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

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

Overview Edit

Picture this scenario:

You have an important biology exam coming up in a week. This biology exam is worth 60% of your unit grade so obviously you need to do well. For you, passing this exam is incredibly crucial because it will mean that your biology grade will get bumped up from last semester.

You spend the next few days studying for the exam. On the day of the exam, you're clear-headed and finish early.

Exam grades are out and your results showed that you passed with flying colours. Some other students didn't do so well. You wonder whether you passed because you studied hard for it or because you were lucky given that most other students struggled and it was a tough exam.

Attempting to figure out the causes and explanations behind your success in the biology exam is what attribution is all about.

Being driven to study hard for the exam in order to get an overall good grade in biology - that's what achievement motivation is.

Motivation is a broad concept in psychology, one which has many theoretical and practical implications. Motivation guides behaviour and serves as the reason why individuals find the drive to commit certain actions (Wigfield et al., 2006). This chapter focuses specifically on achievement motivation, and it also discusses 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.

This chapter focuses on answering the following questions:

  • How do individuals behave in relation to achievement motivation?
  • How do attributions affect achievement motivation?
  • How is this topic relevant in real life situations?

Achievement motivation Edit

Figure 1. Evidence of achievement for some individuals may be earning a trophy.

Defining achievement motivation begins with understanding 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. 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 related to accomplishing tasks and setting and reaching goals. It is essentially reaching a standard of excellence (Wigfield et al., 2006). For instance, an individual being motivated to work hard at earning a university degree in a course they are passionate about indicates achievement motivation[grammar?]. Running a race to win first place and thus getting a trophy is also an example of achievement motivation (see Figure 1).

What motivates individuals to strive for achievement? Edit

Several theories may explain why and how individuals strive for achievement, or rather what factors exist that influence individuals' achievement strivings.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation Edit

In any task that requires a certain level of drive and energy to complete the task, there are incentives at play. In motivation theories, there are two types of motivation that describe incentives for individuals to undertake certain behaviour: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation indicates that individuals will complete tasks or activities purely for their own pleasure and interest, and not to gain anything from them. Meanwhile, individuals who are extrinsically motivated will do tasks to gain something, such as a reward (Wigfield et al., 2006). In achievement-related contexts for example, an individual may set a goal for themselves to run 20 laps around a small football field. If they were intrinsically motivated to run those laps, they would be inclined to say that they ran because they wanted to feel energised and healthy, or get their blood pumping. If they were extrinsically motivated, they would pose the argument that running those 20 laps would result in receiving a day off from their regular gym schedule.

Self-efficacy theory Edit

Self-efficacy theory, proposed by Albert Bandura in 1977, refers to "individuals’ confidence in their ability to organize and execute a given course of action to solve a problem or accomplish a task" (Wigfield et al., 2006, p. 407). Self-efficacy theory in relation to achievement motivation denotes that the drive to commit to a task, or set a goal, or accomplish something comes from within the individual's perceived ability and whether they feel efficacious in doing so. Moreover, Bandura also states that this ability can have a significant effect on an individual's achievement strivings. According to Bandura (cited in Wigfield et al., 2006), this perceived self-efficacy is controlled by four things: vicarious learning (learning by observation), previous performance, verbal encouragement from other individuals, and one's physiological reactions.

Expectancy-value theory Edit

Current expectancy-value theories are advanced from Atkinson’s (1957, 1964) original expectancy-value model. For instance, expectancy-value theory, the one further developed by Eccles et al., proposes that both expectancies for success and the subjective value of a task affect achievement-related choices (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000; Wigfield et al., 2006). Individuals' task choice, achievement performance and persistence are also assumed to be influenced by expectancy and task value. Expectancy refers to the individual's belief in their ability to produce a desired outcome. In other words, it is their beliefs in how well they would do on future tasks, whether that be in the short-term or long term. Value refers to the task's inherent quality of being interesting or important to the individual, i.e. whether the individual values the task. According to Eccles et al. (cited in Wigfield & Eccles, 2000; cited in Wigfield et al., 2006), there are four components that determine the value of the task or achievement: attainment value, intrinsic value, utility value and cost. Attainment value indicates the importance of doing good on the task, i.e. producing a desired result. Intrinsic value refers to the enjoyment the individual gets from doing the task. Utility value refers to how relevant and useful the task is to the individual's current and future plans, like career goals for instance. Lastly, cost indicates whether the engagement in a task interferes with or limits access to other tasks or activities (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000; Wigfield et al., 2006).

