Is it me – or is it it? Attribution Theory

cartoonContinuing from the previous post about persuasion, a different way of looking at persuasion is from the perspective of the receiver – and what goes on on their “side” of the process. Late in the 1960s, “Attribution Theory” emerged as a way to understand what motivations are ascribed to senders by receivers – and how receivers “figure out” which factor causes the sender to say something (i.e. attribute a motivation). Basically, the theory recognises that if, for simplicity let’s say, a strange person talks about a product or service, then this can be attributed either to a personal reason (e.g. the person is making a profit from it) or it can be attributed to something about the product (for example, it’s a really excellent product).
Rather than following a simple decision rule (i.e. being a heuristic model), Attribution Theory proposes that individuals evaluate what the stranger says using three types of “cues” – or “covariant information”, derived from the receivers perception of the context in which this message is being sent. Taking the example of a restaurant, the three variables are:
Consensus – i.e.  how far the message being received is coherent with what other people are saying (e.g. are they all saying the restaurant is good).
Consistency – i.e. is the stranger always saying the same thing (e.g. is the stranger repeatedly praising  the restaurant on several occasions)  and
Distinctiveness – i.e. is the message about different to other messages from the same sender (i.e. does the sender always talk highly about every restaurant – or are they usually critical, and this time it’s a different story).
Once received, the information is evaluated against these covariation information variables, and and the judged to be either high or low.

For example: If other persons have talked well about the restaurant (high consensus), the stranger does not normally talk well about other restaurants (high distinctiveness) and the stranger talks repeatedly well about the restaurant the receiver is likely to attribute the motive of the sender to be linked to the restaurant (i.e. something about the restaurant is good).
Conversely, if other people talk negatively about a restaurant – but the sender talks positively (low consensus), the sender always talks positive about every restaurant (low distinctiveness) and the stranger varies what he says about the restaurant (low consistency) then it is likely that the receiver will attribute the positive restaurant evaluation to something related to the stranger/sender (e.g a profit making interest) – and not to be the result of a particularly good product.

In many situations of course, the receiver may lack some of the contextual information, and therefore may not be able to evaluate the message using the three covariation variables given above. However, the receiver is still likely to attempt to figure out what causes the sender to say something  before being persuaded using whatever cues are available to construct what could be regarded as a “mini-theory” explaining what causes the stranger to say something.

Taken as a model, Attribution Theory (Kelley, 1967) provides a basic explanation for negative reactions towards advertising in general (e.g. every advert always raves about the described product; other people may not say that the product is good – even if the advert says it is the best ever etc…= it is something in the ad that is causing the positive stance, not the product that is actually good) and of course to the model cynicism towards, for example, social marketing campaigns when they are run by the government (e.g. “they only tell us this to save money” etc). A typical example of using attribution theory in practice is the (not really very ethical practice) of some department stores to hire “random” customers, to compliment customers considering a purchase seemingly randomly on their good choice, or saying something positive about the product the person is considering to buy. As the contextual clues indicate that the other customer is not driven by a reward (such as a sales assistant), attribution theory shows that the customer considering the purchase is likely to attribute the praise to the product (and therefore more likely to be persuaded that the product is indeed good). A more modern form of using attribution theory would be the attempt to generate word of mouth, for example online reviews by “unbiased” customers.

Attribution theory is also at the basis of many regulatory principles, i.e. take the example of advertising, where the persuasive attempt is made clear by giving contextual information (“this is an advertisement”) or showing information identifying the advertiser. One of the criticisms of product placement for example are because of the lack (or even falsified) covariation information, making it hard to determine if it is the writer/director/actor who placed the item there – or the company trying to sell the product ( or indeed, like in this example, for anti-product placement, i.e. competitors placing a competitor’s products to make the competitor look bad).

To summarise, attribution theory tries to describe the process of “attributing” what causes someone to say something. In the context of persuasion, this means the receiver of a persuasion attempt will try, based on contextual clues (or covariation information), to work out if the message is motivated by something internal to the sender (e.g profit, reward) or by something related to the product/service being talked about.

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