Attribution Theory and Behavior Change: Ideas for Nursing Settings

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Slack Incorporated

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Journal of Nursing Education

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Imagine, for a moment, that you are trying to put an IV into a patient, but you can't find a vein. You find yourself getting warm and beginning to get shaky. The nurse assisting you in the procedure asks if you are feeling okay, you brush it off by saying, "Everything is fine, I've just been up since five with a sick child." Later in the day a friend stops and asks what's up, that you don't look good, is something wrong at home. Again you brush it off, this time explaining that all the patients in your unit need special care, and you haven't been able to catch your breath all day.

The following day your supervisor calls you aside and says she has noticed that your work has been suffering lately and asks if you are sure you can handle the work. What is noticed is that we seek explanations for our behavior and the behavior of others. Rarely do we say, "I just did it." Usually we say, "I did it because ... " The because will be some explanation of why it happened. In most situations a plausible explanation for behavior exists, and the effect of that explanation can influence feelings toward ourselves and the people around us. If performance is related to overwork or fatigue, we might feel if we can just hang on until the workload diminishes we can then catch up and get back on an even keel. Whereas if one thinks one can no longer handle the stress of the job, it may result in even more distress and may make matters worse. Likewise, if peers or super· vising personnel feel a performance decrement is due to one's inability to handle stress, the person may be treated differently and given less important tasks to do. If they felt it was due to an influx of patients with complex care needs they may feel that everyone is stressed and just ride out the storm. Similarly, if they thought the performance decrement was due to a particular stress such as having a sick child, they may rally around and give extra support.

It can be seen then that the rationale people have for their own behavior and the behavior of others has a powerful effect on their feelings, plans, hopes, and well-being. These explanations and the ensuing con· sequences are the basis for one important motivation theory: Attribution theory. Attribution theory is concerned with the perceptions people have about the causes of their own and others' behavior and the effect that these perceptions have on their subsequent behavior.


Journal of Nursing Education, Vol. 25, No. 3 (1986): 122-124. DOI. © 1986 Slack Journal. Used with permission.