What Is Correspondence Bias? | Definition & Example

Correspondence bias is the tendency to form assumptions about a person’s character based on their behavior. When we try to explain why people act in a certain way, we often focus on personality traits, underestimating the power of specific situations to lead to specific behaviors. In other words, people are inclined to think that others’ actions reflect their personality.

Correspondence bias example
You are driving in heavy rain, and you notice another driver in your rearview window speeding and overtaking other cars. Because of correspondence bias, you are more likely to assume that they are a reckless driver, when perhaps it’s the case that they are rushing to the hospital.

As a result, we are more likely to react negatively to people and hold them directly accountable for their actions, even if this may not be the case.

What is correspondence bias?

Correspondence bias is a type of attribution bias that occurs when we try to explain the behavior of others. According to correspondence bias, we tend to blame someone’s character for a particular behavior they are displaying, even when this behavior is influenced by situational factors. In other words, we assume other people’s actions correspond to their character, regardless of whether we are aware of the external causes of this behavior.

Correspondence bias plays a role in the impressions we form of others, and can lead to erroneous assumptions about their character. For example, if a friend doesn’t return our call, correspondence bias may cause us to think that our friend is (always!) an inconsiderate person, even if they forgot or are traveling for work.

What causes correspondence bias?

Correspondence bias emerges from the way we explain the behavior of others, which has many possible causes. Some of these causes do lie within the individual (like their personality) but many lie outside (situational factors).

When it comes to other people’s behavior, we tend to downplay the role of the situation and attribute static personality characteristics from what we observe. Because we can only observe some aspects of a situation (e.g., we are trying to reach our friend all day) and can’t observe others (e.g., that our friend has lost their phone), this leads to correspondence bias.

It is important to remember that correspondence bias happens even when we are aware of the situation a person is in.  Because of our tendency to see things from our perspective (i.e., egocentric bias) we wrongly assume that others experience a situation exactly as we do. Due to this, we expect others to behave as we (think we) would in that situation (e.g., “if I lost my phone, I would log on to my computer to answer my messages”). If this doesn’t happen, we draw negative conclusions about their personality (i.e., “they’re flaky” or “they don’t care about their friends”).

Correspondence bias example

People tend to infer personality traits based on the behavior or actions of others, even when they are aware that external factors or constraints are at play.

Example: Correspondence bias and awareness of external causes
In one experimental study, participants read short essays either in favor of, or against, a controversial topic like abortion, drug use, or a particular political leader. After reading the essay, they were asked to infer the personal attitude of the fictitious “writer.” Some participants were told the writer had chosen to write for or against the topic in question, while others were told the writer was assigned a position.Surprisingly enough, researchers found that even when participants were told the writer hadn’t chosen which side they would be on, they still believed that the writer’s attitude corresponded with the one presented in the essay. Other studies have confirmed this phenomenon and found it to be independent of factors like participants’ personal attitudes or cultural differences.

One possible explanation for why participants fell for correspondence bias has to do with persuasion. It seems that people assume that only writers with a corresponding attitude (i.e., an attitude matching the one presented) are able to write a highly persuasive essay on a given topic. As a result, people feel it’s safe to infer the writer’s attitude from how persuasive an essay is.

Other types of attribution bias

Our efforts to understand the causes behind behaviors can sometimes be misguided by a number of biases.

  • Actor-observer bias arises when we attribute other people’s behavior to internal causes while attributing our own behavior to external causes. This is usually the case with undesirable behaviors and negative outcomes. We are happy to deflect responsibility for our negative actions but quick to blame other people and their character for the same negative actions.
  • Self-serving bias refers to our tendency to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and blame external factors for our failures. In an effort to protect our self-esteem, we explain the cause of an outcome based on whether the outcome is positive or negative.
  • Group-serving bias (or ultimate attribution error) occurs when individuals from a socially defined group (i.e., an ingroup) make false assumptions regarding the behavior of people from a different group (i.e., an outgroup). For example, this occurs when people explain away outgroup success by attributing it to good luck or an easy task.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions about correspondence bias

What is the difference between correspondence bias and fundamental attribution error?

Correspondence bias and fundamental attribution error were often seen as interchangeable in the past. However, researchers have recently proposed that there is a subtle difference between the two.

  • Correspondence bias refers to the fact that behavior is often viewed as a reflection of a person’s character. In other words, we believe that a person’s behavior reflects stable internal qualities, even though it was actually caused by the situation.
    The fundamental attribution error refers to the idea that people fundamentally ignore or underestimate situational influences on others’ behavior.
  • Although people often commit the fundamental attribution error, they do not necessarily fall for correspondence bias at the same time. Only when we take the fundamental attribution error one step further and judge a person’s character from their actions do we display correspondence bias.
Why is correspondence bias a problem?

Correspondence bias is a problem because it can cause us to make incorrect judgments about other people’s behaviors. This can lead to misunderstandings that can negatively affect our relationship with them. When we overlook the situation and jump to conclusions about an individual’s character, it is also easier to justify reacting to them aggressively.

In a wider social context, if we ignore the situational factors that might have pushed someone to behave a certain way, we may also ignore systemic factors, like discrimination. For example, some people attribute poverty and unemployment to individuals rather than to social conditions.

What is a real-life example of correspondence bias?

A real-life example of correspondence bias is how we think about people who cut in line. For example, you are waiting in line at the airport and someone cuts in front of you at the security checkpoint. Because of correspondence bias, your immediate reaction is to feel annoyed and think that the person must be entitled and rude. In reality, this person may never cut into lines and they are doing this only because they are about to miss their plane, which they are taking to visit a sick family member.

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Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, March 23). What Is Correspondence Bias? | Definition & Example. Scribbr. Retrieved 18 June 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/correspondence-bias-definition/

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.