Defensive Attribution: A Review of the Literature
Attribution theory is a psychological theory that explains how individuals make inferences about the causes of their own and others’ behavior. Defensive attribution is a subset of attribution theory that explains how individuals attribute the causes of negative outcomes to external factors and successes to internal factors (e.g., personality or ability). Understanding defensive attribution can be beneficial for both individuals and organizations in understanding how to better manage and respond to situations. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on defensive attribution, discuss its implications, and provide recommendations for future research.
Defensive Attribution Theory
Defensive attribution theory proposes that individuals have a tendency to attribute negative outcomes to external factors such as luck or situational factors, and attribute successful outcomes to internal factors such as ability or personality (e.g., Miller & Ross, 1975). This tendency is thought to be a defense mechanism that helps individuals protect their self-esteem from potential threats. According to defensive attribution theory, individuals are more likely to attribute negative outcomes to external factors when the outcomes are controllable, and to internal factors when the outcomes are uncontrollable (Weiner, 1986).
Research on Defensive Attribution
Research on defensive attribution has been conducted over the last several decades. Much of the research has focused on the effects of defensive attributions on individuals’ self-esteem and performance. For example, research has shown that defensive attributions are associated with lower self-esteem (Miller & Ross, 1975), and that attributing success to internal factors (e.g., ability) is associated with higher performance (Weiner, 1986). Other research has suggested that defensive attributions can lead to negative outcomes, such as increased stress and decreased motivation (Faulkner & Anderson, 1993).
Implications and Recommendations
The research on defensive attribution has implications for both individuals and organizations. For individuals, understanding the tendency to attribute negative outcomes to external factors and successes to internal factors can help them to better manage their own emotions and responses to situations. For organizations, understanding defensive attribution can be beneficial in managing employees’ emotions and performance. Specifically, organizations should strive to create a culture that values internal attributions of success and external attributions of failure.
Future research on defensive attribution should focus on exploring how individual differences, such as gender or age, may influence defensive attribution tendencies. Additionally, research should explore how defensive attributions interact with other psychological constructs, such as locus of control or self-efficacy. Finally, research should focus on the effects of defensive attributions on individuals’ emotions and performance in organizational settings.
Faulkner, P. J., & Anderson, S. E. (1993). Attributional processes and stress: Applications to work and family contexts. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), Psychological stress and psychological disorders (pp. 413-440). New York, NY: Wiley.
Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82(2), 213-225.
Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological Review, 95(4), 572-585.