Attribution Theory

Attribution Theory in Gaming

Attribution Theory

As humans, we have a strong need to assign a cause to an outcome or event. The processes we use to arrive at those causes is known as Attribution Theory [1]. In an attempt determine causation, however, we run the risk of falling victim to the common biases that warp our view of reality.

Video games are no different. Often, games have challenging components to them that can quickly lead to frustration if our outlook is distorted. As a social endeavor, video games require interaction with other players. How we respond to other players’ behavior and outcomes shapes the community we belong to.

We can use an understanding of Attribution Theory in order to avoid falling into these common traps while gaming. In doing so, we can maintain a positive mindset and foster better relationships with fellow gamers.

Internal Attribution

Internal Attribution refers to the belief that an event was due to an individual’s personality traits or abilities.


I won that game because I played better than my opponent.

We lost that game because we failed to group up on the objective.

External Attribution

External Attribution occurs when we assign the cause of an event or behavior to external or situational factors, such as luck or fate.


They won because our support disconnected at a critical point in the match.

I only won because I drew a better hand than my opponent.

Attributional Styles

In general, individuals have different attributional styles in which they tend to assign causes to either internal or external factors.

Locus of Control

The tendency for someone to lean towards either internal or external attribution for their behavior or success is referred to as their Locus of Control[2]. Think of Locus of Control as a spectrum, with Internal on one end and External on the other.

Locus of Control


Individuals with strong internal locus of control believe events in their life are primarily the result of their own actions.


I consistently earn a high rank because I do research into top builds and execute strategy appropriately.

I’ll never make the leaderboard because I suck at this game.


Those who tend towards an external Locus of Control usually attribute results to external factors, such luck.


I tend to be really lucky when it comes to games with randomness.

I could make reach Legend Rank easily if I were luckier and had more time to play.

Which is Locus of Control Desirable?

Typically, an Internal Locus of Control is regarded positively. It tends to be associated with higher self-esteem due to the attribution of positive outcomes to internal factors. It can, however, also be related to anxiety when explaining failures. In reality, neither Locus of Control isn’t binary, nor is either end of the spectrum positive or negative in every situation.

Being able to recognize both the internal and external factors associated with outcomes leads to a more complete representation of the situation and, in general, a healthier mindset.

Attribution vs. Locus of Control

While Attribution is a response to a specific situation, an individual’s Locus of Control is a general personality orientation. That is, someone with a higher tendency to an Internal Locus of Control can still attribute certain behaviors or events externally.

Attribution Biases

Attributional Biases are present in a multitude social interactions [3]. Our need to quickly attribute a behavior or outcome to a single cause runs the risk of falling into common biases. Gaming is no different. We often interact with others in game with incomplete information and, as a result, make false assumptions about ourselves, our teammates, and our opponents. However, understanding common attribution biases can help prevent you from falling victim to them.

Self-Serving Bias

The Self-Serving bias describes human’s tendency to attribute their own positive behavior or outcomes internally and negative behavior or outcomes externally [4]. In doing so, we get the benefit of both accepting praise for success and deferring blame for failures.

In most cases, this is likely done to protect our self-esteem [5] and protect our egos from harm. By falling into the trap of the self-serving bias, however, we fail to take responsibility for our failures and lose out on the opportunity for growth. Additionally, we may incorrectly associate success with our own abilities, overlooking any places we could improve when we find ourselves in a similar situation in the future.

Impact in Gaming

When committing the Self-Serving Bias in gaming, we fail to identify opportunities to improve. By blindly attributing success to our own abilities, we don’t give proper attention to the external factors that contributed to victory. In doing so, we potentially overlook mistakes that were made on our way to earning the win.

Furthermore, by attributing losses to external factors, such as luck, we don’t recognize our misplays that may have been more detrimental to our chances of winning. Exhibiting the Self-Serving Bias is inversely related to the perceived potential for improvement [6].

Instead, we should consider both the internal and external factors that contributed to the outcome. In doing so, we can better separate our decisions from the outcome and analyze opportunities for improvement.

Fundamental Attribution Error

In contrast, the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) [7], or Correspondence Bias, is the tendency to interpret the negative behavior or results of others is primarily due to internal factors, such as personality. In doing so, we ignore external factors that may be present.

For example, when we encounter another player raging in-game, we quickly assume that person is simply a toxic scumbag. In doing so, however, we’re failing to consider the external factors driving this behavior. It’s possible that this player has been on a massive losing streak and is tilting wildly. Maybe they’re just under a great deal of stress IRL. Most of the time, this player could very well be a calm, helpful teammate who doesn’t begin every sentence with an obscenity.

Sure, it may be unlikely, but the point remains that by assigning the player’s behavior solely to his personality, we’re making an unfair judgment based on limited information. In general, humans have a tendency to underestimate the impact of the context of a situation and overestimate the degree to which personality traits drive behavior.

To combat this, we should give the player the benefit of the doubt and at least consider possible situational explanations before making assumptions about his character.

Impact in Gaming

By committing the Fundamental Attribution Error in game, we contribute to the negativity rampant in the gaming Community. In tying their behavior solely to their personality, we fail to empathize with the situational factors that may be motivating it.

Alternatively, consider times when you were frustrated with those you were playing with. What did you assign the cause in that situation? It’s possible this player is experiencing a similar external irritation that’s leading to this behavior.   

Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error doesn’t mean you have to tolerate toxic conduct; just don’t be so quick to assume it’s entirely representative of the person committing it.

Ultimate Attribution Error

An extension of the Fundamental Attribution Error, the Ultimate Attribution Error refers to our tendency to offer differing explanations for negative and positive results/behavior for ingroup and outgroup members [8].


An ingroup is a social group with which an individual identifies as being a member. Typically with ingroups, positive outcomes are attributed to Internal Factors while negative results are attributed to External factors. We see groups we are apart of as a reflection of ourselves and attribute behavior in a similar fashion to the way we interpret our own.


An outgroup is a social group in which a person does not feel apart of. Similar to the Fundamental Attribution Error, we tend to overestimate the impact of Internal factors with negative behaviors or results in outgroups. Likewise, we assume external factors are the cause when it comes to positive behavior or outcomes.

Impact in Gaming

The effect of the Ultimate Attribution Bias in gaming can be found in the community. Too often, as gamers, we look poorly upon those who do not share our interest. Worse yet, when new players show interest in gaming, we ridicule their poor play. In reality, their play is largely the result of their inexperience, an External factor, rather than the internal traits we are quick to attribute it to. Instead, we should exhibit some patience with new gamers and recognize that they will only get better with time.

Even within the gaming community, we hold silly biases about the abilities of people outside of our server, region, or team. This is how we arrive at silly debates about the “superior” server (BG9 > ALL) or region (LOL NA EZ MODE). In reality, differences between these small subgroups of the gaming community are negligible, especially for the average player. What differs is our interpretation of results. If someone within our own group is successful, they must be skilled (Internal Attribution). Conversely, when someone in outside of our group finds the same success, it’s only because he or she had an easier path (External Attribution).

We need to recognize our tendency to favor those within our own group and not let it affect our objective interpretation of a situation.

Hostile Attribution Bias

The Hostile Attribution Bias (HAB) [8] refers to our tendency to interpret others’ ambiguous behavior as hostile. Essentially, when we’re unsure about the intent of another’s behavior our default explanation is to assume it is hostile. This is the case whether or the behavior was meant to be aggressive.

A consequence of the Hostile Attribution Bias is an increase in our own aggressive behavior as a response to the perceived hostility. Too often, we are quick to retaliate to hostility in an aggressive manner, perpetuating the cycle of negativity.

Impact in Gaming

In video games, or on the internet in general, we have limited means of communicating with our opponents and teammates. Even when we can communicate directly with other players, we often miss out of important social cues present in direct interactions, exacerbating the problem even further.

A prime example of this can be found in Hearthstone: players get furious over their opponent’s use of the six available emotes, so much so that “Sorry”, considered to be the most aggravating of the emotes, had to be removed from the game.

The problem that arises from the Hostile Attribution Bias is the hostile reaction that it typically inspires. Imagine, for instance, that your opponent was legitimately Sorry for your bad fortune. Or genuinely wanted to wish you a Well Played turn. You, however, interpret it as your opponent  BMing you. In response, you begin roping every turn or otherwise attempting to grief your opponent. Your opponent, rightfully, in this case, interprets your behavior as malicious and begins finding new ways to irritate you.

In future games, your response to the first player’s actions may tilt you, affecting both your interaction with future opponents and the quality of your plays. Either way, by assuming your original opponent’s behavior was hostile, you’ve turned a harmless interaction into a cycle of negativity.

Once again, we should not make assumptions about others’ behavior when working with limited information. Interpreting benign actions as attacks builds a toxic environment in game. There’s no risk involved in giving other players the benefit of the doubt and reacting more positively (or not at all).

Avoiding the Consequences Misattribution

As discussed, attributional biases have the potential to prevent you from growing as a player, overlook situational factors when interacting with others and respond with unwarranted hostility. All of these consequences are detrimental to either our mindset in game or the gaming community as a whole.

These biases are common for a reason. Even the best of us fall into this line of thinking at some point or another. How we respond to this flawed thinking is what is important.  

Identify Your Biased Reaction

Being able to classify your biased reaction is more than just a purely academic endeavor. By correctly recognizing your response to a situation as one of the above biases, you’re able to change your line of thinking. In turn, you’ll be able to adjust your behavior to avoid the consequences of the bias you are guilty of.

Step Outside of Yourself

Many of the causes of misattribution are related to an inability to properly relate to others. If you identify a bias in your thinking, take some time to consider why it is you are thinking in that manner. For a moment, put yourself in the other player’s shoes and try to see the situation from their perspective. Take the effort to consider a time when you were in a similar scenario. In doing so, you’re better able to avoid misinterpretation or misattribution.

Remember the Context

Never forget that you’re playing a playing a video game. In the grand scheme of things, does it matter why your opponent won? Is it really even that important that they won at all? If their actions were intended to be hostile, what do you lose by not retaliating? Learning to let go of frustrations will take you far both in Gaming and Real Life.

Have Fun!

At the end of the day, games are meant to be fun. If you’re constantly getting irritated by the outcome of a match or the behavior of your opponents, you’re missing the main point of playing. Take a break if you find yourself falling into a negative mindset and give yourself the time to come back with a more positive mindset.

Have you witnessed examples of these Attributional Biases in game? How did you respond? Share your experiences in the comments.

Game better.

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