Motivation and attribution theory

Attribution theory seeks to understand peoples’ explanations and excuses, particularly when applied to success or failure (wherein lies the theory’s greatest importance for education, in which success and failure are recurrent themes). Weiner (1994, 2000) suggests that most explanations for success or failure have three characteristics.

The first is whether the cause is seen as internal (within the person) or external. The second is whether it is seen as stable or unstable. The third is whether it is perceived as controllable or not. A central assumption of attribution theory is that people will attempt to maintain a positive self-image. Therefore, when they do well in an activity, they are likely to attribute their success to their own efforts or abilities; but when they do poorly, they will believe that their failure is due to factors over which they had no control. In particular, students who experience failure will try to find an explanation that enables them to save face with their peers.

Attributions for others’ behaviour are also important. For example, students are more likely to respond to a classmate’s request for help if they believe that the classmate needs help because of a temporary uncontrollable factor (such as getting hurt in a basketball game) than if they believe that help is needed because of a controllable factor (such as failure to study).


Attribution theory deals primarily with four explanations for success and failure in achievement situations: ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck. Ability and effort attributions are internal to the individual; task difficulty and luck attributions are external. Ability is taken to be a relatively stable, unalterable state; effort can be altered. Similarly, task difficulty is essentially a stable characteristic, whereas luck is unstable and unpredictable.