Recently I worked at an A level revision day where year 13 students came to have revision sessions for their final chemistry exam. The teacher was very enthusiastic and encouraging and tried to motivate the students by reminding them that they are all bright students who are all capable of achieving the higher grades. Throughout the session, he kept saying comments like “you are all so bright” or “you’re some of the brightest students in the UK”. This technique, which may even have been unintentional, uses the power of the attribution effect to influence the students to do well in their exams.
Miller, Bickerman and Bolen (1975) did a study in which they had three different conditions. In one condition they kept telling the students that they are a very tidy class, or that the head master had commented at how tidy the class is (attribution group). In another condition, the students were told not to litter and had posters around their classroom telling them not to litter (the persuasion group). The third group was a control group who received no treatment. They used the percentage of rubbish thrown in the bin by the class as the outcome measure at the end to see which technique influenced the students to be the tidiest.
Their results showed that those students who were in the “attribution group” ended up being the tidiest out of the three groups. The graph below shows their results and showed that a higher percentage of rubbish was thrown in the bin in the attribution group compared to the other groups. It also shows that those in the attribution group continued to be tidy two weeks after the manipulation, whereas those in the persuasion group went back down again.
The researchers called this the attribution effect and explained it by saying that if you attribute a personality or trait, they will make that attribution themselves eventually, and think that it is in fact true. When this happens, they will try to play up to the label and so will start to do things associated with that label. Therefore in the case that I described above in the A level revision sessions, the fact that the teacher kept telling the students that they are bright and capable of getting good grades, would make the students attribute the label of “bright” and “capable” to themselves. This would mean that they might study hard and believe that they can do it, which in turn would mean that they do well in their exams. This shows a technique which a teacher might use to influence their students.
Miller, R. L., Brickman, P., & Bolen, D. (1975). Attribution versus persuasion as a means for modifying behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 31, 430.