Humans all have a tendency to look for reasons for events, behaviors, and the like; to attach meaning to behavior; their own as well as that of others. Psychology has a term for this, attribution; and attribution theory deals with “how the social perceiver uses information to arrive at causal explanations for events.” Attribution theory is concerned with how and why ordinary people understand and explain the events that go on around them. People tend to see cause and effect in every event or behavior, even when there is none. When they interpret the behavior of others, they tend to look for internal causation. On the other hand, in explaining their own behavior, the tendency is to look for external causation.
In 1965, psychologists Edward E. Jones and Keith Davis proposed the Correspondent Inference Theory, which argues that people use the consequences of a person’s behavior as a basis for inferring his intentions. Jones and Davis’s theory, however, only deals with how people make attributions to the person, not how they make attributions about situational or external causes. They recognized that the process of coming to an accurate definition of intentions is difficult, and rests on two assumptions: the actor knew the consequences of the actions, and the actor had the ability to perform the action.
The consequences of a particular action that has been chosen must be compared with the consequences of all possible alternative actions. The fewer effects in common of the possible choices, the more accurate the inference of intention.
This theory has been the subject of much debate and study since it was first proposed. Like most Bruce Schneier, for instance, argues that the theory fails ‘pretty spectaculalry’ in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocent people, he says, people mistakenly infer that the deaths were the primary motivation of the terrorists, and not perhaps simply a means to a different end.
Schneier quotes extensively from a paper by Max Abrams in International Security, “Why Terrorism Doesn’t Work,” which outlines 42 policy objectives of international terrorist groups, and then shows that the groups only achieve their objectives less than 10% of the time. Abrams argues in his article that while attacks on military targets would be more effective in achieving their goals, they nonetheless pick softer civilian targets which leads nations under attack to arrive at the mistaken inference that this is, in fact, their intent, but only hardens the resolve to fight terrorism and resist making concessions, which ensures that terrorism will ultimately fail.
Thus, in the war with Al Qaeda, nations have consistently attributed to the group the motive to ‘destroy us all,’ when, in fact, Al Qaeda’s stated aims have been remarkably consistent. While these mistaken inferences have been effective in blunting Al Qaeda’s efforts to force policy change, they haven’t resulted in effective tactics in combating the group.
Another excellent analysis of Correspondent Inference Theory can be found in a study co-authored by David H. Silvera of the Uinversity of Tromso, Norway and Daniel Laufer of the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, “Recent Developments in Attribution Research and their Implications for Consumer Judgments and Behavior.” In their paper, the authors show the complexity of inferring behavior only from personal motivation without taking into account the external factors that might be in play.
The theory of correspondent inference is helpful in making judgments about the motivations of others, or for that matter, ourselves, but, it falls short of being able to consistently make accurate inferences. What it does not account for is the human tendency to find the most convenient answer to complex questions. Like the farmer who attributes his failed crops to ‘an act of God’ rather than drought, or his own deficient farming methods, human beings seem to be hard-wired to find the simplest answer to the unanswerable questions they face.