Correspondent Inference Theory

Inferring Traits from Other People’s Behaviors

Edward Jones and Keith Davis (1965) developed a theory to explain why people make the attributions they do. Their correspondent inference theory is based on their observation that people often believe that other people’s disposition correspond to their behaviors.

Correspondent inference theory (Jones & Davis, 1965) examined how people decide that an action reflects an intention, that is, how people infer that the action corresponds to an underlying intent.

This theory worked out the information that people use to determine another person’s intent. The core of the theory addresses how people make sense of another person’s decision to behave in a certain way, given “the number and desirability of the decision’s unique consequences” (Gilbert, 1998, p. 96).

Specifically, the correspondent inference theory predicts that people try to infer whether an action is caused by internal dispositions of the person by looking at various factors related to that act. As with the covariation model Opens in new window, this theory proposes that there are three factors that influence the extent to which you attribute behavior to the person as opposed to the situation:

  1. Does the person have the choice to engage in the action?
  2. Is the behavior expected based on the social role or circumstance?
  3. What are the intended effects or consequences of their behavior?

First, if you know that the person was forced to engage in a given behavior, obviously you infer that the action is due to the situation and not the person. For example, most students who major in psychology are required to take a course in statistics.

  • If I know that a student who is majoring in psychology is taking statistics, can I infer that he or she must like statistics? No, because this behavior may have been caused by the situation (the requirements of the major).
  • But if I find that an English major is taking statistics, can I probably assume he or she actually likes statistics? Yes, because in this case I have much greater certainty that the behavior was caused by the person.

Second, is the behavior expected based on the social role or circumstance? Behavior that is not necessarily required, but is largely expected due to a given situation, doesn’t tell us much about the person.

  • If you see someone wearing a tuxedo to a wedding, you shouldn’t infer that he is a stylish and formal dresser because his outfit is quite likely to be a function of the situational requirement that he wear such attire.
  • On the other hand, if you see a person wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a tuxedo on it to a formal wedding, you might very appropriately make a dispositional attribution for this unexpected behavior.

Third, what are the intended effects or consequences of their behavior? To make an attribution, Jones and Davis believe that you should look at the effects of a person’s behavior that can be caused by only one specific factor as opposed to many factors.

If there is only one intended effect, then you have a pretty good idea of why the person is motivated to engage in the behavior. If there are multiple good effects, it is more difficult to know what to attribute the behavior to. Consider the scenarios:

  • A friend of yours decides to take a really boring job that pays $15,000 a year and is located in a small town near Vail, Colorado, an isolated place with cold weather, and she doesn’t know anyone who lives there. Why did she take the job? Probably because she really likes to ski.
  • Another friend of yours takes an interesting and challenging job that pays $80,000 and is located in San Francisco, where he has many friends. Why did he take the job? Who knows? In this case it is very difficult to make an attribution because the behavior could have been caused by a variety of factors.

Whether concerned with inferences about attitudes or personality, Jones termed these dispositional attributions correspondent inferences. A correspondent inference reflects people’s attribution that somebody’s behavior reveals (corresponds to) an underlying disposition, such as trait, attitude, or intention.

In sum, correspondent inference theory predicts we are best able to make a dispositional attribution, and see people’s behavior as caused by their traits, attitudes or personality when the behavior is freely chosen, is not a function of situational expectations, and has unique (noncommon) effects.