Correspondent Inference Theory Definition
A correspondent inference, sometimes also called a correspondent trait inference, is a judgment that a person’s personality matches or corresponds to his or her behavior. For example, if we notice that Taliyah is behaving in a friendly manner and we infer that she has a friendly personality, we have made, or drawn, a correspondent inference. Or, if we notice that Carl is behaving in an aggressive manner and we conclude that he is an aggressive sort of person, we have drawn a correspondent inference. Sometimes it is reasonable to infer that people’s personalities correspond to their behavior and sometimes it is not reasonable. Correspondent inference theory outlines when it is appropriate to infer that a person’s personality corresponds to his or her behavior.
Correspondent Inference Theory Background
Correspondent inference theory was developed by E. E. Jones (often called Ned Jones) and his colleagues. It falls into the domain of social psychology known as attribution theory, which is the study of judgments that people draw from behavior. Correspondent inference theory has been revised over the years, but the original formulation of the theory was published by Jones and Keith Davis in 1965. The 1960s through most of the 1970s was a period of time in social psychology when logic and rationality were emphasized. As such, it is not surprising that correspondent inference theory has a very logical flavor. Jones and Daniel McGillis later said that the theory described a rational model for how correspondent inferences could be drawn but did not necessarily describe how people actually draw correspondent inferences.
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Explanation of the Correspondent Inference Theory
According to correspondent inference theory, two factors are important to consider in determining when it is appropriate to infer that a person’s personality corresponds to his or her behavior. One, if the person’s behavior is what most people would be expected to do in that situation, then it is not reasonable to infer that the person’s personality corresponds to his or her behavior. This is the same as Harold Kelley’s discounting principle, which suggests that we should not consider a person’s behavior to be informative about personality when the situation would cause most people to behave that way. For example, suppose you turn on the television and a game show is on. The contestant answers a question and wins a new BMW Mini Cooper. She smiles, jumps up and down, and looks very happy. Would you infer that because she looks really happy she must have a happy personality? Obviously not. Most people, whether they have happy personalities or not, would behave in a happy manner after winning a new car. So, when people behave just how we would expect most people to behave in that situation, correspondent inference theory suggests that we should not infer that personality corresponds to behavior.
Two, if it is not clear what trait the behavior suggests, then it is also not reasonable to draw a correspondent inference. For example, suppose the contestant goes on to win a $650 mountain bike, a laptop computer, $25,000 in cash, and a Caribbean cruise. Mysteriously, the contestant tells the host that she will not go on the cruise. That is probably not how most people would behave, so it would be reasonable to infer something. But, it is not clear what trait to infer. Is the contestant afraid of the ocean? Does the contestant not like hot weather? Could there be some medical reason? Family? School? Work? So, even if the person’s behavior is not expected in that situation, correspondent inference theory suggests that it is not reasonable to draw a correspondent inference if we do not know what trait to infer. However, when people do not behave as most people would in a certain situation, and when it is clear what inference to draw, correspondent inference theory suggests that we should infer that personality corresponds to behavior. For example, suppose at a party you see a person named Stan. You notice that Stan easily meets new people, tells jokes, seems very comfortable in interpersonal situations, and generally behaves in an outgoing manner. Not everyone behaves this way, and it is clear what trait to infer. Therefore, correspondent inference theory suggests that we should infer that Stan’s personality corresponds to his behavior. Stan probably has an outgoing, sociable, extraverted personality.
Correspondent Inference Theory Evidence
There is some evidence consistent with correspondent inference theory. However, what has captured the attention of social psychologists is the fact that people often deviate from the theory. For example, although people recognize to some degree that when a situation tends to make people behave a certain way, that behavior is not very informative about personality, people still tend to infer that personality corresponds somewhat to behavior. So, if people see a contestant behave in a happy manner after winning a car, they might conclude that the contestant has a somewhat happy personality, even though they know that winning a car tends to make people happy. This tendency to infer that personality corresponds to behavior even when the situation seems to explain the behavior is called the correspondence bias. A good example of the correspondence bias is the tendency to infer that the personalities of actors and actresses correspond to the roles they play. Even though we know that Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing a role that calls for him to behave aggressively, we still might infer that he is a somewhat aggressive person.
Importance and Implications of Correspondent Inference Theory
Correspondent inference theory helped to launch the study of how people draw inferences from behavior. We often draw inferences about other people, such as students, professors, coworkers, neighbors, salespeople, politicians, and friends, based on their behavior. The inferences we draw can affect our safety, our future friendships, whom we might date or marry, whether we choose to help someone, whether we might choose a particular college or a particular job, and many other important decisions.
- Jones, E. E. (1990). Interpersonal perception. New York: Macmillan.