Do you ever find yourself in the middle of an argument trying to prove your point, but you never seem to get anywhere? Is your mind spinning with all the different points you want to make without ever getting around to them? Does it feel like someone is there to convince you that you are wrong no matter what you say?
Well, this is what psychologists call “attribution in social psychology”—wondering why I’m talking about it when the title says “actor-observer bias”? I’ll explain soon. In this article, we’ll find answers to all your questions about actor-observer bias. So, let’s start.
What Is Actor-observer Bias?
Actor-observer bias is a cognitive bias that occurs when people ascribe their actions to external factors while attributing others’ actions to internal characteristics. As the name states, internal attribution is the tendency to account for actions by internal factors such as personality traits. On the other hand, external attribution is the tendency to account for external factors such as situational forces and outside stimuli or surroundings.
Attribution refers to how we account for a particular event, behavior, or outcome.
In actor-observer bias, actors (those who do something to an object) tend to attribute the cause of their actions to external factors, whereas observers (those who observe someone else doing something) tend to attribute the cause of the action to internal factors.
Generally, we tend to blame our failures on poor luck or dire circumstances while taking credit for our successes due to our efforts. We overestimate the relative importance of character traits as compared to situational factors. Social psychologists call this “the fundamental attribution error,” another name for actor-observer bias.
The actor-observer bias is our tendency to see other’s actions as being more under their control than our own or others’ actions being caused by the situation they are in. The bias derives from the fundamental attribution error which is our inability to distinguish situational factors likely to have contributed to our engagement in the same behavior. Actor-observer bias is also known as attitude–behaviour gap or simply, “difference between doing and saying.
How Does Actor-observer Work?
Here’s how it works. Two people have a conflict. Person A thinks he’s right and that the conflict is due to something Person B has done wrong. Person B also thinks he’s right and that the conflict is due to something Person A has done wrong. They are both right, but their bias prevents them from seeing their contribution to the problem.
Some explanations have argued that the actor-observer bias is a product of human perception. One reason is that actors will have a more challenging time seeing themselves act than observers. In contrast, observers can see the situation in which actors are placed.
Another way to think about it is to say that an actor may possess information that an observer doesn’t. Someone may be missing critical data, leading them to make a different judgment. Because of these differences, actors and observers see the same behaviors differently.
Examples of Actor-observer Bias
If you ever find yourself at a meeting where someone doesn’t agree with an idea and their behavior can’t be attributed to any (obvious) situational factor, but rather the person seems adamant about the perceived flaws of the concept itself, then this is likely a case of actor-observer bias.
Another way to illustrate this is to consider a student who receives a bad grade. When considering giving themselves a bad grade, they will usually justify it based on external factors – for example, I had a hard time with this class, or I’ve been going through a rough time at home.
However, when evaluating someone else who received a bad grade, the student will often see their behavior entirely under control. The student may think that the other person didn’t put enough effort into the exam, did not study enough, or is stupid.
What Is the Difference Between Actor-observer Bias and Self-serving Bias?
A self-serving bias is a cognitive bias wherein a person accounts for their successes by overestimating their abilities and rewards and explaining their failures as external to themselves. They take credit for their triumphs but blame outside forces for failures.
In other words, self-serving bias is the tendency to see oneself as less causally responsible for adverse outcomes and more causally responsible for positive results. This bias is apparent in how people tend to describe and explain the behavior and attitudes of others and themselves.
For example, someone applying for a job may attribute their successes to their abilities and characteristics (e.g., “I got the job because I’m perfect”) but attribute their failures to situational circumstances (e.g., “I didn’t get the job because there were some qualified applicants”).
In contrast, as I have discussed, actor-observer bias is the psychological phenomenon wherein a person tends to ascribe their actions to situational factors and other people’s actions to personality traits.
Self-serving bias is the result of the outcomes – be it success or failure.
In a nutshell, self-serving bias is focused on an individual’s behavior, whereas actor-observer bias is focused on both – individual and others’ behavior.
The actor-observer bias is one of the most well-known biases influencing people’s behaviors and interactions. Every day, we all interact with other people. Some of these interactions are positive; some are not. We bring our biases to the table when we engage in an interaction.
Learning to avoid actor-observer bias is key to conducting fair and accurate assessments of various events in your life. If we take a step back from our own experience and try to see the world from other people’s perspectives, we can avoid falling into this bias.
- Gioia, D. A., & Sims, H. P. (1985). Self-serving bias and actor-observer differences in organizations: An empirical analysis1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 15(6), 547–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1985.tb00919.x
- Bordens, K. S., & Horowitz, I. A. (2017). ATTRIBUTION BIASES. In Social psychology (pp. 85–85). essay, Academic Media Solutions.