Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Achievement motivation and attribution theory

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Achievement motivation and attribution theory:
How do attributions affect achievement motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

When you study for a test

Motivation is a broad concept in psychology, one which has many theoretical and practical implications. This book chapter will focus specifically on achievement motivation, and it will also discuss what defines this concept and how it falls under the broader concept of motivation. The referenced research and theories aim to answer how attributions affect achievement motivation by delving into defining attributions and exploring attribution theory.

Motivation guides behaviour and serves as the reason why individuals find the drive to commit certain actions. Historically, the primary factors that (Wigfield et al., 2008).

This book chapter will focus on answering the following questions:

  • How do individuals behave in relation to achievement motivation?
  • How does attribution theory relate to motivation?
  • How do attributions affect achievement motivation, and motivation in general?
  • How is this topic relevant in real world scenarios?

How can specific motivation and/or emotion theories and research help?

Achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Going after that trophy (proof of achievement).

In order to define what is achievement motivation, one must first discuss what is meant by achievement. A layman's definition of achievement would be that it is an action or thing done to succeed at something (reference). defines achievement as "something accomplished, especially by superior ability, special effort, great courage, etc.; a great or heroic deed:" ("Achievement", 2021). Achievement motivation is the aspect of motivation that is dedicated to accomplishing tasks and reaching goals, or rather reaching a standard of excellence (Wigfield et al., 2008). For instance, an individual being motivated to work hard at earning a university degree in a course they are passionate about indicates achievement motivation. Running a race to win first place and thus getting a trophy is also an example of achievement motivation (see Figure 1).

How is achievement relevant to motivation?[edit | edit source]

Achievement is relevant in motivational theories given that the concept of achievement at its core involves doing something to earn approval, reach success or avoid failure in a particular task.

What motivates individuals to strive for achievement?[edit | edit source]

In motivation theories, there are two types of motivation that describe incentives for individuals to undertake certain behaviour.

Attribution[edit | edit source]

Definitions[edit | edit source]

Attribution is a concept that describes how individuals perceive the causes of their own or others' experiences in the social world (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). Kelley and Michela (1980, p.458) define attribution as "...the perception or inference of cause.". To describe it in layman's terms, people look for reasons or causes for their own or others' behaviour. How they see the cause of that behaviour is referred to as an attribution. There are two types of attributions: internal and external. An internal (or dispositional) attribution refers to the notion that causes of behaviour or one's one experiences come from personal factors such as personality for example. An external (or situational) attribution suggests that causes of behaviour come from environmental factors, i.e. the surrounding world.

Attributional biases[edit | edit source]

Attributions can generally be helpful in providing more information, but they can also be susceptible to bias and error. These are what are known as attributional biases. Such attributional biases included fundamental attribution error, ultimate attribution error, self-serving bias, false consensus, and the actor/observer effect.

Fundamental attribution error[edit | edit source]

Fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018), explains that an individual will attribute another person's failures as caused by dispositional factors (Harvey & Weary, 1984). In other words. The former will overestimate their behaviour to be dispositional at the expense of the possible influence of situational factors.

Self-serving bias[edit | edit source]

Self-serving bias refers to the fact that an individual may attribute their own success to their own efforts or dispositional traits, i.e. as something that was caused by them. But when it came to others' failures, individuals would attribute those findings from other studies suggest that the self-serving bias is exhibited by individuals b

Wang et al. (2017) states that

Other studies’ findings have suggested that individuals manifest a self-serving bias because they wish to enhance or protect their

self-esteem, which has been identified as a “self-enhancement”

or “self-protection” motivation

False consensus[edit | edit source]

Ultimate attribution error[edit | edit source]

Actor/observer effect[edit | edit source]

Attribution theories[edit | edit source]

The development of attribution theory began with the theorist Fritz Heider in 1958. His theory of attribution was advanced later on by Bernard Weiner (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). In this theory of attribution, Weiner identified three dimensions: locus of causality (or locus of control), stability and controllability. According to Wigfield et al. (2008), attribution theory involves causes of individuals' behaviour (attributions) and how their motivation is affected by these attributions. Heider had proposed the first dimension, locus of causality (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981) and explained that the attributions individuals use as reasons for their behaviour

"who suggested that the attributions people offer as explanations for behaviours and events emphasize factors that originate within the person or arise from environmental sources. As examples of possible causal factors, Heider mentioned ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck and pointed out that the first two causes are internal factors, whereas the second two causes are external factors."

"Attribution theory concerns individuals’ explanations (or attributions) for their successes and failures and how these attributions influence subsequent motivation (Weiner, 1985, 2005). Weiner and his colleagues identified the most frequently used attributions (i.e., ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck), and classified these and other attributions into the different causal dimensions of stability (i.e., stable or unstable), locus of control (i.e., internal or external), and controllability (i.e., under one’s volition or not)."

