Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Attributions and motivation

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Attributions and motivation:
How do attributions affect motivation?
Figure 1. What do you attribute your success and failure to? How do these attributions affect your motivation?


Consider two players in a tennis match (as shown in Figure 1). Inevitably, one player wins while the other will lose. Did the winning player win because she was a better player than the other? Or, was the other player having an off day? The winner may attribute her victory to her ability and feel confident about the next match. While the loser may attribute her loss to circumstances that are out of her control (for example, feeling unwell or poor weather conditions) and be less motivated to play another match unless those factors change. Consider you were the winning player. Now consider you were the losing player. What do you attribute your successes and failures to? How do your attributions affect your motivation?

This chapter aims to provide an insight into attributions and motivation by discussing:

  • The ways in which we form attributions
  • How attributions affect our motivation and guide our future action
  • What we can do to improve our motivational lives based on the theory and research of attributions

What is motivation?[edit]

Motivation is a theoretical psychological construct that focuses on the processes that drive and direct individuals to behave in certain ways to achieve individual goals (Weiner, 1992). It examines questions such as: Why do some individuals will engage in and complete a task while others will not? Why do some people persist in the face of difficulty when others will give up? Or, why do some people set themselves high goals and others set easily attained goals or no goals at all (Tollefson, 2000)? Thus, motivation is the study of why people think and behave as they do (Weiner, 1992).

What are attributions?[edit]

Attributions are inferences that people construct about the causes of their own behaviour, others' behaviour, and events (Weiner, 1974). As humans we tend to make attributions because we have a need to understand our experiences (Tollefson, 2000). Attributions have cognitive and affective consequences that influence our future actions and likelihood of success and failure (Weiner, 1992, 2005). For example, in the opening scenario of this book chapter the winning tennis player attributed her success to her ability. This influenced her to feel confident and motivated to play her next match. On the other hand, the losing tennis player attributed her loss to the fact she was not feeling well and the weather conditions were not ideal. This in turn may decrease her motivation and she may decline future matches, until perhaps these perceived causal factors change.

Weiner's attribution theory of motivation and emotion[edit]

Attribution theory is the study based upon models postulated by Fritz Heider (1958), Harold Kelley(1967) and Bernard Weiner (1974, 1985) that attempt to explain the processes in which individuals explain the causes of behaviour and events. Although there are several theories on attribution, Weiner (1974, 1985, 2005) built a theoretical framework of attributions focusing on the link between attributions and motivations. He proposed that people seek to understand why they succeed or fail and was interested in how this affects their motivation to engage in similar tasks in future. When a cause is assigned to success or failure we tend to attribute this to a number of factors such as:

  • Ability- the extent to which we have the ability to perform the task.
  • Effort- the amount of effort expenditure required.
  • Task difficulty- how easy or difficult the task is.
  • Luck- good or bad luck (Weiner, 1974 1985).

Frieze (1976) conducted a study which further supported these prominent causal factors. This study posed hypothetical situations to the participants, of (1) succeeding or failing at an exam and (2) winning or losing at an unspecified game. Using open-ended questionnaires the participants were to explain why they may have succeeded of failed at the proposed task. The results of this study revealed that participants identified ability, effort, task difficulty and luck as the most salient explanation of the outcomes. However, Frieze’s (1976) study as well as a later study of Elig and Frieze (1979) also revealed additional causal factors of success and failure such as mood, influence of others, personality, and interest. Although these studies do support the importance of Weiner’s proposed four causal factors, the findings of other factors suggests they may not be sufficient enough in explaining situations not directly related to achievement (Elig & Frieze, 1979; Frieze, 1976). This poses a question: can the perceived causes we attribute to our success or failure be attributed to situations that are not related to achievement tasks? For instance, what about in situations of social acceptance or rejection where being accepted or rejected may be based on how attractive you are (Weiner, 1985).

Weiner's attribution model - the structure of perceived causality[edit]

Figure 2. Weiner's (1974) Attribution Model

To save this confusion, Weiner (1985) offered a taxonomic structure of perceived causality as a way to find common underlying factors of differing situations that would otherwise be incomparable (see Figure 2). This has allowed different situations to be classified along the same dimension (Weiner, 1985). The three main properties of this taxonomic structure are: Locus, Stability and Controllability.

