An Overview of Jones and Davis Correspondent Inference Theory

The Correspondent Inference Theory  is a psychological model which is used to explain how people infer the disposition of another person based on that person’s actions, regardless of what the action achieved or any situational factors. Thus, it is an observer attribution model and not a motivational model. It was first proposed by Edward Jones and Keith Davis in 1966.

The perceiver must believe that the actor must be able to take that action, intends to take the action, and can reasonably know the effect of taking that action. These 3 assumptions are necessary to use the Correspondent Inference Theory.

After identifying a distinct action taken by another person, the perceiver compares that action with alternative actions which could have been taken instead. To make the comparison, the perceiver considers 5 factors.

1. Is the action voluntary?

If the action is involuntary, the perceiver cannot infer anything about the actor. Inferences can only happen with voluntary actions.

For example, a floor salesperson in a high end department store is required by his job to be courteous. No inference can be made on whether he is courteous under other conditions.

2. Is any part of the action unexpected?

If choices have a great deal in common, a perceiver has little to work with to infer a correspondent disposition. The more distinctive each choice is from the others, the more can be inferred from the course of action chosen. This is known as non-common effects.

For example, if a person has a choice between a higher paying job and a lower paying job, most people would expect him to choose the higher paying job. Choosing the lower paying job is unexpected. At the very least, the perceiver can infer that to the actor, money is not everything.

3. Is the action socially desirable?

Given a choice of actions, most people tend to choose actions which are socially desirable. The socially desirable choice is usually the default choice. That means that the closer the action is to social norms, the less can be inferred about the actor based on the choice. In contrast, much more can be inferred from actions which are not socially desirable.

For example, most people choose to obey laws which are generally known. However, it is not socially desirable for a person to run a red light. In many cases, the perceiver might just infer that the red-light runner is aggressive or careless. However, the available choices may be different than the perceiver assumes originally. A person may be part of a funeral procession, or trying to learn if his wife is having an affair, or trying to get his wife to the hospital when she is in labor. With more information, such as seeing the pregnant wife in the front seat, the perceiver can know more about the actor’s available choices. This gives a different or expanded information set with which to infer a correspondent disposition for the red-light runner.

4. Does the action impact the perceiver?

The principle of hedonistic relevance means that dispositional attributions made by the perceiver are affected when the perceiver is directly involved in the action, especially when the consequences of that action are serious. In this case, the perceiver tends to overestimate the influence of dispositional factors and underestimate the influence of situational factors.

For example, when the perceiver is driving and is cut off by another driver, the perceiver tends to assume that the action was taken because of the personal negative qualities of the other driver. At the same time, the perceiver usually won’t notice if the other driver was forced to make a sudden lane change because of outside factors.

5. Is the action of personal interest to the perceiver?

Even when the perceiver is not personally involved in the action, dispositional attributes made by the perceiver are affected when the action is of personal interest to the perceiver, in a similar way to how they are affected when the perceiver is directly involved. This is known as personalism.