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The attribution theory of emotion presented by Weiner (e.g., 1985, 1986) provides one of the transitional theories between the earlier undifferentiated arousal approaches and some of the more recent appraisal approaches that posit two or more differentiated states that are characteristic of emotions. For example, in relation to the Zajonc-initiated debate about the primacy of affect, Weiner sits on the fence:

It is entirely possible that in some instances feelings antedate causal thoughts.

For example, in certain situations anger might be a conditioned reaction.

Because Weiner proposes that the occurrence of general or "primitive" emotions may have little or no cognitive involvement, his theory will be included in this section on arousal- and motivation-based approaches. However, the fact that he does consider two different possible routes to the generation of emotion we will flag up for now, although we would argue that a conditioned reaction should be considered as a cognitive rather than non-cognitive route, because of what we now know from modern learning theory (e.g., Dickinson, 1987; Pearce, 1997).

Weiner's attribution approach originally began with his interest in achievement, in particular success and failure in the classroom. As a consequence of a range of studies of success and failure, Weiner appreciated that affective reactions were intimately connected not only with the experience of success and failure, but also with the attributions or explanations that individuals made for that success or failure.

An outline of Weiner's model is presented in Figure 3.13. The model assumes that inputs are classified into positive and negative and that the initial affective reactions are therefore of pleasure and displeasure; these initial reactions are described as "outcome-dependent" but "attribution-independent" emotions, which are normally triggered immediately and automatically. One of the more contentious proposals the theory makes is that the general positive and negative emotions are separate from the "distinct' or "attribution-dependent" emotions. In contrast therefore to Schachter and Singer's model, undifferentiated physiological arousal is replaced by two different emotional states that have a range of motivational consequences and, in contrast to other appraisal theories, the initial affective state does not provide the input for subsequent cognitive processing (cf. the discussions of Aquinas and Spinoza in Chapter 2, and the dimensional theories considered earlier in this chapter).



Positive or negative emotions



Figure 3.13 Outline of Weiner's attribution theory of emotion (based on Weiner, 1985).

The type of account or causal explanation that individuals provide for the event or situation then determines which of the so-called "distinct" positive or negative emotions occurs. Over a number of years, Weiner has identified several key dimensions that, he argues, determine which type of emotion is experienced. These dimensions are internal-external, that is, whether the person perceives the cause of an event to be due to factors within the person or to factors within the environment; stable-variable, that is, the extent to which the cause is unchanging over time; and controllable-uncontrollable, that is, whether or not the cause can be influenced by the individual. In their widely known application of Weiner's attribution theory to the study of learned helplessness and depression (see Chapter 4), Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale (1978) also added a fourth dimension to Weiner's list; namely, global-specific, that is, the extent to which the cause has a general effect on all areas of an individual's life or whether it only affects one specific domain. Specific examples of Weiner's three dimensions for an experience of failure are shown in Table 3.4.

The types of attributions that individuals make for success or failure subsequently determine the types of positive and negative emotions that are experienced (e.g., Weiner, Russell, & Lerman, 1978). For example, success that follows from internal controllable factors is likely to lead to pride, success following help from someone else (i.e., an external controllable factor) should lead to gratitude, and so on. In a similar manner, a range of negative emotions depends on the type of attribution made for failure, as illustrated in Table 3.5.

If failure results from internal controllable factors, then guilt is normally experienced, whereas Weiner suggests that shame is more often experienced if the factors are internal but uncontrollable. In contrast, if failure results from external

Table 3.4 Examples of specific attributions for "failure"







Internal External

Need to fail Victimisation by another person

Lack of effort Lack of effort of another person

Lack of ability Task difficulty

Fatigue Luck

Table 3.5 Possible emotions associated with different types of attributions for "failure"





Stable Unstable

Internal External

Resignation Hatred

Guilt Anger

Fear Shame Self-pity? Surprise


controllable factors such as another individual deliberately bringing about the failure, anger or aggression is likely to result, whereas bad luck (i.e., an external unstable uncontrollable factor) is likely to lead to surprise and disappointment.

As stated earlier, one of the strengths of Weiner's attributional approach has been its wide applicability to areas other than that of achievement motivation for which it was originally designed. However, this strength is also its weakness because the theory was not developed specifically as a theory of emotion, but rather emotion has been fitted into the Procrustean Bed of attribution theory. For example, although Table 3.5 attempts to show "typical" emotions linked to different types of attributions for failure, these are merely probabilistic associations rather than necessary and sufficient conditions; an attribution of "lack of effort" for failure need not be associated with guilt, but could be associated with anger at the self, with disappointment, or with self-pity. This problem arises in part from the fact that "failure" can be experienced in many different types of situation other than achievement-related ones, and the fact that in other situations the main component need not be failure but, for example, loss, as in loss of a loved one. It should also be noted that there is no agreed set of attributional dimensions and other dimensions such as intentional-unintentional, personal-universal, and endogenous-exogenous have also been suggested (see e.g., Forsterling, 1988). Indeed, Weiner (1985) states that "a virtually infinite number of causal ascriptions are available in memory" (p. 549).

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