Oh yeah. Sounds like a sexy topic, doesn't it?
It should be, for any writer. Or any student of human behavior in general. Here's a very basic model:
Now, sometimes, another person does something TO us. When that happens, we have to make an ATTRIBUTION OF INTENT. In other words, we have to make a guess about the other person's intention when he/she did something to us.
Sometimes, the person's intent is obvious, either because he tells us why he's doing something, or because the emotional and situational cues are really clear. But this is the delicious part: so often, the information about the other person's intentions is incomplete. The cues are ambigious. And so we have to guess.
Here's an example of a potentially ambigious situation, and how attributions of intent come into play:
Assume that, in this situation, it's really not clear from the guy's facial expression or body language whether he did it on purpose or not, at least, if you were watching from the outside. She has to rely on her own conclusions about what's happened. Depending on the girl's attribution of the guy's intent, she might feel and respond very differently. And with this single situation, I can think of at least a few more attributions that would lead to even more varied responses (like, the girl decides it was actually all her fault for running into the boy, and feels ashamed of herself and sad).
Individuals end up with what we call an "attributional style," meaning that each person tends to make similar kinds of attributions across situations. There's one style in particular, hostile attributional style, in which the person assumes the other individual's intentions are hostile, even in the face of ambiguous or neutral information. You've probably met people like this, right? Hostile attributional style is associated with higher levels of aggression in children and paranoia in adults. Another attributional style, one in which a person attributes the causes of bad events to herself, is associated with depression. Attributions matter.
There are several factors that predict what type of attributions a person makes. Individual temperament and level of emotional reactivity in conflict situations, high levels of hostile interactions in parent-child relationships, attachment security with parents, and experiences of acceptance or rejection from peers have all been shown to predict attributional style. In the moment, past experiences with the specific person, availability of contextual information (an event that took place right before, the other person's facial expression and emotional cues, etc.), and the individual's mood would also influence the type of attribution that results.
Now, personally, it's good to be aware of the attributions you're making--and it's sometimes good to challenge them a little instead of accepting them as objective truth. And for writing, well. Making your character's attributions clear to the reader can help you keep a character sympathetic, even when the person is responding in a way the reader might not.
So, that's attributions in a nutshell. How do you handle this in your writing? Have you ever thought about it like this before? And what about in real life? Have your attributions of someone's intent ever been wrong?