispositional factors when explaining behaviour, and also helps us to be more open-minded to the possible alternative factors that cause people to behave in a certain way. 

  • Give Example 
    • An example of how people attribute dispositional and situational factors to explain behaviour is through Zimbardo"s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). 

Supporting Study 1: Zimbardo (1971) – Stanford Prison Experiment 
  • To investigate how people react in difficult situations. 
  • Zimbardo created a simulation of a prison in Stanford University basement. 
  • He randomly assigned the volunteers/participants to be either the guard or prisoner in the prison simulation. Therefore the IV was role (prisoner or guard). 
  • DV was behaviour observed through direct observation, video and audiotape. 
  • After a while, the volunteers playing the role of guards started to show acts of empowerment, aggression and a more confident attitude compared to the volunteers playing the role of the prisoners. 
  • Whilst the prisoners became passive, depressed, anxious and experienced loss of control over life. 
  • The volunteers acted like what their roles in their situation/predicament would be in real life prison conditions. 
  • This study demonstrated that situational rather than dispositional factors caused negative behaviour and thoughts found in prison settings. 
  • Zimbardo"s study is a prime example of how people can use either dispositional situational attribution to explain the behaviours of certain people. 


  • Thus, it can be seen that dispositional and situational causes of behaviour are attributed by people to explain the cause of behaviour.

The Prime Difference: Situational Vs. Dispositional Attribution

Dispositional attribution is the tendency to overlook the situations that people are in, and judge their behavior based on what we assume is their personality. Whereas, situational attribution is the tendency to analyze a person's actions according to the situation that they are in.
The human tendency to go along with the group, however wrong the cumulative popular belief of the group is, is one of the primary examples of "Social Psychology".

We are always trying to understand people and make sense of their behavior, this is called the attribution theory of social psychology. There are two basic ways in which we interpret behavior- in simple words, we either blame the person or we blame the situation. Dispositional attribution is the assumption that an individual's behavior is influenced by his internal characteristics. Whereas situation attribution, is analyzing a person's action with regards to the situation that he or she is in. Let's take a more detailed look at these attributions.
Understanding Situational and Dispositional Attributions
"Attribution theory deals with how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events. It examines what information is gathered and how it is combined to form a causal judgment" - Fiske and Taylor

Attributions play an important role in social psychology. Whenever people are interacting with each other or engaging in any group activity, they tend to make quick judgments about each other. They judge the motive behind a person's actions and attribute it to dispositional or situational causes.
Dispositional attribution is the assumption that a person's behavior reflects his internal dispositions like his personality, beliefs, attitude etc. Situational attribution is the assumption that a person's behavior is influenced by an external influence from the environment or culture. There are many complex factors involved, when people make a judgment.
They attribute the behavior of people around them, keeping in mind the race, gender, ethnicity etc., of a person. The quality of observation depends on many factors; for example we are better able to empathize with a friend or someone we like as compared to a stranger. Also, when we do not like someone due to any reason, we tend to attribute their behavior to a negative quality in them. Study has shown that the age of the observer also affects the quality of observation; children below 8 years of age generally do not make dispositional attributions. Let's see some examples of these attributions, to understand the concept better.
How Situational Attribution and Dispositional Attribution Differ
~ Your classmate submits an assignment late.
Dispositional Attribution: You are quick to say that he is lazy and irresponsible and never finishes his work on time.
Situational Attribution: You assume that there must have been some genuine issue because of which he could not submit it on time, like some family problem.
~ X enters the room carrying a pile of books and falls flat on his face.
Dispositional Attribution: He tripped because he is clumsy.
Situational Attribution: The floor must have been wet.
~ You are standing in a line to buy tickets for a movie, when someone pushes you and goes ahead.
Dispositional Attribution: He is thoughtless, rude and uncivilized.
Situational Attribution: He was pushed by someone else; he did not intend to cut the line.
Factors Affecting Quality of Attribution
Fundamental Attribution Error
Fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias as it is called, is the tendency to overvalue dispositional factors and downplay situational factors when understanding others' behavior. In simple words, we always defend ourselves by blaming the situation but are quick to pick on others' shortcomings.
Example: "She can't get a job because she's not good enough" or "She's not fit to be a teacher, she can barely manage to discipline the students", these statements demonstrate dispositional attribution. However, when asked to explain their own behavior, people will always blame the situation: "I haven't been able to get a job because of recession"; "I had an issue teaching those students, as they were too disruptive." People tend to take into account the circumstances only when explaining their own behavior. Committing a fundamental attribution error, i.e. relying heavily on dispositional factors weakens the judgment about a person's actions.
People have a tendency to attribute their own success to dispositional factors and their failure to situational factors.
Example: Matt wins the poetry writing competition in his school, but fails to get it published in a leading magazine. He attributes his success to his talent and his failure to his bad luck. It may be, that the poem was not good enough for the magazine. But, due to the self-serving bias, he fails to view the situation objectively. It is believed that this is because people want to maintain the opinion or self-image that they have of themselves. In the long run, the lack of objectivity in estimating one's worth doesn't help in improving one's performance.
The focus of attention or spotlight effect bias is the tendency of people to overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to their behavior and appearance.
Example: When a person drops a fork in a restaurant, he gets very embarrassed because he believes everyone has seen it, when in reality hardly anyone would have even realized. The focus of attention bias changes the way people interpret the worth of their own behavior. They give undue importance to themselves and the assumption that others also give them that much importance may not be always true.
People make different attributions depending on whether they are the actor or observer in a situation. This is because in the two positions people have different perspectives.
Example: When a person gets low marks, it's because the questions asked were never taught in class. Whereas when others get bad marks it's because they are inattentive. As an actor, situational factors are focused on, whereas, as an observer dispositional factors are highlighted. People succumb to this bias less when the people involved are family and friends.
It is believed that cultural values affect the way people make attributions; this can be particularly seen in the attributions made between people from individualist and collectivist cultures.
Example: People from collectivist cultures such as seen in Asia, Africa and Latin America believe in the importance of interdependence and define themselves in terms of their membership in a group. People from individualist cultures emphasize on independence and it is believed that they are more likely to make the fundamental attribution error. It has been seen that people from collectivist culture are more likely to make situational attributions in comparison to individualists. This is because they are used to living and adjusting in large groups and have a better ability to empathize with people.
Application of the Attributions
There are many behavior modification techniques that are used to change attributions. What a person attributes his success or failure to, affects his approach in the future. People who attribute their success or failure to effort are more likely to work hard than people who attribute it to ability. Attributions also influence the observer's feeling about events that have occurred in the past, expectations with regards to future events, conceptions of himself, attitude towards other people and reaction to an action. Obviously, this has a major effect on interpersonal relations. However, we may also note that some have criticized this theory as it does not address the historical and social aspects that influence attribution.
Now that you know about the various attributions, the next time you judge someone's behavior figure out whether you are being reasonable or not. More importantly, try to view your behavior as objectively as you can and work at it.

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