Covariation Theory Explained


How come people behave the way that they do? It is a question that is asked on a regular basis. People wonder why a door is closed when it is normally open or why some people smoke and others do not. The answer to the questions we have regarding the behavior of others is dependent upon our own personal observations and experiences.

Humans have a natural curiosity, even if cats get credit for this trait more often than people do. We have a desire to understand what is going on around us at any given time. We need to have an explanation as to why things are the way they are. This includes a desire to know the motivation behind the behaviors that are being displayed.

Harold Kelley proposed the Covariation theory to describe the process of how curiosity is turned into the suggested knowledge that we act upon.

How Is Information Gathered in the Covariation Theory?

To gather information, a person must use observation. Kelley suggests that we watch people and their behaviors, using personal social perceptions, to attribute judgments on external and internal factors. There is a need to look at all variables that may be influencing a behavior, so all are watched simultaneously.

We want to know what is different and what has stayed the same. Then we observe the behavior of the individual and assign attributes to those behaviors based on our own personal circumstances.

Let’s say that you’re having dinner at a casual sit-down restaurant. You’re seated next to a young couple – a man and a woman. The man has a backwards snapback on, is wearing an A-frame t-shirt, and has a muscular appearance. The woman is wearing a long-sleeve shirt, an ankle length dress, and keeps a scarf around her neck.

As she lifts one of her sleeves, you notice extensive bruising on her arm.

Now the covariation theory comes into play. You’ve made these observations. Now your perception, based on personal experiences, is going to dictate the judgment that you make regarding the status of this couple.

  • If you come from an abusive household, your first thought is going to be in the area of, “That man is beating her and I need to help her so she can escape.”
  • If you work out on a regular basis, come from a wrestling background, or have a physically demanding job, your first thought is going to be in the area of, “She is really dedicated to what she does and her hard work should be recognized.”
  • If you have a medical background, your first thought is going to be in the area of, “I wonder if those bruises came from her actions or from his actions.”

Notice what doesn’t happen. No one actually goes up to the woman to ask her about the bruises on her arms first. The direct observation, including all external and internal factors, leads to a judgmental conclusion before a word is ever spoken.

That is the essence of the Covariation theory.

The 3 Types of Information Presented in the Covariation Theory

Kelley suggests that people use their observations about three variables, or types of information, to answer the questions that develop from their curiosity. The observations from these insights then help people to form judgements about what is being observed.

  • Consensus Information. People look to see if multiple individuals will behave the same way in the same circumstances. If the answer is positive, then this means consensus is high. If the answer is negative, then consensus is low.
  • Distinctiveness Information. People look to see how unique the behavior happens to be in that specific environment or set of circumstances. If a person behaves the same way, whether they’re at a restaurant or sitting behind a desk, then distinctiveness would be low. If the reactions are different, however, then distinctiveness would be high.
  • Consistency Information. People also look to see if a person’s behavior is the same in similar situations. They may act different behind a desk than sitting at a restaurant, but if they always sit behind the desk in the same way, the consistency would be high. If not, then consistence would be low.

Going back to the example of the woman at the restaurant, let’s take these three data points and apply them.

If lots of people work out frequently and this is a place where they blow off steam, then several people could be carrying arm bruises. A high consensus would negate personal worries, but a low consensus would increase worry.

Now if the woman has come in multiple times and you’ve seen her before, but this time she has bruises and she didn’t before, then the distinctiveness would be high and this would cause concern. If you’ve seen her with bruises in the past and she seems unconcerned by them, then the distinctiveness would be low.

Should the woman come in with bruises before and be unconcerned, but this time she seems defensive and quiet, that would make the consistency low and worrisome. If she behaves in the same way, then the consistency would be high.

By analyzing these three features, the judgement is formed. That judgment will then dictate a behavior in response to the behavior that was witnessed.

How Attributions Are Formed Based on the Information Gleaned

Based on what a person observes through the three variables, a determination is made on whether there is an external attribution or an internal attribution. If all the information types are perceived to be high, then an external attribution is going to be the determination of the behavior being observed.

If just one of those factors is determined to be low, however, then an internal attribution is likely to be made.

We use external and internal attribution to determine the motivation for the behavior that has been seen. Once the motivation is determined, then an explanation for the behavior can be determined.

Once that explanation is determined, it prompts the individual to act in a specific way with their own behavior.

What we are unable to determine using the Covariation theory is intent. There can be intentional behavior that desires a specific outcome that is observed and there can be unintentional behavior that can occur because of unique circumstances.

At this restaurant, a waiter might drop his tray so he can quickly slip a note to the woman with the bruises on her arm to see if she is okay. A waiter might also trip and drop the tray near the woman because he caught a seam in the carpet. That is the difference between intentional and unintentional in the Covariation theory.

Kelley offers us a framework to understand why we think and feel certain ways when we observe certain behaviors. Our desire to reach a judgment may not always be accurate, but if we understand the process of how we judge observations, we have the opportunity to make them with greater accuracy.