Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A group of social psychological orientations that seek to portray people's efforts to understand the causal structure of events. The founder of attribution theory, Fritz Heider, suggested that people logically attempt to uncover connections between causes and effects. Edward Jones, Harold Kelley, and others analyzed the processes by which people infer others' intentions and dispositions—and explain events in terms of being caused by self or others or God or luck.

Daryl J. Bem theorized that people come to know their own attitudes, emotions, and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behavior. For example, people who attend church regularly come to perceive themselves as religious. Bem hypothesizes that self-attribution occurs in the same way that we learn about others' attitudes and dispositions. People's emotions are self-labeled according to the characteristics of the situation. If certain actions are perceived as rewarding, people tend to conclude that, because they enjoyed the behavior, they must be a certain type of person. People who partake in religious rituals, for example, come to perceive of themselves as religious.

Attribution theory also has allowed a better understanding of spontaneous religious experiences. Environmental and cultural factors affect the degree that an experience is interpreted as "religious." A person's predisposition and setting shape his or her attribution of an unusual experience to brain chemical states, God, or fate.

See also Mysticism

James McClenon


D. J. Bem, "Self-Perception Theory," in Cognitive Theories in Social Psychology , ed. L. Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1978): 221-282

J. H. Harvey and W. P. Smith, Social Psychology (Saint Louis: Mosby, 1977)

F. Heider, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (New York: Wiley, 1958)

H. H. Kelley, "Attribution Theory in Social Psychology," Nebraska Symposium on Motivation , ed. D. Levine (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967)

B. Spilka and D. N. McIntosh, "Attribution Theory and Religious Experience," in Handbook of Religious Experience (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1995): 421-455.

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