Locus (Internal vs. External)

This dimension distinguishes between causes that are within the person such as ability and effort (internal), and those that are outside of the person such as luck or fate (external; Weiner, 1985). For example, upon failing an exam, if Jennifer attributes this to not studying enough in preparation for the exam, or because she lacks the intellectual ability to comprehend the exam material then these are internal attributions. On the other hand, if Jennifer were to attribute her failure to ‘bad luck’ this would be an external attribution.

Internal attributions influence an individual’s self-esteem, as it directly relates to an individual's ability and effort (Graham & Weiner, 1996). In other words, success that is attributed to internal causes result in feelings of pride and increments in self-esteem (Graham & Weiner, 1996). However, when failure is attributed to internal causes this may result in feelings of shame or guilt and decrements in self-esteem (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Stability (Stable vs. Unstable)

This dimension refers to establishing whether a cause is likely to change overtime (unstable) or remain constant (stable; Weiner, 1985). Again, take the example of Jennifer failing an exam. If she attributed this failure to lack of sleep the night before, this an example of an unstable attribution because the cause (tiredness) is likely change in the future. Therefore, stability is directly related to an individual’s expectancy for success on future tasks (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Control (Controllable vs. uncontrollable)

This refers to whether a person has control over the situation or whether the situation is out of their control (Weiner, 1985). Jennifer failed her exam but attributes this to the fact the teacher sets extremely hard exams. Therefore, in future she is less likely to try as hard because she perceives the situation to be uncontrollable and develop the mentality of ‘why bother?’

This dimension is proposed to influence emotional experiences which in turn is assumed to guide motivated behaviour (Graham & Weiner, 1996). For example anger arises if success is impeded due to factors that could have otherwise been controlled (Graham & Weiner, 1996). Additionally, guilt may be experienced if an individual fails to attain a goal due to an internally controllable cause such as lack of effort (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Expectancy theory of motivation[edit]

When applied to the study of motivation, attribution theories fall under the concept of the Expectancy Theory of Motivation. The expectancy theory of motivation proposed by Vroom (1964; as cited in Lee, 2007) proposes an individual’s motivation can be explained by[Rewrite to improve clarity]:

  • An individual's perception of how well they are likely to perform or succeed on the activity.
  • The extent to which the individual perceives performing the task will lead to desirable outcomes such as satisfaction, recognition of achievement, or a reward.
  • The value the individual places on the above outcomes.

Vroom’s (1964) expectancy theory of motivation offers three variables: Valence, Expectancy, and Instrumentality (see Table 1).

Table 1.

Three Variables of the Expectancy Theory of Motivation (Vroom, 1964)

Valence Entrenched in the value system of the individual, valence refers to the value of the outcome perceived by the individual, which is based on needs, goals, and values (Erez & Isen, 2002; Lee, 2007).
Expectancy An individual’s attitude that effort will result in attainment of the desired goals. Expectancy is based upon past experience, self-efficacy, perceived control and the difficulty of the goal (Lee, 2007). These factors affect an individual's decisions as they will choose tasks that are likely to result in attaining their desired goals (Lee, 2007).
Instrumentality The perceived relationship between the effort required to perform the task and the expected reward (Lee, 2007). In other words, it is the belief that they will receive a reward if the goal is attained (Erez & Isen, 2002).

Attributions are relevant in this domain as casual properties overlap with the variables of the expectancy theory of motivation (Graham & Weiner, 1996; Weiner, 1985). To demonstrate, if an attribution is stable following a success or failure then the same outcome will be expected when faced with the same or similar situation in the future (Graham & Weiner, 1996)[grammar?]. If individuals expect they will be successful in attaining particular goals they will be more motivated to give their best attempt and to persist in their efforts (Graham & Weiner, 1996; Wigfield, & Eccles, 2000). If individuals expect a negative outcome, they may become less motivated to attempt the task or put forth effort (Graham & Weiner, 1996; Wigfield, & Eccles, 2000). Thus, attribution theories relate to the expectancy theory of motivation as both analyse motivation as a process elicited by a particular event which results in a behavioural intention (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Attributions and protecting self-esteem[edit]

Self-serving bias[edit]

The self-serving bias is the tendency for individuals to attribute success to internal factors and failure to external factors (Miller & Ross, 1975; Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde, & Hankin, 2004). We tend to explain good outcomes as attributable to our abilities and efforts because this enhances our self-image and ‘puts us in a good light’ (Miller & Ross, 1975). However, what about times when an outcome is much more positive than anticipated in which we may attribute the cause to an external factor such as luck (Tollefson, 2000)? To demonstrate, imagine you submit an assignment and anticipate you may fail. Upon receiving your marks back you gained a high distinction. In line with the attribution theory and the self-serving bias, some may attribute this to their ability, but some might consider themselves ‘lucky’ (Tollefson, 2000).

