Actor-Observer Bias in Social Psychology

May 2, 2020
Actor-observer bias implies the belief that people make different attributions depending on whether they're the actor or the observer in a given situation.

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-

Actor-observer bias

When a person judges their own behavior and plays the actor, they’re more likely 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 likely to attribute their behavior to the general disposition of the actors rather than to the factors of the particular situation.

A couple of couples talking.

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 likely 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.

Unlike 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 based on 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).

A seemingly anxious woman.

Its impact

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?

  • 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.
  • Miller, Dale T.; Norman, Stephen A. (1975). Actor-observer differences in perceptions of effective control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 31 (3): 503–515. doi:10.1037/h0076485.Nisbett, Richard; Caputo, Craig; Legant, Patricia; Marecek, Jeanne (1973). Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 27 (2): 154–164. doi:10.1037/h0034779.
  • Storms, Michael (1973). Videotape and the attribution process: Reversing actors’ and observers’ points of view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 27 (2): 165–175. doi:10.1037/h0034782. PMID 4723963.