Difference Between Internal and External Attributions | Internal vs External Attributions

Internal vs External Attributions

Difference between internal and external attributions is an interesting subject area in social psychology. In social psychology, we often use a concept referred to as attribution when speaking of how people understand the world around them. This can be defined as the explanations that people give to situations and behaviour as a means of understanding them. This is how people make sense of the surrounding environment. By coming up with causes to explain other’s behavior, it becomes easier to make inferences. Attribution can be categorized as internal attribution and external attribution. This article attempts to highlight the difference that exists between the two, the internal attribution and external attribution, while providing a more elaborate picture of each attribution.

What is Internal Attribution?

Internal attribution is also known as dispositional attribution. When making inferences if people use personal characteristics as causes for behaviour, it is considered internal attribution. Personal traits, feelings, temperaments, abilities can be considered the cause in this category. Let us try to understand this through an example.

One of the workers comes to work with a cup of coffee in hand and all of a sudden he slips and the coffee spills all over his shirt. A person who observes this incident says, ‘Jack is so clumsy, look at that coffee stain all over his shirt’

This is an example of making an internal attribution. The observer does not pay attention to any of the situational factors such as whether there was a step or else whether the floor was slippery. The inference is based on the personal factors of the individual, in this case Jack. The observer explains the incident through a personal trait of Jack, which is clumsiness.

However, it is interesting to note that most of our inferences are rather biased. When something negative occurs to another, we usually consider it as an internal attribution and tend to blame the individual for carelessness, irresponsibility, stupidity, etc. However, when a similar incident happens to us, we focus on situational factors, such as traffic, heavy rain, etc.

What is External Attribution?

Unlike internal attribution, which highlights on personal factors as the cause of behaviour, external attribution stresses on the situational factors that contribute to the cause of behaviour. Let us understand this through the same example.

Imagine you see Jack, who accidentally spills coffee on his shirt. Then, you comment on it as ‘ No wonder Jack spill the coffee on his shirt, the floors are very slippery.’

In such a situation, we are using external attribution because the cause of behaviour is ascribed to situational factors; in this case, the slippery floors.