Religious attribution

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Religious Attribution in social psychology refers to how individuals attempt to explain/understand causes of behavior and/or events. Religious attribution is a theory derived from attribution theory of social psychology.

Types of religious attributions[edit]

The two types of attributions when considering religion are naturalistic and religious attributions.

Naturalistic attributions[edit]

Evidence supports that most people under most circumstances initially employ naturalistic attributions and explanations such as references to people, natural events, accidents, or chance.[1] This is the attribution type that is most common among most, in many different situations. For example, say one finds himself in a house all alone during a tornado. Say the man's house gets ripped to shreds, but he somehow survives. For a naturalistic attributor they may say "that was lucky" or "the tornado must have hit just the right way".[citation needed]

Religious attributions[edit]

Depending upon an array of situational and personal characteristics, there is a good chance of shifting to a more religious attribution type when naturalistic ones do not satisfy the needs for meaning, control, and esteem.[2] Say for example we go back to the man whose house was destroyed by tornado. A religious attributor would be much for likely to say that they "miraculously" survived, or that it was the work of God that they are still alive.[citation needed]

Why use religious attribution[edit]

The question is why would people use religious attributions anyway. This question takes us to a few very basic motivational themes that underlie much religious thinking and behavior—namely, the human need for meaning, control and esteem.[3] The nature of people makes us "need to know" things, and we have need for control and mastery of our lives. This is where need for control and meaning play in. But why esteem? Research suggests that people assign causality in order to maintain and enhance their self-esteem. Attributions are triggered when meanings are unclear; and when meaning is unclear control is unclear and self-esteem is challenged.[3]


There are certain situational factors that combine and intertwine to play are significant role in the prevalence and use of religious attribution. These situational influences fall into two broad categories: "contextual factors" and "event character factors". Contextual factors is concerned with the degree to which situations are religiously structured i.e. was the person at church? In deep prayer? Event character factors is more concerned with the nature of the event. When examining research done on contextual factors it is found the salience of religion in general seems to be the largest influence. This suggests that the availability heuristic works here, and that religious influence in situations increases the probability of making religious attributions.[4] When taking a closer look at event character factors we find that there are a number of internal influences that can factor in, such as: Importance of what takes place; whether the event is positive or negative; the domain of the event (medical, financial, etc.); and whether the event happens to the attributing person, or someone they know.[citation needed]

Importance of event[edit]

People attribute things that are out of their hands to God. Death of a loved one, natural disaster, etc., all of these things can be "explained" with religious attribution by saying it is God's will. Science can cover a lot of things but it cannot answer questions like "why me" that people seem to ask whenever something momentous happens in their life.[3]

Positivity vs. negativity of event[edit]

Positivity and negativity of an event are important to consider because people often make attributions to God, but not very often to people blame God for the bad things that happen to them.[5] Attributions to God are overwhelmingly positive.[1] Often when something negative happens there is still attribution to God, but it is not negative. It is not God is punishing me, or God is a giant kid with a magnifying glass smiting everyone; it is rather things like "God is trying to teach me something" or "God is making me stronger".[citation needed]

Event domain[edit]

It is important to consider the event domains when explaining attribution. There are some domains that are "ready made" for the application of secular understanding, while others seem more appropriate for invoking religious possibilities; for example medical situations elicit more religious attributions than other social or economic type circumstances, like money problems.[3]

Personal relevance[edit]

When events occur to us, they are much more personally important than when they happen to others. We may be upset or deeply concerned when something bad happens to one of our friends, but when it is us suffering from something the question "why me?" comes into play, and attribution is the means to find the answer. On the other side of the coin if something good happens for someone else, like someone winning the lottery, we may say "well that is lucky" and be happy for the person. But if you were the one to win it is far more likely to attribute this stroke of luck to "God looking out for you", in other words personal relevance elicits more religious attribution.[1]

Who uses attribution[edit]

People who attend church frequently, have knowledge in their faith, and people who hold importance of faith highly are more likely to be the type of person to rely more heavily on religious attribution then would people who find themselves lacking in those particular areas. In simple terms the more conservatively religious or orthodox the home and family in which a person is reared, the greater the person's likelihood of using religious attributions later in life.[6] There is some research that claims that Protestants will turn to internal or religious attribution more often then will the more orthodox Catholics on average.[7] In addition children who learn at an early age to attribute things to God are more likely to maintain that characteristic throughout their lifetime.[citation needed]

Self-esteem and locus of control[edit]

Something interesting that most people do not associate with religion that often is the relationship it has with self-esteem and locus of control. In general people with high self-esteem relate more positive and loving images to God, where as people with low self-esteem may not do this because they feel God has been unloving and cold to them.[1] When explaining locus of control there are two different modes. The first is the deferring mode, where people believe that all power resides with God, which would be a low locus of control. The second is the self-directive mode. In this situation the person is active and God plays a more passive role in which they share power. People that use the latter mode tend to draw stronger associations to God, then do people with low locus of control.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d Lupfer; Brock, & DePaola (1992). "The use of secular and religious attributions to explain everyday behavior". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31: pages=486–503. 
  2. ^ Spilka; Shaver & Kirkpatrick (1985|). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24: 1–20. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Spilka, Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill, Bernard (2009). The psychology of religion : an empirical approach (4th ed. ed.). New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1-60623-303-0. 
  4. ^ Taylor, Susan T. Fiske, Shelley E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070211914. 
  5. ^ Bulman; Wortman (1977). "Attributions of blame and coping in the real world: Sever accident victims react to their lot". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35: 351–363. 
  6. ^ McGuire, Meredith B. (2002). Religion, the social context (5th ed. ed.). Belmont (CA): Wadsworth Thomson Learning. ISBN 0534541267. 
  7. ^ Li, Yexin Jessica; Johnson, Kathryn A., Cohen, Adam B., Williams, Melissa J., Knowles, Eric D., Chen, Zhansheng (1 January 2012). "Fundamental(ist) attribution error: Protestants are dispositionally focused.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 (2): 281–290. doi:10.1037/a0026294.