Dispositional attribution is the tendency to suggest that behavior is the result of innate personality traits. For example, if someone is standing in line at the movies and another person cuts, the victim might assume that the cutter is thoughtless or rude, and that these internal traits led to the decision to jump the line. The opposite is situational attribution, where people decide that behavior is based on situational factors. In the movie line example, the victim might notice that the cutter was bumped by someone else, and may not have intended to push into the line.
Understanding attribution is an important part of social psychology, the study of human behaviors in social and group contexts. Complex factors play a role in how people decide to attribute their own behavior, as well as the behavior of people around them. As someone assesses another party after committing an action, considerations like race, gender, and ethnicity may determine how the observer decides to explain the action.
Situational and dispositional play a role in the fundamental attribution error, a known phenomenon in social psychology. People have a tendency to blame innate traits for the failings of others, demonstrating dispositional attribution: “He can't get a job because she's lazy” or “She's too mean to be a good teacher.” Conversely, when asked to explain their own behavior, they claim it was the situation: “I can't find a job because the market is tight”; “I had trouble teaching that class because the students were disruptive.”
The phenomenon of dispositional attribution can play a role in numerous social attitudes. In debates over welfare programs, for example, some people may engage in dispositional attribution and argue that recipients of government benefits are lazy or fraudulent and don't really need help. Advocates of such programs might argue that situational factors like employment disparities are to blame for social inequality.
In any situation where individuals are interacting and engaging in activities, they make a series of snap judgments about each other, and attributions are among these judgments. Further to the fundamental attribution error, there can be a tendency to suggest that positive personal behaviors are the result of innately good traits, while personal failures are clearly the result of situations. Conversely, when other people do well it may be attributed to the situation, while failings are considered the consequence of negative character traits. The tendency to stress situational or dispositional attribution more, depending on who is involved and what they are doing, can reveal biases, some of which may be internalized rather than overt.