Understanding the Covariation Model (A complete guide)

In this article, we will approach the covariation model, Kelley’s cognitive covariation theory, the concept of attribution and  Kelley’s causal schemes.

The theory of cognitive covariation: what is it, and characteristics

The covariation model is one of the theories of attribution, explanations about how we search for the causes of something. Attribution theories try to explain how people interpret events and how they relate them to their way of thinking and acting. In this article, we will speak about the Theory of cognitive covariation of Harold Kelley (1967).

Through this theory, the cause of an event or a person’s behaviour can be determined. We will know in detail the components and characteristics of the theory.

The concept of attribution

In relation to attribution theories, A.T. Beck (1978) differentiated between expectation and attribution. He defined expectation as the conviction that one fact will accompany another fact (future-oriented), and attribution as the conviction that one fact has accompanied another fact (past-oriented).

Kelley’s Cognitive Covariation Theory

Harold Kelley’s (1967) theory of covariation is an attribution model, that is, it is aimed at determining the causes of the behaviours, facts or events that we observe.

Kelley states that when there are different events that may be the triggering cause of the same event, only those that are shown to be consistently related to it over time, will be considered as the cause of the event.

Types of information

The author understands covariation as information from multiple sources about the actor’s behaviour (multiple observations). It would be the relationship between two or more variables.

It distinguishes in facts or actions two elements: the actor (subject observed, and who performs the action) and the perceiver (subject who receives the action).

On the other hand, in his Theory of cognitive covariation, Kelley establishes three types of information about the past behaviour of the observed person (actor) that will determine the type of attribution:

  1. Consensus

Do other subjects perform the same action? If the answer is yes, the consensus will be high.

That is, it would be when the subject’s response coincides with the group rule, with the majority.

2. Distinctiveness or differentiation

Does the actor behave like this with others? If you behave like this with more people, there will be low distinctiveness or differentiation, that is, there will be no differences depending on the perceiver.

3. Consistency

Does the actor behave like this with the same subject in different circumstances (or overtime)? If the answer is yes, there will be a high consistency.

That is, it would be the recurring representation of the same behaviour whenever the same situation is represented.

Causal attributions

Depending on the combination of these three elements, we can make a causal attribution to the person, the entity or the circumstances. Thus, in the theory of cognitive covariation, there can be three types of causal attributions:

1. Causal attribution to the person

When the consensus is low (few subjects other than the actor perform the same action), the distinctiveness is low (the actor behaves like this with many) and the consistency is high (it always behaves like this with the same subject or perceiver in different circumstances or the length of the time).

For example, a person who always gives money to beggars (unlike their neighbours) throughout the year. In this case, the attribution of the action is the person, that is, the action depends to a greater degree on him.

2. Causal attribution to the entity (recipient subject)

When the consensus is high (many subjects different from the actor perform the same action), the distinctiveness is high (the actor behaves like this with few or only one) and the consistency is high (it always behaves like this with the same subject in different circumstances).

For example, consider a parent who buys Christmas gifts for their children, just like most people, and also buys the same number of gifts per child. This act also occurs even if the children have behaved better or worse during the year. In this case, the causal attribution will be the entity or the children themselves who receive the gifts.

3. Causal attribution to the circumstances

When the consensus is low (few subjects other than the actor perform the same action), the distinctiveness is high (the actor behaves this way with few or only one) and the consistency is low (the actor behaves differently with the same subject to what over time).

For example, a boy who buys a gift for his partner, and for no one else, and only on special occasions, while no one in the family does so (under consensus). Here the event or fact will depend to a greater degree on the circumstances (special occasions).

H.Kelley’s causal schemes

On the other hand, Kelley’s theory of cognitive covariation also addresses another concept: that of causal schemas (that is why it is also called Kelley’s model of covariation and configuration).

This other concept in Kelley’s theory, called “configuration,” is about the information that comes from a single observation (as opposed to covariation, where there were multiple observations). From this information, the causal schemes are generated.

According to Kelley, there would be two types of causes in causal schemes:

1. Multiple sufficient causes

They explain the normative or moderate effects. Among several causes, it is enough that one or some of them occur, for the effect to occur. From these causes, it establishes two principles:

1. 1. Principle of dismissal or discounts

Less importance is attached to a cause when there are other possible causes for the behaviour.

For example, when a student performs poorly after surgery, poor performance is attributed to health problems rather than lack of effort. The cause that is taken into account is the most salient or exceptional.

1. 2. Principle of increase

The role of a cause increases if the effect occurs in the presence of an inhibitory cause.

For example, the good performance of a student while her father is ill; more effort is attributed to this girl compared to other students with favourable circumstances.

2. Multiple necessary causes

They explain the unusual or extreme effects, where several causes must be present in order to explain the effect.

For example, in very difficult competitions where few students obtain a place, there must be several reasons: that the student is motivated, that he has studied a lot, that he has a high academic record and that he is lucky on the exam.

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FAQ about the covariation model

What is the covariation model in psychology?

The covariation model is one of the theories of attribution, explanations about how we search for the causes of something. Attribution theories try to explain how people interpret events and how they relate them to their way of thinking and acting.

What are the two types of attributions?

 A.T. Beck (1978) differentiated between expectation and attribution. He defined expectation as the conviction that one fact will accompany another fact (future-oriented), and attribution as the conviction that one fact has accompanied another fact (past-oriented).

How do you explain attribution theory?

Attribution theories try to explain how people interpret events and how they relate them to their way of thinking and acting. 

What is a high consensus?

A high consensus means that the subject’s response coincides with the group rule, with the majority.

Why is attribution important to psychology?

Attributions are important to psychology because it influences our feelings and the way we relate to others in our social environment. 

What is the purpose of attribution theory?

The purpose of attribution theory is to explain the causes of certain behaviours, patterns of thinking and feeling in relation to our social environment. 

Conclusions

In this article, we approached the covariation model, Kelley’s cognitive covariation theory, the concept of attribution and  Kelley’s causal schemes.

Kelley states that when there are different events that may be the triggering cause of the same event, only those that are shown to be consistently related to it over time, will be considered as the cause of the event. The author understands covariation as information from multiple sources about the actor’s behaviour (multiple observations). It would be the relationship between two or more variables.

The covariation model is one of the theories of attribution, explanations about how we search for the causes of something. Attribution theories try to explain how people interpret events and how they relate them to their way of thinking and acting. 

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know!

References

Cheng, P. W. (1997). From covariation to causation: A causal power theory. Psychological Review, 104(2), 367–405. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.104.2.367

Crocker, J. (1981). The judgment of covariation by social perceivers. Psychological Bulletin, 90(2), 272–292. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.90.2.272

Eric G. Freedman and Laurence D. Smith

The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn 1996), pp. 321-343

Fiedler, K., Walther, E., & Nickel, S. (1999). Covariation-Based Attribution: On the Ability to Assess Multiple Covariates of an Effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(5), 609–624.

Horn, J. L., & Noll, J. (1997). Human cognitive capabilities: Gf-Gc theory. In D. P. Flanagan, J. L. Genshaft, & P. L. Harrison (Eds.), Contemporary intellectual assessment: Theories, tests, and issues (p. 53–91). The Guilford Press.

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