184: Attribution Theory 1 - Causes of Behavior

Released Tuesday, 8th April 2014
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In 2010, basketball superstar LeBron James stunned the sports world by leaving his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in favor of signing with the Miami Heat – a franchise that had skilfully positioned itself to partner LeBron with two other all-star players. For seven electrifying but ultimately disappointing seasons, James had failed to deliver a championship to the team that drafted him into the league, earning a reputation for lacking a 'killer instinct' and being unable to perform under intense pressure. As his failures became more frequent and his flaws more evident, basketball pundits and fans alike lamented the fact that unlike his predecessors, James didn’t quite have what it took to get the job done. Despite his often meager supporting cast, his inability to win at the highest level was more often than not attributed to his own personal psychological weaknesses.

Fast forward to June 2012. Lebron had won his first National Basketball Association title after nine professional seasons, winning the Most Valuable Player trophy in the process. Almost predictably, the narrative had now changed: no longer was he a ‘choker’ in high-stake situations, or lacking in competitive spirit as previously claimed. Analysts now used his triumph to illustrate that after absorbing their criticisms for nearly a decade, he had finally ‘got it’. In other words, his long-awaited victory was attributed to the apparent evolution in his own personal characteristics. 

However, while his play remained stellar and his improvement had continued in the previous two seasons, the most obvious change related to his performance was consistently overlooked. By teaming up with two other players relatively close to his level, he had now made his chances of winning infinitely higher. It could be argued that commentators made a fundamental attribution error by underestimating the influence of the situational factors at play (his decision to switch teams), and overestimating the influence of personal factors (such as his ability to perform under pressure).

This podcast explores the psychology of attribution. Broadly speaking, attribution theory concerns the reasons we generate to explain the behavior of ourselves and others. Download today's podcast to learn more about this very pervasive, far-reaching theory that has quite important real world implications. 

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