What is Actor Observer Bias?

actor observer bias

Actor Observer Bias is a cognitive bias that influences the way people perceive and attribute the causes of behaviors. In simple terms, this bias causes individuals to attribute their own actions to external factors, while attributing others’ actions to internal factors, like personality traits or inherent characteristics.

This bias plays a significant role in social interactions. From a psychologist’s perspective, actor-observer bias is closely related to the fundamental attribution error, which is the general tendency to over-emphasize dispositional factors while understating situational factors when judging others’ behaviors. Here is a brief explanation of both concepts:

  • Actor: The individual performing the action; tends to attribute their behavior to external causes.
  • Observer: The person observing another’s actions and attributes their behavior to internal factors.

One common example to illustrate actor observer bias is a scenario where someone is late for an appointment. When the individual (actor) is late, they might attribute their tardiness to external factors, such as traffic or bad weather conditions.

However, if the observer sees someone else arriving late, they are more likely to attribute the behavior to internal factors, such as laziness or poor time management.

The distinction between the actor’s and observer’s perspectives stems from the differing information available to each. Actors base their judgments on their own experiences, emotions, and intentions, whereas observers cannot access this personal information and must rely on interpretations of the actor’s displayed behaviors.

Attribution Theory and Its Role

Attribution theory is a psychological concept that refers to how people explain the causes of events, behaviors, and outcomes. Developed by psychologists like Jones and Nisbett, attribution theory helps us understand our tendency to make biased judgments about others based on internal or external factors.

One major element of attribution theory is the concept of attributional bias, which occurs when individuals form judgments and assumptions about why people behave in certain ways.

Social psychologists Jones and Nisbett introduced the particular idea of “actor-observer asymmetry” in 1971. Jones and Nisbett proposed that these two roles (actors and observers) yield asymmetric explanations. The results of their study revealed that

“there is pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal dispositions.”

Internal Causes vs. External Causes

Attribution theory distinguishes between internal causes and external causes as primary motivators of human behavior. Internal causes refer to personal characteristics, traits, or beliefs that drive actions, while external causes are situational factors like social pressures or environmental conditions that may dictate behaviors.

Certain philosophical concepts like privileged access and incorrigibility also play a role. Privileged access suggests that individuals have unique insight into their own mental states and processes, which we assume others do not possess. Incorrigibility refers to the belief that our self-perceptions are infallible, leading us to resist change and correct our biases.

As a result, people tend to underestimate the impact of situational factors on their own behaviors, while overestimating the importance of internal causes for other people’s actions. This misperception perpetuates the actor-observer bias and negatively affects our ability to accurately understand the motivations of others.

Situational Influences on Perception

A key element that plays a role in shaping our attributions is the situational context, which shapes our perception and the resulting judgments. Specific factors can contribute to the actor-observer bias, including:

  • Focus: As actors, individuals are more likely to be aware of their surroundings and consider the situational factors influencing them. Conversely, as observers, the focus is more on the other person, which downplays the external context and accentuates internal attributions.
  • Information access: Actors possess more knowledge about their own motives, emotions, and thoughts, leading to a clearer understanding of how these factors influence their actions. Observers, on the other hand, often rely on limited and superficial information when assessing others’ behavior.
  • Relationships: The level of familiarity and closeness one has with the person being observed can also affect the actor-observer bias, as we often attribute internal factors when it comes to strangers, while leaning more towards situational attributions when observing close friends or family members.

The field of social psychology is dedicated to investigating these nuances in perspectives, shedding light on the ways in which situational influences affect our perceptions of both ourselves and others. Taking these factors into account can pave the way for a more balanced and empathetic understanding of human behavior, reducing the prevalence of the actor observer bias.

Consequences of Actor-Observer Bias

The phenomenon of actor-observer bias is particularly relevant in the context of interpersonal relationships and conflicts. When an individual attributes their own behaviors to external factors, but the behaviors of others to internal factors, misunderstandings and miscommunications can arise among friends, families, and colleagues. This bias can lead to a reduced ability to empathize, increasing the likelihood of conflicts in various social settings.

For instance, imagine a scenario where two friends are planning to meet. One of them is late, and the other is waiting.

The person who is late might attribute their delay to external factors, such as traffic, while the person waiting might attribute their friend’s lateness to a lack of punctuality or disorganization, internal factors. This different attribution can lead to frustration and conflict between both parties.

Psychological Research Implications

In the realm of psychological research, the actor-observer asymmetry can have significant implications. It plays a role in research bias, particularly in observational studies, where researchers might be prone to attributing the behaviors of their subjects to internal factors rather than considering external influences. This can lead to skewed conclusions and inhibit the understanding of human behavior accurately.

Moreover, when conducting studies, researchers may inadvertently reinforce this bias in social psychology work by designing experiments that focus on the internal characteristics of participants. Such experimental designs may neglect the role of external factors and other contextual variables, limiting the generalizability of the research findings.

Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying Biases

The actor-observer bias, like other cognitive biases, can be traced back to certain cognitive mechanisms that underlie our decision-making and perception processes. These biases often arise as a result of mental shortcuts or heuristics that our brains use to process information more efficiently.

Specific cognitive biases may impact our understanding and interpretation of the behavior of others and ourselves.

Role of Cognitive Shortcuts

Cognitive shortcuts, or heuristics, are mental strategies that help us process information quickly and efficiently. While these shortcuts can be beneficial, they can also lead to biases in thinking.

Some examples of these mental shortcuts include the availability heuristic, which causes people to judge the likelihood of an event based on how easily relevant examples come to mind. Another example is the positivity bias, where individuals overestimate positive outcomes and underestimate negative ones.

These heuristics sometimes lead to errors in judgment, as our brains are simplifying complex information to make decisions more manageable. This simplification may give rise to various cognitive biases that can impact our perception and behavior.

Related Cognitive Biases

Several cognitive biases may have a hand in creating the actor-observer bias. The confirmation bias is a cognitive bias where people tend to search for, interpret, and recall information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. This bias can cause people to only pay attention to evidence that supports their view, thus reinforcing the actor-observer bias when trying to make attributions about the causes of others’ behaviors.

The self-serving bias is another relevant cognitive bias that involves attributing our successes to internal factors and our failures to external factors. This bias serves to protect our self-esteem and can influence how we interpret our actions compared to those of others.

The optimism bias is a tendency for individuals to be overly optimistic about the likelihood of positive outcomes, which may also contribute to the actor-observer bias when interpreting the actions and intentions of others.

  1. Heider, Fritz (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley
  2. Hoorens, Vera (2014). Positivity Bias. Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research. pp. 4938–4941. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-0753-5_2219
  3. Jones, Edward; Nisbett, Richard (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning Press
  4. Malle, Bertram (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in causal attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 132 (6): 895–919. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895
  5. Storms, Michael (1973). Videotape and the attribution process: Reversing actors’ and observers’ points of view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 27 (2): 165–175. doi:10.1037/h0034782