On the contrary, this[what?] may also be a reflection of individual differences of explanatory style (Stewart et al., 2011). Whereby[grammar?], individuals with an optimistic style attribute positive events to internal and stable causes, while pessimistic styles attribute positive events to external and unstable causes (Stewart et al., 2011). Despite this, there is strong evidence to suggest that the self-serving bias may be a universal tendency (Mezulis et al., 2004). Mezulis et al (2004) performed a meta-analysis investigating participants use of the self-serving bias. This analysis revealed a large effect size (d = 0.96) indicating that most individuals do attribute their successes to internal characteristics while discounting failures as unrelated to themselves. Perhaps the self-serving bias is common to us all because attributing success to internal causes maintains motivation by sustaining self-esteem, while bias towards external attributions serves to protect self-esteem (Mezulise et al., 2004; Miller & Ross, 1975).


Figure 3. Self-handicapping provides an excuse for failure (Tice, 1991)

Self-handicapping is a strategy of self-defeating behavior that some individual’s may use when failure is anticipated (Tice, 1991). It involves finding ways to impede an individual’s own success which may consequently jeopardise performance (Tice, 1991). By self-handicapping, an individual can attribute failure to this handicap instead of their lack of ability (see Figure 3; Tice, 1991). If, on the other hand, they succeed then self-handicapping works in their favour, as it enhances their self-esteem by receiving recognition for succeeding despite the obstacle (Tice, 1991). For example, a student who has an exam the following morning may go to a party the night before instead of studying. If this student fails the exam he or she has a protective excuse of the cause. If he or she passes then this will enhance the individual’s credit for success.

Tollefson (2000) suggests individuals may self-handicap due to the ‘double-edged sword’ of attributing success and failure to effort. This is an aspect the attribution theory does not elaborate on as effort is portrayed as a ‘black or white’ factor (effort vs. no effort), indicating that some aspects of the theory may be too simplistic (Tollefson, 2000). Expending effort on a task and succeeding brings a sense of pride, but having to expend a large amount of effort (in comparison to others) to be successful may indicate low ability (Tollefson, 2000). Therefore, Tollefson (2000) states that ‘true failure’ is when an individual puts forth a high amount of effort yet still fails, whereas putting no effort in and failing is not really failing at all. Hence some individuals may self-handicap because if they were to expend effort and fail it maybe indication of their low ability (Tollefson, 2000).

How do attributions affect motivation?[edit]

So how do attributions affect motivation? Let’s return to the opening scenario of the tennis player losing a game in order to put together the information discussed so far and demonstrate how attributions can affect motivation. Consider the following scenarios that differ in motivations to perform certain actions based on the attributions of the outcome (Graham & Weiner, 1996):

Scenario one: After losing, the tennis player seeks extra training and support from her coach as well as increasing her training sessions in preparation for next match.

Scenario two: After losing, the tennis player decides to give up and quit playing tennis all together.

In the first scenario, a negative outcome (losing) is experienced which results in the tennis player training harder. She attributes this poor performance to not having been to training for two weeks, which is an unstable factor. As we can see, these causal factors are perceived as internal, unstable and controllable. Because this cause is unstable, the losing player will still remain hopeful as well as maintain expectancy for future success. Furthermore, because the outcome was controllable, the losing player might experience the emotion of guilt. Thus, expectations of future success along with hopefulness and feelings of guilt are likely to result in an increase in motivation to perform well and win the next match she plays (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

In the second scenario, the player is again described as losing the match but instead of training harder to win the next match she decides to quit playing. With this scenario she attributes her loss to the fact that she has low ability and cannot acquire the appropriate tennis skills due to her lack of motor coordination. Therefore in this scenario the cause is perceived as internal, stable and uncontrollable. Due to the fact that this cause is stable the player will likely expect future failure, which may come to result in helplessness. Furthermore, because this cause is uncontrollable the player may feel shame and humiliation. Taken together, the attributions formed in this scenario lead to maladaptive thoughts and feelings, which are likely to decrease motivation and result in the withdrawal by quitting tennis (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

Table 2.

Summary of Scenario One[explain?]

