Understanding Psychology: The Difference Between Situational and Dispositional Attribution in Social Cognition

Social cognition exists in a branch of psychology known as social psychology, a field that measures how individuals relate and think about one another and themselves. One of the most important facets of this subset of social psychology is attribution, or the way in which an individual explains his or her own behavior and the behavior of others. So far, psychology within social cognition have discovered differing ways in which attribution may occur, which help explain how we can have such reasonable, continuous and complex perceptions about ourselves and others.

Situational Attribution
One of the two different types of attribution an individual may use to make judgments about others and themselves is known as a situational attribute. Within social psychology, someone may base judgments and ideas about themselves and others merely due to the situation in which that person behaves. For example, if someone were to personally, or watch someone else, begin panicking in a serious emergency, the individual observing the behavior may not automatically conclude whoever is panicking, be it themselves or someone else, is neurotic or unstable. However, that person may be perceived to have an attribute of being unable to handle high levels of stress, as witnessed by their reaction to the situation, making their panic an understood situational attribute. As social creatures, humans can acknowledge that sometimes we behave in ways that deviate from our typical character in differing situations. It doesn’t take an expert in social psychology to understand that external environments can be stressful as well as relaxing, and that the ways in which people react does not say everything there is to know about someone. Situational attribution is one of the numerous reasons people say you cannot judge a book by its cover. However, it is important to engage in situational attribution. For example, if you know that someone is otherwise very calm and reasonable but has a crippling phobia of snakes, you would not deduce that person is always frantic, but you would not release a cobra into that person’s living room, either.

This example brings across the second important point about situational attribution. It is one of the reasons why people can have complex ideas about themselves and others. Consider for a moment how your reactions to differing stimulus may vary due to an infinite number of factors. For example, someone having a bad day may not be thought of as someone who is simply irritable or gloomy, but it would be understood that they do have a situational attribute of gloominess. Therefore, while most people would probably not have a problem being friends with this person, their idea of that person would not just take into account their typical happiness. Their situational attribute of dismay would also be considered, though it probably would not be perceived as their most important quality. Likewise, someone experiencing a temporary epiphany may not always be considered someone who is generally wise or profound, but may still have some sort of perceived edge over someone who has never experienced an epiphany, depending on who is observing that person. Humans inherently use social psychology and cognition to subconsciously take into account loads of information and memories about a person in order to create an extremely intricate idea of who that person is. Even more complex, according to social psychology, are our ideas about ourselves, because we have so many situational attributes to consider.

Dispositional Attribution
The opposite of situational attributes are disposition attributes, which social psychology terms as attributes which are thought to be inherent in an individual and independent of environment. In many instances, dispositional attributes are considered more important than situational attributes, because they are the most consistent. For example, consider a scenario in which one person perceives piety to be the most important dispositional attribute a person may have. This person is much more likely to be friends with someone who, no matter what state of emergency may be occurring, will always believe in God. While some have trouble believing in God in times of turmoil and may even secretly reject the idea of God when they are suffering, making their belief a situational attribute, someone with a dispositional attribute of belief in God will never question their faith.

Myers, David G. Psychology. New York: Worth, 2010. Print.

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