Correspondence Bias

What Is Correspondence Bias?

Imagine that you witness a scenario where a man arrives at a meeting an hour late. On entering, he drops his notes on the floor. While he is trying to pick them up, his glasses fall off and break. Later, he spills coffee all over his tie. What is the explanation for these events?
The chances are good that you would reach conclusions such as “This person is disorganized and clumsy”. Are such attributions accurate? Perhaps; but it is also possible that the man was late because of unavoidable delays at the airport, dropped his notes because they were printed on glossy paper, and spilled his coffee because the cup was too hot to hold.

The fact that you would be less likely to consider such potential external causes illustrate what Jones (1979) labeled correspondence bias—the tendency to explain others’ actions as corresponding to their disposition or personality traits, even in the presence of clear situational causes.

The correspondence bias is a general attribution bias in which people have an inflated tendency to see behavior as reflecting (corresponding to) stable underlying personality attributes. This bias seems to be so general in scope that many social psychologists refer to it as the fundamental attribution error Opens in new window.

When explaining others’ behavior, people are likely to underestimate the effect of the situation and overestimate the effect of the person’s intentions, attitudes, abilities, or personality. However, when people are trying to understand their own behaviors, the bias is reversed; external attributions are more likely.

To explain their own behavior, people are likely to overestimate the effect of the situation and underestimate the effect of personal attributes. This bias is called the actor-observer effect Opens in new window (Jones & Nisbett, 1972).

Correspondence bias may also be responsible for a number of more general explanatory tendencies: for example, the tendency to attribute road accidents unduly to the driver rather than to the vehicle or the road conditions (Barjonet, 1980); and the tendency among some people to attribute poverty and unemployment to the person rather than to social conditions.

Correspondence bias was originally called the fundamental attribution error Opens in new window because it was considered to be an automatic and universal outcome of perceptual experience and cognitive activity (McArthur & Baron, 1983).

However, the fundamental attribution error may not be as fundamental as was first thought. It may, to some extent, be a normative way of thinking. This is one reason why Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues recommend that the term ‘correspondence bias’ be used in preference to the term ‘fundamental attribution error’.

Indeed, according to Bertram Gawronski (2004), the two constructs are subtly different: technically, he argues, the fundamental attribution error is the tendency to underestimate the impact of situational factors; and the correspondence bias is the tendency to draw correspondent dispositional inferences from behavior that is constrained by the situation.

For this reason, the tendency to infer that people have traits that correspond to their behavior is now called the correspondence bias rather the fundamental attribution error.

Correspondence bias and the fundamental attribution error are closely related to two other biases: the outcome bias (e.g. Allison, Mackie & Messick, 1996), in which people assume that a person behaving in some particular way intended all the outcomes of that behavior; and essentialism (Haslam, Rothschild & Ernst, 1998; Medin & Ortony, 1989), in which behavior is considered to reflect underlying and immutable, often innate, properties of people or the groups they belong to.