Actor-Observer Bias in Social Psychology
Actor-observer bias is a type of attributional bias. In fact, it’s a social psychology concept that refers to the tendency to attribute your own behaviors to internal motivations such as “I failed because the problem was very hard” while attributing other people’s behaviors to internal factors or causes “Ana failed because she isn’t that smart“.
Also, the actor-observer bias plays a key role in how you perceive and interact with other people. In essence, people tend to make various attributions depending on whether they’re the actor or the observer in a given situation.
“Actor-observer bias states that actors tend to attribute the causes of their behavior to stimuli inherent in the situation, while observers tend to attribute behavior to stable dispositions of the actor.”
-Jones and Nisbett, 1972-
When a person judges their own behavior and plays the actor, they’re more ly to attribute their actions and results, especially if they’re negative, to situational circumstances (bad weather) or temporary peculiarities (tiredness) instead of internal and relatively stable variables, such as personality.
However, when an observer explains the behavior of another person (the actor), they’re more ly to attribute their behavior to the general disposition of the actors rather than to the factors of the particular situation.
Actor-observer bias tends to be more pronounced in situations with negative results. You protect yourself in a way by blaming the situation or the circumstances. However, when something negative happens to another person, outsiders often blame them for their personal choices, behaviors, and actions instead of external circumstances.
In this sense, researchers found that people don’t fall as much into the actor-observer bias with people they know well, such as close friends and relatives. But why?
Apparently, the reason is that, when people have more information about the needs, motivations, and thoughts of close individuals, they’re more ly to take into account the external forces that affect their behavior.
A possible reason that justifies the actor-observer bias is that, when people are the actors in a situation, they’re more aware of the circumstances of the situation. However, on many occasions, when you, as an observer, make an attribution, you don’t know much about the actor’s circumstances. Thus, what you do have is the memory of someone associated with stable characteristics.
Actor-observer bias and fundamental attribution error
Actor-observer bias is often confused with fundamental attribution error, as they’re both types of attribution biases. However, they’re different. Actor-observer bias and fundamental attribution error are basically two sides of the same coin. Both terms refer to the same aspect of attributive bias but don’t mean the same thing.
Un actor-observer bias, fundamental attribution error doesn’t take your behavior into account. Instead, it’s often just a part of the internal causes of other people’s behavior.
Thus, one can explain a person’s tendency to explain another person’s behavior. Mainly internal factors, such as personality or disposition, as a fundamental attribution error. Therefore, fundamental attribution error only focuses on the behavior of other people. As you can see, it’s strictly attributions of other people’s behaviors.
Therefore, one could say that fundamental attribution error is an attribution bias that discusses one’s tendency to explain someone’s behaviors in their internal dispositions. But actor-observer bias compares how you make attributions when you’re in one place or another (either as an actor or as an observer).
Actor-observer bias can be problematic, as it can lead to misunderstandings and arguments. This is because two people may not agree on what happened. Mainly when they have two different points of view, that of the observer and that of the actor.
In fact, it seems logical to think that there can be no agreement, especially when both parties attribute individual behaviors to external situations (external attribution). Also, when the other party’s situation attributes them to their features (internal attribution).
You can avoid conflicts by taking a step back and by identifying the circumstances in which a person couldn’t solve a problem or lied. In addition, this will help you correct your mistakes and help you get perspective. If you do it with yourself, why not try to do it with others as well?
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A Brilliant Explanation of the Actor-observer Bias in Psychology
The concept of actor-observer bias revolves around the belief that we make different attributions depending on whether we are the actor or the observer in a situation. We will get into the details of this concept for a better understanding.
… actors tend to attribute the causes of their behavior to stimuli inherent in the situation, while observers tend to attribute behavior to stable dispositions of the actor.
― Jones and Nisbett (1972)
When someone snaps at you, you are quick to jump to the conclusion that he/she is being very rude.
The person’s behavior might be attributed to the fact that he is having a bad day, but it’s unly that you will take that into consideration.
The bad day factor will only come into the picture if the roles are reversed, and it’s you who is having a bad day, as a result of which you snap at someone else. Well, that’s what the actor-observer bias is all about.
Actor-observer Bias Explained
In social psychology, actor-observer bias or actor-observer asymmetry refers to our tendency of attributing the other person’s behavior to his personal disposition, and his own behavior to the situation he is facing. When we are judging other people’s behavior, i.e.
, when we are observers, we are more ly to attribute it to their character. As opposed to this, when we are judging our own behavior, i.e., when we are the actor, we attribute our actions to the prevailing situation.
We believe that other people’s behavior is all about their internal causes, but attribute our own behavior to external factors.
As we are not able to observe our behavior directly, we cannot make internal attributions about our own behavior. Therefore, we focus on the situation (external/environmental factor) as the reason of our behavior.
That we are well-versed with the context and prior experiences also helps. When we are dealing with other people, we have no idea about the context, and therefore, we tend to assume that internal causes, i.e., their disposition, is responsible for their action.
We assume that other people are nearly always one-dimensional, and thus, predictable.
Actor-observer bias is mostly seen in the case of negative situations. It’s worth noting that, it doesn’t come into the picture when we are dealing with people whom we know very well.
Actor-observer Bias Examples
❍ You come in contact with an old friend after a long time and decide to catch up. You even reach 10 minutes before the scheduled time, but your friend turns up 20 minutes late.
He does apologize for this, but his apology falls on deaf ears, and you have already concluded that this friend of yours has no regard for you or your time. Now, let’s switch the roles. Let’s say your friend makes it on time, but you are 20 minutes late.
In this case, it’s unly that you will have any qualms about being late, because you had a genuine reason―whatever it maybe.
❍ When you are going at a normal speed, and another car speeds past you, you consider that person foolish for his rash driving. However, when you yourself speed past another guy who is driving at normal speed, it’s unly that you would consider yourself foolish, because you are obviously in a hurry to get somewhere.
❍ You make a dinner plan with your partner, but by the time you reach home in the evening, you are exhausted. You decide to call off the plan because you are tired. On the other hand, if your partner decides to call off the plan because she is tired, you call her lazy.
❍ When your classmate is crying after being pulled up for something, you tend to believe that he is just trying to cover up his incompetence. On the other hand, when you cry after being pulled up for something, you say it is the situation.
❍ While playing, if your friend trips and falls, you will say he was clumsy. In contrast, if you trip and fall, you will say that you fell because your shoelace was untied.
Actor-observer bias is often confused with fundamental attribution error. While both are types of attributional biases, they are different from each other. Un actor-observer bias, fundamental attribution error doesn’t take into account our own behavior.
It is often restricted to internal causes of other people’s behavior.
In the first example, for instance, fundamental attribution error will be when your friend is late, and you don’t take into account the external factors that might have had a role to play in his behavior.