Harold Kelley's Covariation Model (1967)

Kelley, like Heider before him, assumes that when we are forming an attribution we gather information or data that will help us come to a decision. Kelley's theory focuses on the first step in the process fo social perception - how people decide whether to make an internal or an external attribution. It is an attribution theory that focuses on observations of multiple instances of behaviour across time, place, different actors, and different targets of the behaviour (situations), and examines how the perceiver chooses either an internal or an external attribution. We make such choices by using consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency information. An attribution is the way in which we come to understand the causes of behaviour (our own and others).

1. Consensus refers to how other people behave toward the same stimulus.

E.g., Do other people react in the same way to the same situation? If yes, then consensus is high. If no, then consensus is low.
So it's like there's a dog (target/situation), does everyone act afraid of the dog?

2. Distinctiveness refers to how the actor (the person whose behaviour we are trying to explain) responds to other stimuli.
E.g., Does the actor react in the same way to other, different situations? If yes, distinctiveness is low. If no, distinctiveness is high.
Does Jesse (the actor) always act afraid of dogs? Or does he only act afraid to this specific dog?

3. Consistency refers to the frequency with which the observed behaviour between the same actor and the same stimulus occurs across time and circumstances.
Does the actor react to the same situation in the same way on other occasions? If yes, consistency is high. If no, consistency is low.
Does Jesse act afraid of the dog everytime he sees the dog? Or only this time?

By discovering covariation in people's behaviour you are able to reach a judgment about what caused their behaviour. According to Kelley when these three sources of information combine into one of distinct patterns, a clear attribution can be made.

1. Low Consensus, Low Distinctiveness and High Consistency leads people to make an internal attribution of the actor.
2. High Consensus, High Distinctiveness, and High Consistency lead people to make an external attribution. It is something about the situation or target.
3. Finally when Consistency is Low we cannot make a clear internal or external attribution, and so resort to a special kind of external or situational attribution.
A) So when there is a Low Consensus, and High Distinctiveness, it is due to an actor and situation interaction that uniquely causes the outcome.
B) When there is High Consensus, and Low Distinctiveness, it is either an actor attribution or a situation attribution. You basically don't know in this situation.

The Covariation Theory assumes that people make causal attributions in a rational, logical fashion, like detectives, drawing inferences from clues and observed behaviours. Several studies have shown that people often make attributions the way Kelley's model say they should with one exception. In research studies, people don't use consensus information as much as Kelley's theory predicted; they rely more on consistency and distinctiveness information when forming attributions (Social Psychology 124).


Works Cited:
Social Psychology: Canadian Edition by Aronson/Wilson/Akert/Fehr. Prentice Hall
Lecture notes from Dr. Jennifer Campbell of University of British Columbia.
Classical and Contemporary Readings in Social Psychology Third Edition by Erik J. Coats and Robert S. Feldman

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