The Principle of Attribution

Giving Explanations to Invoke Sustained Behavior

People frequently do something because they believe in a certain truth about themselves. An internal attribution about who they are causes certain types of behavior.

If someone makes an internal attribution ("I will sign this petition because I am this kind of person") then he will most likely perform a future, related action because, "I am still that kind of person." A person who believes himself to be neat will pick up trash today, tomorrow and next month. Additionally, he will do all kinds of orderly things. He does this to be consistent with the internal attribution he creates for himself.

The Principle of Attribution allows us to modify people's behavior by merely giving an attribution. If you want someone to do something, not just now, but always, proclaim to him a certain "perceived" attribution. He will come to see himself as that type of person and behave accordingly.

To create an attribution, apply it in a situation where people are thinking about why things are happening. Second, give an explanation that is an internal attribution for the desired behavior. State that things are happening because "that person is like that." The Explanation you give is the attribution that will enforce the desired behavior from that moment on.

For instance, a teacher hopes to increase the grades of her students. After a successful quiz, she makes an attribution, saying, "My! These quizzes have been well answered! I wonder... I think you've all been studying very hard and you've gotten brighter!" With this simple sentence, the teacher attributes the quiz scores to initiative and studying hard. The students realize this might be so, and regardless of whether they studied before or not, they do start studying to be consistent with the attribution. They think, "I got a good grade coz I study hard. Therefore, I must study hard for the next quiz."

A boss can also elicit greater productivity from his workers. He might say to an employee, "Mark, you've been at this desk for hours and I can see results. You must be a hardworking person with your sights on your goal! Keep up the good work." The boss attributes the good business results to hard work and prioritizing. Mark will subconsciously make the internal attribution that he is indeed hardworking and act consistently with this belief. A simple declaration yields a field of surprises.

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