Locus of causality[edit | edit source]

Stability[edit | edit source]

Controllability[edit | edit source]

Discounting principle

Covariation principle

Impact of attributions on achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

Following what attributions are and how powerful they can be in affecting behaviour, their impact on motivation in particular is especially interesting.

Attribution theory in relation to motivation[edit | edit source]

Attribution theory is very much relevant in the domain of motivation as attribution serves as motives regardless. The development of achievement motivation is in part due to causal attributions.

Effect of attributions on achievement motivation[edit | edit source]

Real world implications[edit | edit source]

The effect of attributions on achievement motivation can have practical implications in the real world. For instance, achievement motivation would be very much present in academic and workplace settings, such as in education and an office environment. How an individual applies

Test your knowledge[edit | edit source]

So far you have learned about attribution theory and achievement motivation. The following quizzes will test your knowledge on these concepts using a few case studies.

Case Study #1

Adam has been going to a public speaking class to improve his speaking skills in preparation for a project presentation that he has to present in three weeks at his workplace, a company called AeroLift. His stuttering and nervous hand tics when speaking in front of an audience often ruin the flow of his speech.

On the day of his presentation, Adam presents his project and he has no issues whatsoever. His presentation goes smoothly without any stuttering or nervous hand tics in sight.

(Note: this is a fictional case study.)

Case Study 1 questions[edit | edit source]

1 {Based on the case study above, how would one logically attribute Adam's success in his project presentation?

His hard work in public speaking class.
Adam was lucky his stuttering and hand tics did not appear.
A combination of both.

2 Adam often feels like he earned his position at AeroLift through pure luck. What kind of attribution is this describing?


Tables[edit | edit source]

Tables can be an effective way to organise and summarise information. Tables should be captioned (using APA style) to explain their relevance to the text. Plus each table should be referred to at least once in the main text (e.g., see Table 1 and Table 2).

Here are some example 3 x 3 tables which could be adapted:

Table 1.

Example of a Table with an APA Style Caption

Children Gather Round
Mary had a
little lamb it's
fleece was white

Table 2.

Another Example of a Table with an APA Style Caption

Nursery Rhyme Time
Incy Wincy spider
climbed up the
water spout down

Table 3.

Example of a Sortable Table with an APA Style Caption

Fruit Price/kg Popularity
Tomatoes $6.00 1st
Bananas $5.00 2nd
Watermelon $2.99 3rd
Oranges $3.85 4th
Apples $4.95 5th
Grapes $9.50 6th
Mangoes $12.00 7th
Avocados $12.00 8th

Test your understanding![edit | edit source]

Here are a few questions to test your knowledge on attribution theory and achievement motivation.

Don't make quizzes too hard or long. Have one or two review questions per major section than a long quiz at the end. Try to quiz conceptual understanding, rather than trivia.

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 What is achievement motivation?

Motivation relevant to accomplishing a task.
Motivation that...
Motivation related to attribution

2 Long quizzes are a good idea:


To learn about different types of quiz questions, see Quiz.

Working notes[edit | edit source]

Remove this section when finalising and publishing book chapter.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Both attributions and achievement motivation are well-known concepts that often go hand in hand. This book chapter

Depending on the individual's locus of causality, stability and controllability, their motivation to strive for achievement could be either successful or unsuccessful. Achievement motivation is different for every individual, and how they experience it is dependent on the attributions they apply to it. To answer the question this book chapter is based on, attributions affect achievement motivation based on whether the attributions are dispositional or situational.

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Suggestions for this section:

  • What is the answer to the question in the sub-title (based on psychological theory and research)?
  • What are the answers to the focus questions?
  • What are the practical, take-home messages?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Achievement. (2021). Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

Forsyth, D. R., & McMillan, J. H. (1981). Attributions, affect, and expectations: A test of Weiner's three-dimensional model. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 73(3), 393-403.

Harvey, J. H., & Weary, G. (1984). Current Issues in Attribution Theory and Research. Annual Review Of Psychology, 35(1), 427-459.

Kelley, H. H., & Michela, J. L. (1980). Attribution Theory and Research. Annual Review Of Psychology, 31(1), 457-501.

Vaughan, G. M., & Hogg, M. A. (2018). Social Psychology (8th ed.). Pearson Australia.

Wang, X., Zheng, L., Li, L., Zheng, Y., Sun, P., Zhou, F. A., & Guo, X. (2017). Immune to Situation: The Self-Serving Bias in Unambiguous Contexts. Frontiers In Psychology, 8, 1-8.

Weiner, B. (1972). Attribution Theory, Achievement Motivation, and the Educational Process. Review Of Educational Research, 42(2), 203-215.

Weiner, B. (1985). An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573.

Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. S., Roeser, R. W., & Schiefele, U. (2008). Development of Achievement Motivation. In W. Damon, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Social, emotional, and personality development (pp. 406–425). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

External links[edit | edit source]

External resources such as presentations, news articles, and professional sites.

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Suggestions for this section:

  • Only select links to major external resources about the topic
  • Present in alphabetical order
  • Include the source in parentheses after the link