What Is Actor-Observer Bias? | Definition & Examples
Actor-observer bias is the tendency to attribute the behaviour of others to internal causes, while attributing our own behaviour to external causes. In other words, actors explain their own behaviour differently than how an observer would explain the same behaviour.
Because actor-observer bias can influence how we perceive and interact with other people, it can lead us to inaccurate assumptions and misunderstandings.
What is actor-observer bias?
Actor-observer bias (or actor-observer asymmetry) is a type of cognitive bias, or an error in thinking. More specifically, it is a type of attribution bias, a bias that occurs when we form judgements and assumptions about why people behave in certain ways.
According to the actor-observer bias, we are more likely to attribute our actions to external circumstances, rather than to our personality. However, when we are in the role of the observer explaining the behavior of others, we are more likely to blame their character. This erroneous, or mistaken, assumption on the observer’s part is called fundamental attribution error.
What is attribution?
In psychology, attribution refers to how we perceive and explain the causes of behavior. On a typical day, we make numerous attributions about our own behavior and the behavior of others. Because we are usually unaware of this process, it is prone to bias.
There are two main types of attribution:
- External (or situational) attribution interprets someone’s behaviour as being caused by their environment, or by factors outside of their control.
- Internal (or dispositional) attribution interprets someone’s behaviour to their personality or disposition.
As a result of actor-observer bias, the attributions we make depend directly on whether we are the actor or the observer.
What causes the actor-observer bias?
Human behaviour is a complex phenomenon, leading to several possible explanations of the actor-observer bias. However, there are three particular explanations, which are very intertwined with each other:
As actors, we cannot easily perceive our own behaviour. In other words, we cannot see ourselves behaving. For this reason, our attention as actors tends to be directed outwards. Therefore, we are more likely to seek the cues that shape our behaviour in our environment or the situation.
On the contrary, from the observer’s viewpoint, the environment is stable, and functions as a mere background or context. As observers, we focus our attention on the actor’s behavior, and take it more or less at ‘face value’, i.e., suggesting fixed personality traits.
Differences in available information
When we are trying to explain our own behaviour as actors, we have much more information available to us. We know how we behaved in the past, our emotional state, and our intentions. If we are rude to someone, we are more inclined to think that this was an exception, rather than the rule.
For instance, we may recall very few instances when we insulted anyone, and we may believe that in most of these instances we were provoked. Because we know that we don’t always behave that way, we associate our behaviour with the situation, rather than our personality.
The opposite is true from the observer’s standpoint. The only information we have is what is observable to us. Due to this lack of information, we have a tendency to assume the behaviour is due to an internal characteristic. As observers, if a stranger is rude to us, we will probably blame their personality, rather than thinking that they just were having a bad day.
Collecting and processing information doesn’t only serve the purpose of understanding and structuring our reality. Our motives also influence this process. An example of such a motive is the need to enhance or protect one’s self-esteem.
The actor-observer bias mostly arises in negative situations, when the behavior is blame-worthy. No one likes to look bad, so to protect their self-esteem, actors are more likely to blame the situation than take responsibility.
Observers on the other hand, are outsiders in the situation. As their main motive is to understand what’s happening,their self-esteem is not at stake.
As a result, we judge others’ behavior by overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits, and underestimating the importance of situation and context.
Actor-observer bias example
Actor-observer bias encourages us to deflect responsibility when we are the actor, but assign the problem to personality traits when we are the observer.
Frequently asked questions
- What is the difference between actor-observer bias vs. fundamental attribution error?
The actor-observer bias and the fundamental attribution error are both types of cognitive bias. More specifically, they are cognitive biases that occur when we are trying to explain behaviour.
Although they are very similar, there is a key difference between them.
According to the fundamental attribution error, people tend to attribute another’s actions to their character or personality, and fail to recognise any external factors that contributed to this. For example, when we see someone driving recklessly on a rainy day, we are more likely to think that they are just an irresponsible driver who always drives like that. The reality might be that they were stuck in traffic and now are afraid they are late picking up their kid from daycare, but we fail to consider this.
On the other hand, the actor-observer bias (or asymmetry) means that, if a few minutes later we exhibited the same behaviour and drove dangerously, we would be more inclined to blame external circumstances like the rain, the traffic, or a pressing appointment we had. As actors, we would blame the situation for our reckless driving, while as observers, we would blame the driver, ignoring any situational factors.
For this reason, the actor-observer bias can be thought of as an extension of the fundamental attribution error.
- What are common types of cognitive bias?
Cognitive bias is an umbrella term used to describe the different ways in which our beliefs and experiences impact our judgment and decision making. These preconceptions are ‘mental shortcuts’ that help us speed up how we process and make sense of new information.
However, this tendency may lead us to misunderstand events, facts, or other people. Cognitive bias can be a source of research bias.
Some common types of cognitive bias are:
- Why is actor-observer bias a problem?
The actor-observer bias can be a problem because it influences how people perceive and interpret their and others’ behaviour. Depending on whether we are actors or observers, we tend to judge behaviour differently, even if it concerns the same behaviour. As a result, one may avoid taking responsibility for their actions, blame others even for things out of their control, and become overly judgemental. This, in turn, can create misunderstandings and conflicts in interpersonal relationships.
- What is the difference between observer bias and actor-observer bias?
Observer bias occurs when the researcher’s assumptions, views, or preconceptions influence what they see and record in a study, while actor–observer bias refers to situations where respondents attribute internal factors (e.g., bad character) to justify other’s behaviour and external factors (difficult circumstances) to justify the same behaviour in themselves.
Sources for this article
We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.This Scribbr article Sources Show all sources (4)