Correspondent Inference Theory Explained


Proposed in 1965 by Edward Jones and Keith Davis, the correspondent inference theory is a method of systemically accounting for the inferences of a perceiver in regards to what an actor may be attempting to achieve thorough a specific action. The goal of this theory is to find an explanation as to why an internal or an external attribution may be being made.

This allows individuals to be able to compare the actions they decided to take with any alternative actions that may have been available. It is a process which allows them to be able to determine if their behavior was caused by an internal trigger or an external influence that was observed in another person.

It is a thinking process that allows each individual to go through a series of three sequential questions when evaluating the actual action which they decided to take.

  • Was there a choice available to partake in the action?
  • Is the behavior that was displayed something that would be expected in their social role?
  • Are the behavioral consequences a result of their normal behavior?

How Do We Attribute Intention to an Action?

Defining an intention can be a difficult process. The motives that someone may have in taking an observed act could be many when looked at from an external lens.

Jones and Davis use the example of observing someone purchasing another individual a drink while visiting a bar. What could be happening when you see this action being taken? The person could be buying the drink as a favor for their friend who is broke. It could be in return for a drink that was purchased for them previously. It might also be a way to introduce themselves to a stranger.

The fact is that for intention to be defined, there are three assumptions that must be evaluated through the correspondent inference theory.

1. Does the actor know the consequences of their actions?

If an individual does not know what will happen when they take an action, then their intent from an external standpoint becomes difficult to define. You might turn on a television, expected it to turn on so you can watch your favorite show, and not realize that turning on the TV will cause it to blow up.

2. Does the actor have the actual ability to perform an action?

Sometimes people may have the intent to complete an action, but may not have the ability to do so. It requires a trained brain surgeon to successfully complete a surgical treatment on the brain. Someone who plays video games for a living would not have the ability to understand the consequences of their action, which would eliminate the definition of intent.

3. Is there an intent to perform the action that was observed?

Did you intend to blow up the TV when you turned it on? Did the gamer intend to start a brain surgery? Sometimes actions are taken because they are a reaction to the surrounding environment. You would slam on your brakes, for example, if a car cut you off and that was required to avoid an accident. On instinct, you just hit the brakes. There was no intent until instinct kicked in.

How Choice Affects Correspondent Inference Theory

We all have choices to make when we decide to take action. Life really is about choice. If you get married, you make the choice every day to stay married unless you choose to divorce. You choose to go to work every day until you choose to quit. These choices have an important effect on us and those who surround us on a regular basis.

Choosing to stay married could inspire someone else to do so. Choosing to divorce could inspire someone to leave an abusive relationship. Choosing to go to work every day could inspire others to do the same. Choosing to quit might make people think you’re a loser, or you’re ambitious, or maybe you’re an entrepreneur.

Each person makes a choice based on an internal trigger, but will be influenced by their external environment. Someone might choose to stay married, for example, even though they are miserable because they feel that their friends at church would judge them in a negative way if they got divorced.

Every action may have an equal and opposite reaction in science, but in terms of the correspondent inference theory, each action has an observer that will choose to follow, ignore, or counter what they see. When these forces can be recognized, it becomes possible to evaluate choices and actions before they are taken.