Negative/unexpected outcome Losing
Attribution Lack of training in the past two weeks
Applied to Weiner’s causal dimension Internal, unstable and controllable
Influence on expectancy and affect The cause is unstable; therefore, losing player will remain hopeful and maintain expectancy for future success. The outcome was controllable therefore losing player experiences guilt.
Action determined by this process Seeking extra training and support from coach as well as increasing training sessions in preparation for next game.

Table 3.

Summary of Scenario Two[explain?]

Negative/unexpected outcome Losing
Attribution Low ability and lack of motor coordination
Applied to Weiner’s causal dimension Internal, stable and uncontrollable
Influence on expectancy and affect The cause is stable; therefore, player will likely expect future failure, resulting in helplessness. The cause is uncontrollable therefore the player feels shame and humiliation.
Action determined by this process Decreased motivation resulting in the withdrawal by quitting tennis.

As summarised in Table 2 and Table 3, we can see that motivation is initiated by an event that an individual perceives as either positive or negative (attaining a goal or not; Weiner, 1985). Once we have experienced the outcome of an unexpected, negative, or important event the process of attributing a cause occurs (Weiner, 1985). When the individual has formed an attribution, the casual dimension in which the cause is placed along (locus, stability, and controllability), has psychological consequences that are intertwined with expectancy and affect (Graham & Weiner, 1996; Wigfield, & Eccles, 2000). Specifically, the stability of a cause influences an individual’s expectancy for future success on similar tasks and controllability influences our emotional reactions to the outcome of the situation (Graham & Weiner, 1996). Finally, expectancy and affect are presumed to guide and determine action (Weiner, 1985). In summary, (and as shown in Figure 4), attributions influence expectancy and affect, which in turn influence motivated behaviour (Weiner, 1985, 2006).

Figure 4. Attributions influence expectancy and affect, which motivates future action (Weiner, 1985, 2006).

Some practical, self-help advice[edit]

Adaptive attributions (scenario one) are beneficial to motivation while maladaptive attributions (scenario two) may have negative consequences on motivation (Stewart et al., 2011). Attributional Retraining (AR) may be a possible way to combat maladaptive attributions (Stewart et al., 2011). AR is a psychotherapeutic treatment based on attribution theory that is designed to modify the way an individual attributes causes to failure in more adaptive ways such as internal, stable, and controllable (Stewart et al., 2011). AR retrains individuals to think about their success and failures as situations that they can actively influence. As discussed throughout this chapter, effort is the main causal factor which we generally have control over and is the foundation of AR. Modifying an individual’s cognitions so they come to attribute the cause of their success and failures to effort is beneficial as it increases motivation to take control (Stewart et al., 2011).

Stewart et al (2011) investigated the effectiveness of AR on first-year university student’s mastery motivation. Stewart et al (2011) state the increased demands that university places on students, in comparison to high school, may lead students to doubt their academic capabilities. This doubt contributes to lowered motivation, which results in decrements in academic performance and in turn, poor results further weaken motivation (Stewart et al., 2011). Thus, Stewart et al (2011) applied AR to 336 first-year students by using scenarios to demonstrate how maladaptive attributions could be changed to adaptive attributions (i.e., internal/stable/uncontrollable to internal/unstable/controllable). Prior to AR, baseline measures of the student’s levels of motivation were taken, which were compared to levels of motivation at the end of the academic year. Students who undertook AR displayed significant increased in their levels of motivation when assessed at the end of the academic year in comparison to students who did not receive AR. Taken together, this study highlights the practical implications of the principles of AR as it promotes adaptive attributions of internal, unstable, and controllable causes which serve to maintain motivation.

So how can you improve your life by applying knowledge from the theories and research based on attributions and motivation? Motivation for future action is influenced by what kind of cause we attribute to an outcome (Weiner, 1985, 2006). If we attribute a cause of a negative outcome to ourselves this may lead to decreases in our self-esteem, which may impede our motivation (Miller & Ross, 1975; Weiner, 1985). Therefore, in order to improve our motivational lives it is important to:

Figure 5. Use constructive evaluations to stay motivated and avoid detriments to self-esteem.
  • Attribute failures to internal, unstable and controllable causes such as low effort, or to an ineffective strategy rather than to lack of ability (Stewart et al., 2011). Consider that increased effort may alter the outcome and remember this to keep you motivated next time (Miller & Ross, 1975; Tice, 1991). If you attribute causes to your lack of ability this may deflate your self-esteem which may lead to withdrawal from the situation (Miller & Ross, 1975).
  • Avoid being distracted by anticipation of failure and instead focus on the task (Stewart et al., 2011). If you expect to fail you are less likely to attempt the task; or, you may also be more likely to self-handicap which may prevent you from succeeding (Tice, 1991; Wigfield, & Eccles, 2000).
  • Re-evaluate your actions to identify alternative ways to problem solve, rather than giving up (Stewart et al., 2011). Try and form your attributions on a logical process. When something doesn’t work look back at the steps you took and evaluate what didn’t work and figure out ways to combat this next time (Stewart et al., 2011).