Attribution Edit

Human beings in their nature will attempt to find the causes and explanations behind their own behaviour and others' also, as well as find the explanations for physical phenomena (e.g. climate change). Causes and explanations behind human behaviour and environmental events are what describe causal inferences, or attributions (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). By attributing causes for behaviour, individuals are better able to understand the world around them and be able to predict and gain some control over such events.

Definitions Edit

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 (also called 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 (also called situational) attribution suggests that causes of behaviour come from environmental factors, i.e. the surrounding world.

Attribution theories Edit

Theories of attribution are founded on the conceptual definition of attribution, yet each theory of attribution is different. The following theories of attribution that will be discussed are Heider's naive analysis of action, Weiner's three-dimensional model of attribution and Kelley's covariation model.

Figure 2. Weiner's model of attribution

Heider's naïve analysis of action Edit

The development of attribution theory began with the theorist Fritz Heider in 1958. His theory of attribution was called the naïve analysis of action, in which Heider indicated two factors that dictated the outcome of a particular event (Weiner & Kukla, 1970). One factor was called "power" and personal characteristics like intelligence and ability fell under this variable. Power indicated whether a goal can be achieved. The second factor was motivation or "trying", indicating the determination behind reaching a goal. Heider proposed "that both "can" and "try" are necessary to reach a desired goal." (Weiner & Kukla, 1970, p. 1).

Weiner's three-dimensional model of attribution Edit

Heider's 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. (2006), 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, and explained that the attributions individuals use as reasons for their behaviour highlight personal, individual factors (i.e. dispositional traits) or environmental factors (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981), The first dimension, locus of causality, indicates the level of control an individual has over their behaviour, which may be internal if they have personal control, or external which suggests control by outside factors (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018; Wigfield et al., 2008). The second dimension, stability, indicates how stable or unstable the causal attribution is. Controllability is the last dimension and it indicates the level of volition the individual has over their successes or failures. Heider identified the more well-known causal attributions that fit under the three dimensions: ability, effort, task difficulty and luck (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981; Wigfield et al., 2006). Ability and effort were categorised as internal factors, while task difficulty and luck were external factors (see Figure 2). Even more specifically, ability also happened to be stable, while effort was unstable. In other words, the ability of an individual will always relatively stay the same and to which the individual has little control over (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Meanwhile, effort may change across time. Task difficulty was a stable factor, and luck was unstable. Again, task difficulty will remain the same, while luck may fluctuate from time to time (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981; Kelley & Michela, 1980; Weiner, 1972).

Forsyth and McMillan's (1981) study which examined Weiner's three-dimensional model of attribution studied this theory in a more educational setting. In their study, they looked at Weiner's model in terms of "..the relationship between the attributions, affect, and expectations of college students following a course examination." (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981, p.393). The study required students undertaking a course in college (who had learned that they did either well or poorly on a major exam) " evaluate the cause of the outcome, describe their affective reactions, and estimate their expectations about future test performances." (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981, p.395). The study found that in fact, consistent with Weiner's model and his predictions, individuals who attributed their success to internal, stable and controllable factors, as well as students who felt they had control over the causes of their exam performance reported more positive affective reactions (positive emotions) over those who externalised their success. Moreover, students who failed and externalised their failure also reported feeling more positive than those who internalised their failure.

