Attribution Theory — Learner’s Responses to Failure

Causal attributions determine affective reactions to success and failure. — Weiner (1980)


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Like individuals in other contexts, students seek to understand the reasons for their failures. Weiner’s (1980) dimensions of attributions argued that the designation of responsibility is an important aspect of explanations, indicating a belief in whether or not the individual is in control of the cause of failure. Weiner (1994) further outlined the standard attribution sequence and its effect upon motivation and performance when an individual attributed failure to an uncontrollable lack of ability, as follows:

FailureLack of AbilityUncontrollableNot ResponsibleShame and EmbarrassmentDecline in Performance

In contrast, he depicted the sequence and resulting effect for an attribution considered controllable as follows:

FailureLack of EffortControllableResponsibleGuilt and ResolveImproved Performance

Clearly, the above cognitive and motivational sequences can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies whereby the individual either loses or gains confidence in his/her ability to succeed by using the events of the sequences as proof, albeit based on circular reasoning, that the cause of the failure is either uncontrollable or controllable.

More specifically, failing at what an individual perceives as an uncontrollable task will often lead to feelings of shame or anger toward the individual or institution in control. Conversely, succeeding at such a task often results in feeling fortunate or grateful regarding the completed task, but apprehensive about future encounters (i.e., “I was lucky this time, but next time who knows.”). Furthermore, the perception of being in control of one’s own learning has been associated with choosing more challenging academic tasks, exerting more effort and persisting longer at more difficult problems (Weiner, 1994).

Research has also indicated that, based on the effects of the employed attributions, a high achiever will:

1. Approach rather than avoid tasks related to succeeding because he/she believes success is due to high ability and effort which he/she is…



Donna L Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer and university professor researching the human condition, generational studies, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology