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Attribution and Self-perception

Shannon Willison Persuasion 4200 Omar Swartz


People all over the world perceive the things surrounding them on a daily basis whether its friends, coworkers, or advertisements. In regards to persuasion, perception theories attempt to explain and understand how others order their perceptions based upon the messages they absorb. Perceptions are important to the ways people see, feel, and evaluate themselves and others. The evaluations people make about the world around them ties together understanding and meaning of why events happen the way they do. People’s brains attempt to make sense out of the messages to which they are exposed to but, the understanding made about certain messages may not always be an accurate depiction of reality. Individual’s exposure to messages involves the extent to which they encounter a stimulus. For example, people are exposed to numerous messages while they are driving on the freeway from billboards to radio advertisements. This exposure is random while other exposure is sought out. When an individual is shopping for a car, they might deliberately be looking for advertisements on special offers for cars. People’s attention to the commercials they tune in or out for depends on their interest. If a person can find a commercial relevant, then they are much more likely to pay attention. Exposure, attention, and influence all lead to the fact that pervasive messages affect the role of perception in consumer behavior and that is what will be analyzed in this paper. Consumers are influenced by the messages they take in and apply meaning to them. Certain messages are consciously and unconsciously perceived by people who might be influenced by that message later on. In 1958, Fritz Heider wrote a book called The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, and described the processes by which the individual makes attributions about the world. Perception theories like attribution and self- perception delve into the actions of others and how our own behavior relates. When people are influenced by advertisements, they often attribute the


advertisement to aspects of themselves or of others. The purpose of this paper is to explain how the theories of attribution and self-perception affect how individuals interpret events and will relate interpretations to a particular pervasive message included in the back of the paper. To do so, I will explain each theory and give examples of how people relate certain characteristics back to themselves and to others, and use a pervasive message to highlight how the message is effective in changing consumer behaviors. Heider was the first person to articulate attribution theory. Attribution theory concerns the process of how individuals interpret events “as being caused by particular parts of a relatively stable environment” (Heider, 1958). In part, attribution theory is a theory of how people perceive motivation. The theory describes processes that operate as if an individual was motivated to assign causes to the actions of others. Attribution theorists deal with the “why” questions and the relationship between affects and the reasons certain events occur. The causes of an event happening are not directly observable but, assumptions can be made about why an event took place. An example is if someone stepped on another person’s toe, that person would infer several possibilities. They would think that the other person was aggressive, clumsy, or it was an accident. The perceived cause of the person stepping on another’s toe is not directly observable yet people have to act in the face of uncertainty so a person will make an assumption about why their toe was stepped on. People tend to make assumptions about the behaviors of what other people do, even though they may not completely understand certain behaviors, people like to think that they do. People want to know why an event has occurred and to what source, motive, or state it can be ascribed too.


Attribution processes are assumed to spark activities such as information seeking, communication, and persuasion. “Attribution theory plays an important role in describing the motivational conditions for these significant classes of social behavior” (Kelley, 1967). This is an important theory in relation to the perception of motivation, both in one’s self and in others. It deals with the process by which an observer infers an individual’s motivation’s from their actions. The process of attribution happens when an individual perceives the dispositional properties of entities in the environment. There are stable features of “distal objects such as color, size, shape, intention, desire, sentiment, and ability. Any given stable feature may manifest itself in many different ways” (Kelley, 1967). In our perception, people tend to interpret and analyze events in order to gain a better understanding of distal objects in the environment. Heider uses a simple example in his book called the person versus environment differentiation. This theory explains how a person can do something and attribute that act solely to them or they can attribute the act being achieved because of external factors in the environment around them. If an individual rows across a lake and reaches the other side, it would seem that the person made it across the lake due to factors like ability and effort as well as environmental factors such as wind and waves. Reaching the opposite end of the shore depends on a combination of these two causations. In Bernard Weiner’s book, Theories of Motivation, he states, “Heider believes that internal and external forces combine additively to determine behavior” (1972). In the case of the boat, if there was no wind while the individual rowed then the person reached the shore due to personal factors. At the same time if there was no personal


intervention and there was wind, the wind could have solely gotten the boat to the other side of the shore. This leads to the discussion of the difference between external and internal attribution. A quality differentiating internal versus external determinants of behavior is that sources of action attributed to a person (internal) can be labeled as intentional. If a person is concerned with dispositional properties of their surrounding environment, the choice is between internal (self) and external attribution. Harold Kelley uses the example concerning the attribution of object desirability versus personal desire. He goes on to question, “Am I to take my enjoyment of a movie as a basis for an attribution to the movie (that it is intrinsically enjoyable) or as an attribution to myself (that I have a specific kind of desire relevant to movies)?” (1967). Believing that the movie is desirable may create desire in others and may induce them to look at the person with a desirable object in a new, positive way. Attribution to the external thing rather than to the self requires responding differentially, consistently, and in agreement with other persons’ responses to it. If these conditions do not get met, then there is indicated an attribution to the self. This goes to show that individuals’ judgment of a situation depends greatly on whether they attribute it to the subject or to the object. Heider states, “When enjoyment is attributed to the dispositional property of the person, additional data pertaining to the reactions of other people are necessary” (1958). In regards to the movie example mentioned above, if there is a social consensus about the movie being enjoyable consistently and over time, then attribution to the movie can be maximized. If there is not a social consensus about the movie being enjoyable, then one might attribute that to individual tastes. Attribution is a process that deals with all the factors presented and more. The attribution process is a function of maturation and socialization and this leads to a related theory called self-perception.


Now this paper will move onto self-perception and how this theory deals with people being able to explain their own self and their own actions. Everyone has their own view of themselves but, that is not always how others view them. People do not recognize and understand to a full extent why they think, act, and feel the way they do. Individual’s selfperceptions are more then just the negative and positive ways they think about themselves. Some people are happy with their self image while others strive to act or look like the images that get dangled before everyone. Self- perception theory posits that people understand their own attitudes and preferences much as they understand others, by interpreting their behavior in light of the context in which it occurs. “According to self-perception theory, people learn about their inner states (e.g., attitudes) by observing their own behavior and the context in which that behavior occurs” (Garnefeld, 2010). Self-perception is similar to social perception because when people want to know what others think and feel, they observe how others behave and make conclusions about others inner states. Self-perception theory assumes the same mechanism applies when people want to know about their own inner states. Self-perception theory lets people infer about their own preferences and characteristics in the same way that they infer about other peoples. “Just as we might infer that Sarah is enjoying a date by observing the smile on her face, our own facial expressions influence our assessments of our own emotional experience” (Critcher, 2010). Mild reinforcements can sustain behaviors much like large reinforcements can backfire. This leads people to infer that it was the external reward that drove their interest in the task. Self-perception asserts that people do not always infer their attitudes from their behavior because the behavior might be caused by their attitudes, another external cause, or both. Self-


perception also helps to clarify the effect of behavior on future behavior and attitudes. For example, “According to self-perception theory, people observe themselves helping others by completing small tasks (e.g., posting a small sign that advertises safe driving in their car window) and therefore conclude they are helpful” (Garnefeld, 2010). This attitude that people can adopt by themselves leads them to want to do a bigger task because they think they are being helpful so, they go and put a large sign advertising safe driving in their front lawn. In reality, the sign in their car may not be helpful to the majority of people driving by who miss the sign. This could spawn into people wondering why they have a large sign in their yard when it seems to be placed out of context. The process of self-perception is similar and compatible to the attribution theory. The same framework is used in making causal analyses whether the problem deals with self vs. environment or to another person vs. his environment. The person will draw the same conclusion in regards to himself or to another individual the person is observing. Self-perception is also an underlying mechanism for many marketing and pervasive techniques. An example is the foot-in-the-door technique used by salespeople. If someone agrees to answer a few short questions, they will be more likely to comply with a more substantial request. People observe their own behaviors and the context to which they behave and think that they have a preference for the products the salespeople are trying to sell. Experiments like this one prove the selfperception theory is significant in interpreting one’s own attitudes, like personality traits, and whether one would cheat to achieve set goals. Now that I have provided an in depth analysis of both theories, these theories are going to be related to a famous ad campaign created by Apple Inc. The “Get a Mac” ad campaign was a televised ad campaign created by Apple Inc. that ran from 2006 to 2010. The televised


advertisements where shown in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The United Kingdom, and Japan. The advertisements in the campaign all follow a similar format. The ad takes place in front of a minimalist white background and a man dressed in casual clothing introduces Mac by saying “Hello, I’m a Mac”, while a man dressed in a formal suit introduces himself as a Windows personal computer by saying “And I’m a PC.” The two men act out a brief vignette where the capabilities of a Mac and a PC are compared. The PC is characterized as somewhat formal and polite but, also stuffy and overworked. The PC usually talks about himself feeling insignificant to the Mac. The Mac talks about his capabilities in a casual demeanor that’s trumps the capabilities of a PC which frustrates the PC. The American ads star actor Justin Long, as the Mac, and humorist John Hodgman, as the PC. The “Get a Mac” campaign received The Grand Effie Award in 2007 and all of the ads play on the perceived weaknesses of non-Mac personal computers. This ad campaign can be related to attribution and self-perception theories in numerous ways. I will start by analyzing how this ad campaign can be related to the attribution theory. Mac got actor Justin Long involved in being the Mac for the televised ads that were going to be aired. This was a start move for Mac because people watching the commercials will recognize Long immediately and pay attention to what he is saying because Long is a huge celebrity. People will assume that Long is doing these commercials because he supports Mac products and is willing to stake his reputation in order to back the brand. Long comes off in the commercials as a casual, laidback character that knows a lot about Macs. The PC, or Hodgman, comes off as uptight and stressed out from trying to compete with Mac. This communicates the message that Mac is a casual, modern, and user friendly product.


Individuals are going to be more inclined to buy a product that promotes itself as user friendly. When people watch the commercials, they are automatically drawn first, to the recognition of the actor and second, to the casual way the actor is endorsing the product. People are going to attribute the product to being more reliable and this stimulates excitement towards Mac’s rather than PC’s. The casual air and attire of Long persuades people that Mac is the best product on the market without trying to be. Apple simply has to show its audience the highlights of the product in comparison to PC’s and people are going to become more partial to Mac’s over PC’s. The “Get a Mac” ad campaign motivates people to want to go by the product because it communicates modernity. Once this campaign launched, it seemed as though everyone began to buy Mac books. Apple already had an astounding reputation from the popularity of ipods but, this successful ad campaign took the company to new levels. The televised ads created a buying frenzy. I can infer that people are buying the product because they believe in Apple. They believe in the product and when people believe in a product, it is as good as sold. Mac’s are promoted as being designed to have a long, productive life and that is communicated in their advertising. Justin Long is a young, attractive guy while the comparison standing next to him is middle aged and average looking. This reinforces the belief unconsciously in people that Mac’s are the latest in technology and come built to last. Most people can attribute Mac’s to being the best product on the market and in turn, the product they want to have. The “Get a Mac” campaign also needs to be looked at from the internal versus external perspective. Internally, people intentionally go out to buy a Mac because they know the capabilities of the product. Advertising for the product my also stick out in their mind and