Kelley's covariation model Edit

Harold Kelley's theory of attribution, called the covariation model (Harvey & Weary, 1984) put forward that people make causal attributions as if they were analysing data patterns. For this reason, Kelley's theory is also known as the ANOVA model, because it deals with analysis of variance (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). Kelley's theory puts forward the idea that individuals will act much like scientists in finding the causes for behaviour. In doing so, they will identify a particular factor that covaries the closest with that behaviour (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). Kelley proposed that there were three types of information individuals used to in order to verify causes and effects. These are consensus, consistency and distinctiveness. Consistency information deals with the extent to which a behaviour may occur at the same time as a particular stimulus (which elicits that behaviour). If the behaviour is always elicited by that stimulus, it is considered high consistency. If the behaviour is only elicited some of the time, then it is considered low consistency. The second type of information is distinctiveness information which describes whether an individual's behaviour is elicited only by the intended stimulus, distinctive from other stimuli . If the behaviour is elicited by everything, it is considered low distinctiveness, and if elicited by the intended stimulus then it is seen as high distinctiveness (Kelley & Michela, 1980; Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). Lastly, consensus information refers to whether other individuals behave the same way towards the stimulus.

Attributional biases Edit

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 include fundamental attribution error, self-serving bias, the false consensus effect, and the actor/observer effect.

Fundamental attribution error Edit

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

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 comes to others' failures, individuals would attribute those to be caused by them (Wang et al., 2017). In other words, Individuals will take responsibility for when they succeed at something because they perhaps worked hard (giving them a sense of pride about themselves), while assuming that other people who failed at something caused their own failure. The same thing applies when individuals experience a negative outcome, thus they shift the blame and attribute that outcome to environmental factors (Harvey & Weary, 1984). Findings from other studies suggest that the self-serving bias is exhibited due to a need to either protect or improve one's self-esteem. This has been identified as self-enhancement or self-protection (Wang et al., 2017).

False consensus effect Edit

The false consensus effect suggests that individuals will incorrectly assume that their behaviour is typical of the population. Hence, they will believe that if they react a particular way to a certain event, they will assume that other individuals will react similarly (Kelley & Michela, 1980). The false consensus effect is derived from Kelley's covariation model, with regards to consensus information (see Kelley's covariation model).

Actor/observer effect Edit

The actor/observer effect describes the fact that as an outside observer, individuals will perceive other people's behaviour and assume their behaviour was caused internally, or due to dispositional factors. But when it comes to their own behaviour, they will attribute it externally to situational factors (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). The actor/observer effect extends from the fundamental attribution error in the sense that individuals will personally take credit for their own positive behaviour, but will attribute their negative outcomes to external factors. However they will attribute the opposite for other individuals' behaviour. For example, if an individual named John was driving on the highway, and another person cut in front of them without indicating, John may assume that that person was a bad driver. Hence, John would be attributing their behaviour to their ability to drive (internal factors). However, if it were John who had cut in front of that person, he would likely attribute his own behaviour to be caused by the fact that he was in a rush to get to work and simply forgot to indicate (external factors). According to Jones and Nisbett (cited in Kelley & Michela, 1980), two main groups of factors that contribute to individuals giving in to the actor/observer effect are cognitive and motivational factors. Cognitive factors may include perceptual, informational and processing differences. Motivational factors include "...differences in concerns about self-evaluation and self-presentation." (Kelley & Michela, 1980, p. 477).

Impact of attributions on achievement motivation Edit

Following what attributions are and how influential they can be in the perception of behaviour, their influence on achievement motivation is especially interesting.

Effect of attributions on achievement motivation Edit

The effect of certain attributions on achievement motivation is particularly relevant in educational settings. Weiner's three-dimensional model of attribution appears to be the most relevant given that his theory deals with task performance attribution (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981; Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). The locus of causality dimension in Weiner's model was more closely linked to individuals' perceptions regarding their successes and failures. For feedback on an exam for instance, if individuals who passed the exam attributed their success to external factors like luck, they would feel surprise and gratitude. Meanwhile, individuals who felt their success on the exam was more so caused by internal, personal factors (like intelligence and ability to do well), felt pride and satisfaction. On the other hand, students who didn't do so well or essentially failed felt guilt and regret if they internally attributed their failure. If they externally attributed their failure, they felt surprise, hostility and anger (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981). In short, in achievement-related contexts, success may be either caused by ability to do well and/or high effort, and failure may be caused by either lack of ability and/or lack of effort (Weiner, 1972; Weiner & Kukla, 1970). Whether or not the causes of success and failure were due to internal or external factors determine the expectations for future performance on achievement-related outcomes.

