Fritz Heider

An Austrian-American psychologist who developed concept of attribution theory.

How people interpret their own behavior, as well as that of others, formed the basis for Fritz Heider's work during a career that lasted more than 60 years. Heider explored the nature of interpersonal relations, and his work culminated in the 1958 book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Heider espoused the concept of what he called common-sense or naı¨ve psy-chology. He believed that people attribute the behavior of others to their own perceptions and that those perceptions could be determined either by specific situations or by long-held beliefs. The concept may not seem complicated, but it opened important doors to the question of how people relate to each other and why.

Heider, the younger of two sons, was born in Vienna on February 18, 1896, to Moriz and Eugenie von Halaczy Heider. He was an avid reader, painter, and a good student. Heider dreamed of becoming a painter, but his father encouraged him to find a more traditional way to earn a living and to paint only as a hobby. In 1914, Heider enrolled at the Technical University in Graz, avoiding the draft due to a bad eye, a lingering reminder of a serious injury he experienced as a child. By 1915, Heider had lost interest in becoming an architect and began to study law. This subject did not hold his interest either, and his father offered him a deal that he could spend four years auditing any courses that held his interest if after the four years were complete Heider would study agricultural and raise pigs on the family's land.

During these studies Heider was first introduced to psychology through a course taught by Karl and Charlotte Bu¨ hler in Munich. By the time he returned to Graz to complete his degree, he had found his passion in philosophy and psychology. He became Alexius Meinong's (1853–1920) graduate student and researched object perception for his dissertation, completing it in only nine months. Heider received his Ph.D. in 1920 but did not go directly into academics. Instead, he had still to uphold his promise to his father and began to learn about farming in preparation of going to agricultural school. In the end, Heider never had to farm and was offered a job with the government developing aptitude tests and working with adolescents.

Less than two years into the job, Heider became restless and moved to Berlin in the fall of 1921 to study at the Psychological Institute of Berlin. Pre-World War II Berlin was one of the most intellectually stimulating cities in Europe, and he was privileged to study with outstanding scholars. Over the next few years, Heider moved frequently, traveling in Europe and living off a monthly allowance from a wealthy relative.

Begins research on interpersonal behavior

Beginning at Smith, Heider's research led to his theories on interpersonal relations. He continued his work when he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1947 to take a professorship at the University of Kansas. It has been said that Heider approached psychology the way a physicist would approach scientific theory. He was extremely methodical and meticulous in his research, which could often be frustrating, but he carefully developed the ideas that he ultimately outlined in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, published in 1958.

In its simplest terms, attribution theory explains the means people use to attribute the behavior of others. Sometimes, behavior is attributed to disposition; in other words, one might decide that altruism is what makes a particular person donate money to a charity. Other times, behavior can be attributed to situations; in this model, the donor gives money to charity because of social pressure. Heider believed that people generally tend to give more attribution than they should to personality and, conversely, less than they should to situations. In other words, personality is not as consistent an indicator of behavior as people tend to believe.

Allows publication of notebooks

Heider received many awards for his research, including the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1965. Although Heider ostensibly retired in the 1960s, he continued to do research as an emeritus professor. He worked on his memoirs, which became his autobiography. More important were a series of notebooks Heider had kept during his career in which he explained and diagramed many of his theories, listed references, and discussed questions he had tried to answer through his research. A former student of Heider, Marijana BeneshWeiner, offered to edit and compile the notes. Working with Heider, she put the notes into a six-volume set, published by Springer-Verlag under the title, Fritz Heider: The Notebooks. The first volume was published in 1987. Heider, aged 91, died at his home in Lawrence, Kansas, on January 2, 1988. Benesh-Weiner completed editing the final volume shortly after his death.

See also Attribution theory .



Fritz, Heider. Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1983.

Fritz, Heider. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley, 1958.

Fritz, Heider, and Marijana Benesh-Weiner, ed. Motivation. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.


Malle, Bertram F., and William Ickes. “Fritz Heider: Philosopher and Psychologist.” Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology 4 (2000): 195–214.

Standen, Peter, Megan Paull and Maryam Omari. “Workplace Bullying: Propositions from Heider's Balance Theory.” Journal of Management & Organization 20, no. 6 (2014): 733–48.