people might intentionally pay attention to Mac book advertising because they want to own one and are thinking about buying one. People might think that they are internally more attracted to the product then others because they like to keep in touch with up-to-date software. Individuals may attribute the product more to themselves because they know that Mac books are the hip, new product on the market or individuals might be more conservative then most and like the fact that Mac’s have a long lifespan. When people do not have the consensus of others, the product becomes attributed to personal tastes and differences. Externally, people may be buying the product because of Mac’s reputation and the fact that it is an intrinsically desirable product. Other people speak highly of the product which makes others desire the product that has been spoken so highly of. If there is social consensus of the product being a reliable and durable product, consistently and over-time then, the attribution to the product is maximized. Most people are in agreement that Mac makes a better computer then PC does so, people have attribution externally to Mac. This leads to the discussion of selfperception in regards to the “Get a Mac” campaign. I will move onto self-perception and how this theory links to the “Get a Mac” ad campaign. Most people would be able to explain their own actions of preferring Mac over a Pc to themselves. People may think they fully recognize why they purchase one thing over another but, there may be other factors to why they actually did so. Some people may have bought a Mac computer because they saw the advertising for the product and knew that is why they wanted to buy a Mac computer. Other people may observe others response to Mac computers and attribute those observations to why they desire to have a Mac computer. If “Get a Mac” ads make a person happy because they find the commercial humorous, they might assess a Mac computer as an enjoyable product to own and want to go buy one.


People infer about their own preferences and can contribute those preferences to characteristics they find in a Mac. The fact that Mac’s are advertised as more user friendly and up-to-date makes people feel like they would be able to navigate the computer more easily then they would a PC. If a person knows that they are not tech savvy, they can attribute their fondness to Mac’s due to how user friendly the product is. People might believe that an external reward, such as a good deal or a giveaway on the product drove their interest into obtaining the product. For about a year, Mac had a promotion going on that when someone bought a Mac, they would get a free ipod as a gift. This motivated people to buy Mac’s instead of PC’s because of the perceived benefit. In one of the Mac versus PC commercials, PC first appears wearing a biohazard suit to protect himself from PC viruses and malware, of which PC says there are 20,000 discovered every day. Mac asks PC if he is going to live in the suit for the rest of his life, and PC cannot hear him because he is too protected by his virus-proof mask, and takes it off. PC then shrieks and struggles to place it on again. Emphasizing that Mac’s do not have the amount of virus problems that PC’s do is a mild reinforcement that people are receiving an external reward by buying a Mac instead of a PC. With a Mac, people will not have to worry about dealing with viruses and the other problems that can ruin a computer when a virus takes hold. An individual will be more inclined to buy a Mac knowing that there are external awards involved when purchasing a Mac. They may relate the external awards to a characteristic of themselves if they infer that they are smart buyers and are conservative people who buy reliable products. In summation, the processes of attribution and self-perception are similar because the ways people infer attributes of others are the same ways people infer attributes of themselves. A person will draw similar conclusion about their own personalities as they will about others.


Sometimes these inferences can be precise and sometimes they are off base. Pervasive messages help bring this fact to the surface. Messages can influence and alter how people view the things around them. Pervasive messages convince people to do things that were not in their original plan of action. Advertising uses persuasion to motivate people to see a product their way. They want to create desire in people to want to buy a product or to change certain viewpoints. Attribution and self-perception theories help to explain how people interpret the events and actions of the self and others. This paper sought to tie these theories to how people interpret pervasive messages and how those messages motivate people to action. I analyzed each theory and gave examples of how people relate certain characteristics back to themselves and to others using a pervasive message to highlight how the message is effective in changing consumer behaviors.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5z0Ia5jDt4


Works Cited

Heider, F. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons Inc. Kelley, H.H. (1967). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Weiner, B. (1972). Theories of Motivation: From mechanism to cognition. Chicago, IL: Markham Publishing Company. Garnefeld, I. (2010). Walk Your Talk: An experimental investigation of the relationship between word of mouth and communicators loyalty. Journal of Service Research, 14. Retrieved from http://0jsr.sagepub.com.skyline.ucdenver.edu/content/14/1/93.full.pdf+html Critcher, C.R. (2010). Inferring Attitudes from Mindwandering. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36. Retrieved from http://0psp.sagepub.com.skyline.ucdenver.edu/content/36/9/1255.full.pdf+html


Attribution and Self