The first investigation into how attributions influence achievement motivation was done in one study by Phares in 1957 (cited in Kelley & Michela, 1980). In the study, participants were told of their performance on a judgement task, and whether their performance was due to ability (internal and stable) or luck (external and unstable). Participants who succeeded on the task and were told that it was due to ability reported higher expectancies of future success, than when they were told that their success was due to luck. On the other hand, participants who failed on the task and were told their failure was due to luck rather than ability reported higher expectancies for future success also.

A study by Weiner and Kukla (1970), [grammar?] they conducted an attributional analysis on achievement motivation in six experiments. They aimed to investigate achievement motivation in relation to causal ascription. In other words, the experiments examined "whether these disparate patterns of perceived causality affect subsequent evaluations (rewards or punishments, and pride or shame) of achievement activities." (Weiner & Kukla, 1970, p. 2). The overall findings from all six experiments suggested that individuals who exhibit high achievement motivation persist longer in the face of failure, will more often choose achievement-related activities thus experiencing greater reward for accomplishing goals, and will engage in more difficult rather than easier tasks in order to gain information about their capabilities. Individuals low in achievement motivation will do the inverse.

The findings from aforementioned studies suggest that individuals who accomplish something and believe that it was because of their ability that they did so are more motivated to continue accomplishing goals and thus exhibit high achievement motivation. Moreover when they do encounter failure, they are more likely to attribute that failure to a lack of effort rather than a lack of ability (Weiner, 1972). Hence, in order to bounce back from that failure and anticipate success on future goals, they attempt to work harder next time. They are more resilient for it as a result. Individuals who tend to face failure often and believe it to be due to a lack of ability end up being low in achievement motivation and thus expect constant disappointment. They end up tending to avoid achievement-related tasks and being less motivated to accomplish goals.

Real world implications Edit

The effect of attributions on achievement motivation can have practical implications in the real world. As previously stated, Weiner's three-dimensional model is the most relevant to achievement motivation as his model deals most closely with expectancies related to success and failure (Forsyth & McMillan, 1981; Vaughan & Hogg, 2018; Wigfield et al., 2006). Achievement motivation would be most present in individuals who value their time accomplishing goals, reaching milestones and being energised to work hard. Thus this kind of motivation would be particularly high in academic (e.g. school) and workplace (e.g. office environment) settings.

Test your knowledge Edit

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

Case study

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.

Case study questions Edit

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?


True/false questions Edit

1 Achievement motivation is motivation related to accomplishing a goal.


2 In Weiner's theory of attribution, locus of causality indicates the individual's level of volition over their task performance.


Conclusion Edit

Both attributions and achievement motivation are well-known concepts that often go hand in hand. Overall achievement motivation determines the level of drive an individual may have in terms of setting and reaching goals, or in accomplishing a task. Self-efficacy theory, expectancy-value theory and intrinsic motivation theories indicate the factors that influence individuals to strive for achievement.

Attributional theories such as the ones theorised by Fritz Heider, Bernard Weiner and Harold Kelley explain how individuals attribute their own behaviour as well as others' behaviour and outside events. Weiner's three-dimensional model of attribution in particular suggests that individuals' performances on tasks are dependent on whether they believe that performance to be influenced by internal factors or external factors (locus of causality), whether the causal attribution is stable or unstable (stability), and to what extent the task performance is under the individual's volition (controllability). Kelley's covariation model examined that consistency, consensus and distinctiveness all play a role in how individuals will attempt to analyse whether a behaviour aligns with a given cause.

The main take-away to take from this book chapter is that attributions play a huge role in our perceptions of goals and task performance. Whether we like it or not, attributions help us make sense of our world. In terms of achievement motivation, attributions help us to predict outcomes of future tasks and in helping us to better prepare for those outcomes. Thus, attributions help us to better anticipate and work hard for our most important achievements.

See also Edit

References Edit

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., & Kukla, A. (1970). An attributional analysis of achievement motivation. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 15(1), 1-20.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy–Value Theory of Achievement Motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81.

Wigfield, A., Eccles, J. S., Roeser, R. W., & Schiefele, U. (2006). 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