Describe the role of situational and dispositional factors in explaining behaviour.

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1) Describe the role of situational and dispositional factors in explaining behaviour.

Attribution is defined as how people interpret and explain causal relationships in the social world. Humans have a need to understand why things happen. From observing other people’s actions, people make inferences about intention and responsibility. People tend to make an attribution about behaviour depending on whether they are performing it themselves or observing somebody else doing it. This is known as actor-observer effect.

Situational and dispositional factors are often used to explain behaviour at the sociocultural level of analysis. Attributing internal characteristics like personality, attitudes and beliefs as the reasons for people’s behaviour is called dispositional attribution. The opposite of that is the situational attribution, which happens when we assign the reasons for people’s behaviour to external factors, like social pressure and the immediate rewards and punishments in a specific social setting. In general, personality researchers tend to emphasize dispositional explanations whereas social psychologists show a preference for situational explanations.

Attribution theory argues that people are more likely to explain another person’s actions by pointing to dispositional factors, rather than to the situation. The two most common errors of attribution are the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias. The principle of the fundamental attribution error is that we tend to explain people's behaviour by assigning its cause to dispositional factors and overlooking the situational factors. The self-serving bias is the attribution error where we explain our own behaviour by attributing our success to dispositional factors and our failures to the situational factors. Such biased attributions are viewed as serving the interests of preserving or increasing self-esteem.

Personality is often defined in terms of traits, which are dispositions to behave in a particular way over a range of similar situations. According to the trait theory, the dispositions of a person exhibit cross-situational consistency (behaving in the same manner in a variety of related settings) and stability over time. Mischel (1968) argued that there was far less evidence for consistency in behaviour than claimed by trait theories. According to him, behaviour depends very much on the situation in which it occurs and, therefore, its causes should be sought in the (external) situation rather than (internal) traits. His own studies of student conscientiousness revealed a very modest correlation between students being conscientious on one occasion (e.g. attending classes on time) and on another occasion (submitting homework on time). Mischel’s criticism is not destructive to the trait theory, as trait theorists do not claim that trait theory can predict behaviour in single situations. As Epstein showed, traits should be viewed as referring to classes of behaviour over a range of different situations, not to specific behaviours in specific situations.

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Epstein (1983) studied college students with the aim of showing the importance of the time frame in which the behaviour is assessed in the trait theory, thus supporting the trait theory in the condition that an appropriate time frame is adopted. For the method a correlational study was used. A correlational study is used to look for relationships between variables; it is a non-experimental method, as the independent variables are not manipulated. Epstein’s study was a naturalistic observation, involving observing and recording the variables of interest in the natural environment without interference or manipulation by the experimenter. The sample consisted of ...

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