Actor-Observer Bias in Social Psychology

People displaying the actor-observer bias
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The actor-observer bias is a term in social psychology that refers to a tendency to attribute one's own actions to external causes while attributing other people's behaviors to internal causes. It is a type of attributional bias that plays a role in how people perceive and interact with other people. Essentially, people tend to make different attributions depending upon whether they are the actor or the observer in a situation.

The concept of actor-observer asymmetry was first introduced in 1971 by social psychologists Jones and Nisbett.

This article discusses what the actor-observer bias is and how it works. It also provides some examples of how this bias can impact behavior as well as some steps you might take to minimize its effects.

What Is Actor-Observer Bias?

Definition:

According to the actor-observer bias, people explain their own behavior with situational causes and other people's behavior with internal causes.

The actor-observer bias tends to be more pronounced in situations where the outcomes are negative. In a situation where a person experiences something negative, the individual will often blame the situation or circumstances. When something negative happens to another person, people will often blame the individual for their personal choices, behaviors, and actions.

For example, when a doctor tells someone that their cholesterol levels are elevated, the patient might blame factors that are outside of their control, such as genetic or environmental influences. But what about when someone else finds out their cholesterol levels are too high? In such situations, people attribute it to things such as poor diet and lack of exercise.

Signs of the Actor-Observer Bias

There are a few different signs that the actor-observe bias might be influencing interpretations of an event. Some indicators include:

  • Blaming other people for causing events without acknowledging the role you played
  • Being biased by blaming strangers for what happens to them but attributing outcomes to situational forces when it comes to friends and family members
  • Focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the positives
  • Ignoring internal causes that contribute to the outcome of the things that happen to you
  • Not paying attention to situational factors when assessing other people's behavior
  • Placing too much blame on outside forces when things don't turn out the way you want them to

In other words, when it's happening to you, it's outside of your control, but when it's happening to someone else, it's all their fault.

Researchers have found that people tend to experience this bias less frequently with people they know well, such as close friends and family members. Why? Because they have more information about the needs, motivations, and thoughts of those individuals, people are more likely to account for the external forces that impact behavior.

Causes of the Actor-Observer Bias

When people are the actors in a situation, they have a more difficult time seeing their situation objectively. However, when they are the observers, they can view the situation from a more distant perspective.

For example, imagine that your class is getting ready to take a big test. You fail to observe your study behaviors (or lack thereof) leading up to the exam but focus on situational variables that affected your performance on the test. The room was hot and stuffy, your pencil kept breaking, and the student next to you kept making distracting noises throughout the test.

When you get your results back and realize you did poorly, you blame those external distractions for your poor performance instead of acknowledging your poor study habits before the test.

One of your friends also did poorly, but you immediately consider how he often skips class, rarely reads his textbook, and never takes notes. Now that you are the observer, the attributions you shift to focus on internal characteristics instead of the same situational variables that you feel contributed to your substandard test score.

Recap

Looking at situations from an insider or outsider perspective causes people to see situations differently. People are more likely to consider situational forces when attributing their actions. Yet they focus on internal characteristics or personality traits when explaining other people's behaviors.

Impact of the Actor-Observer Bias

The actor-observer bias can be problematic and often leads to misunderstandings and arguments. During an argument, you might blame another person for an event without considering other factors that also played a part.

The actor-observer bias also leads people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Instead of acknowledging their role, they place the blame elsewhere. This can create conflict in interpersonal relationships.

The actor-observer bias also makes it more difficult for people to recognize the importance of changing their behavior to prevent similar problems in the future.

How to Avoid the Actor-Observer Bias

Completely eliminating the actor-observer bias isn't possible, but there are steps that you can take to help minimize its influence. Strategies that can be helpful include:

Don't Blame the Victim

The actor-observer bias contributes to the tendency to blame victims for their misfortune. Instead of considering other causes, people often immediately rush to judgment, suggesting the victim's actions caused the situation.

When you find yourself doing this, take a step back and remind yourself that you might not be seeing the whole picture. Instead, try to be empathetic and consider other forces that might have shaped the events.

Focus on Solving the Problem

While your first instinct might be to figure out what caused a situation, directing your energy toward finding a solution may help take the focus off of assigning blame. It can also give you a clearer picture of all of the factors that played a role, which can ultimately help you make more accurate judgments.

Practice Gratitude

Instead of blaming other causes when something terrible happens, spend some moments focusing on feeling gratitude. While you might have experienced a setback, maintaining a more optimistic and grateful attitude can benefit your well-being. It may also help you consider some of the other factors that played a part in causing the situation, whether those were internal or external.

Recap

The actor-observer bias is a natural occurrence, but there are steps you can take to minimize its impact. Being aware of this tendency is an important first step. Avoiding blame, focusing on problem solving, and practicing gratitude can be helpful for dealing with this bias.

A Word From Verywell

The actor-observer bias is a type of attribution error that can have a negative impact on your ability to accurately judge situations. In addition to creating conflicts with others, it can also affect your ability to evaluate and make changes to your own behavior.

Being aware of this bias can help you find ways to overcome it. Instead of focusing on finding blame when things go wrong, look for ways you can better understand or even improve the situation. Be empathetic and look for solutions instead of trying to assign blame.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I avoid actor-observer bias?

    While you can't eliminate the actor-observer bias entirely, being aware of this tendency and taking conscious steps to overcome it can be helpful. When you find yourself assigning blame, step back and try to think of other explanations. Are there aspects of the situation that you might be overlooking? Could outside forces have influenced another person's actions? Were there things you could have done differently that might have affected the outcome? Asking yourself such questions may help you look at a situation more deliberately and objectively.

  • What’s the difference between actor-observer bias and self-serving bias?

    The self-serving bias refers to a tendency to claim personal credit for positive events in order to protect self-esteem.  In this case, it focuses only on the "actor" in a situation and is motivated by a need to improve and defend self-image. The actor-observer bias, on the other hand, focuses on the actions of the person engaging in a behavior as well as those observing it.

  • What things can cause a person to be biased?

    Many attributional and cognitive biases occur as a result of how the mind works and its limitations. Because the brain is only capable of handling so much information, people rely on mental shortcuts to help speed up decision-making. While helpful at times, these shortcuts often lead to errors, misjudgments, and biased thinking.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jones E, Nisbett R. The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior

  2. Bordens KS, Horowitz IA. Social Psychology. Academic Media Solutions; 2002.

  3. Linker M. Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice.

  4. Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. Social Psychology and Human Nature, Comprehensive Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2014.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.