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 we 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.

What Is Actor-Observer Bias?

The actor-observer bias tends to be more pronounced in situations where the outcomes are negative.  For example, 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. In other words, when it's happening to us, it's outside of our control, but when it's happening to someone else, it's all their fault.

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

Understanding the Actor-Observer Bias

So what causes the actor-observer bias? One possible reason is that when people are the actors in a situation, they cannot see their own actions. When they are the observers, however, they are easily able to observe the behaviors of other people. Because of this, people are more likely to consider situational forces when attributing their own actions, yet focus on internal characteristics when explaining other people's behaviors.

For example, imagine that your class is getting ready to take a big test. You fail to observe your own 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 all 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 prior to the test.

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

What Impact Does This Bias Have?

Obviously, the actor-observer bias can be problematic and often leads to misunderstandings and even arguments.

"In an argument, it may be common for both sides to see themselves as responding to what the other does. "He started it!" is a common complaint, often heard on both sides, because each side attributes its own behavior to the situation but the others' behavior to their traits and other dispositions," authors Baumeister and Bushman explain in their book Social Psychology and Human Nature. "It seems natural to infer that they are fighting because they are mean, whereas we are fighting because they attacked us. Or, in the simpler words of pro hockey play Barry Beck on a brawl that broke out in one game, 'We have only one person to blame, and that's each other!'"

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3 Sources
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  1. Bordens KS, Horowitz IA. Social Psychology. Academic Media Solutions; 2002.

  2. Linker M. Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; 2016.

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

Additional Reading
  • Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press; 1971.

  • Aron, A., Aron, E.N., & Smollan, D. Inclusion of the other in the self-scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1992; 63: 596-612.