The Covariation Model of Attribution: Definition & Steps

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  • 0:05 Covariation Model of…
  • 1:37 3 Types of Information
  • 3:29 Internal vs. External…
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell
In this lesson, we discuss Kelley's Covariation Model of Attribution, including examples of each of the types of information involved: consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency.

Covariation Model of Attribution: Definition

Why do people act the way they do? Most of us probably ask ourselves this question daily. Why did my boss close her office door? Why does my father smoke? Why did my child yell at her friend? How we answer these questions depends on our experiences and observations. Beyond simple curiosity, we have a deep desire to be able to understand and explain what happens around us. This includes attempting to understand someone's motivation behind a behavior.

Harold Kelley's Covariation Model of Attribution explains how we use social perception to attribute behavior to internal or external factors. It also explains what information we gather through perception and how it's used to form a judgment about someone's behavior. The word 'covariation' refers to your ability to observe how two or more variables change in relation to each other. This attribution theory assumes that you have information from multiple experiences (at different places and times) that you use to determine what variables have changed and what has stayed the same.

For example, imagine that you and your friend are eating breakfast together at a restaurant. Your friend has ordered three stacks of pancakes and is ready to dig in. The question is, why is your friend eating three stacks of pancakes?

Three Types of Information

Kelley proposes that we use our observations about three types of information (variables) to answer this question, along with any other question of why someone behaves the way they do. These three variables are consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency.

The consensus variable answers the question, do multiple people behave the same way in the same situation? If the answer is yes, then consensus is high. If the answer is no, then consensus is low. Think about you and your friend in the restaurant. Are other people in the restaurant also eating three stacks of pancakes? You look around and see that everyone who has pancakes has three stacks, just like your friend. So, consensus is high for your friend's behavior.

Next is the distinctiveness variable, which answers the question, how unique is the behavior in this particular situation? In other words, does this person behave the same way in all situations? For instance, does your friend always eat three stacks of pancakes when he has breakfast, no matter where he is? You've seen him eat pancakes at a friend's house, where he only ate one stack. So, distinctiveness is high for your friend's behavior because it is distinct from normal behavior in any other location.

The third variable, consistency, answers the question, how often does the behavior occur across time in this exact situation? For instance, does your friend always eat three stacks of pancakes when he eats breakfast at this restaurant? You two ate there last week, and he ate three stacks of pancakes then, too. So, consistency is high for the behavior.

Internal vs. External Attributions

The essential step of attribution, according to the Covariation Model, is to look at the three types of information together, to see what changes and what stays the same. An external attribution, which is when a behavior is attributed to external factors, is likely to be made if all three variables are high. For example, we already determined that your friend's behavior of eating three stacks of pancakes is similar to others' behavior in the restaurant, and that he only eats three stacks every time he is at this restaurant. Consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency are all high, so you would make an external attribution. You might think that the pancakes must not be very filling or that no one is allowed to order less than three stacks of pancakes.

If some of these factors had been different, you might make an internal attribution, which is when a behavior is attributed to internal or personal factors. If consensus is low (no one else is eating that many pancakes) and distinctiveness is low (your friend always eats this many pancakes, no matter where he is), and consistency is still high, you would point to internal factors for an explanation of the behavior. You might think that your friend is a pig who eats a lot, all of the time.

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