Remembering and implementing these suggestions can encourage more constructive evaluations of our successes and failures and continue to stay motivated regardless of the outcome of a situation (Figure 5).


As demonstrated by Weiner's attribution theory and the expectancy theory of motivation we can see attributions have important implications within our everyday lives as they help us to make sense of our behaviours, other's behaviour, and important events. The attributions that we arrive upon have underlying properties of locus, stability and control which enable us to appraise situations and guide our future behaviours. Attributions have cognitive consequences related to expectancy and affect, influencing our future actions and likelihood of success and failure.

This chapter has explained attributions and motivation, and ways in which attributions can affect motivation. The key take-home message of this chapter is that our motivation for future action is strongly influenced by the type of cause we attribute to an outcome. Outcomes resulting in failures have the potential to decrease motivation. Striving to attribute causes as controllable and evaluating situations in a constructive manner may help to maintain motivation in the face of difficult and disappointing times and improve your motivational life.


Test your understanding of the key concepts discussed throughout this book chapter:


Whether a cause is internal or external refers to which dimension of Weiner's (1985) attribution model?



The three variables within the expectancy theory of motivation are :

Valence, Expectancy, and Instrumentality
Locus, Stability, and Controllability
Stability, Expectancy, and Locus


Matt's driving test is approaching but he anticipates he will fail so he stops going to his driving lessons. Matt is doing this as a way to provide an excuse if he does fail. What is this referred to?

Self-serving bias
Attributing causality


Attributions influence expectancy and affect, which in turn influence motivated behaviour (Weiner, 1985, 2006). This statement demonstrates in short, how:

Motivation affects attributions
Attributions affect motivation
All of the above

See also[edit]


Elig, T. W., & Frieze, I. H. (1979). Measuring causal attibutions for success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(4), 621-634. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.37.4.621.

Erez, A., & Isen, A. M. (2002). The influence of positive affect on the components of expectancy motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(6), 1055-1067. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.87.6.1055.

Frieze, I. H. (1976). Causal attributions and information seeking to explain success and failure. Journal of Research in Personality, 10(3), 293-305. doi: 10.1016/0092-6566(76)90019-2.

Graham, S., & Weiner, B. (1996). Theories and principles of motivation. Handbook of educational psychology, 4, 63-84.

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

Kelly, H. H. (1967). Attributional theory in social psychology. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 15, 192 – 241.

Lee, S. (2007). Vroom's expectancy theory and the public library customer motivation model. Library Review, 56(9), 788-796. doi:10.1108/00242530710831239.

Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions?: A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711-747. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711.

Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82(2), 213-225. doi:10.1037/h0076486.

Stewart, T. L. H., Clifton, R. A., Daniels, L. M., Perry, R. P., Chipperfield, J. G., & Ruthig, J. C. (2011). Attributional retraining: Reducing the likelihood of failure. Social Psychology of Education, 14(1), 75-92. doi:10.1007/s11218-010-9130-2.

Tice, D. M. (1991). Esteem protection or enhancement? self-handicapping motives and attributions differ by trait self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(5), 711-725. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.60.5.711.

Tollefson, N. (2000). Classroom applications of cognitive theories of motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 12(1), 63-83. doi:10.1023/A:1009085017100.

Weiner, B. (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. Morristown: General Learning Press.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.92.4.548.

Weiner, B. (1992). Human Motivation: Metaphors, theories and research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Weiner, B. (2005). Motivation from an attribution perspective and the social psychology of perceived competence. Handbook of competence and motivation, 73-84.

Weiner, B. (2006). Social motivation, justice, and the moral emotions: An attributional approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy–Value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1015.

Wigfield, A., Tonks, S., & Klauda, S. L. (2009). Expectancy-value theory. Handbook of motivation at school, 55-75.

External links[edit]