Actor-Observer Bias

Actor-Observer Bias

We often make certain assumptions & attributions based on the role we play in a situation – the actor or the observer. The actor-observer bias is a human tendency that can affect how we perceive different people and interact with them.

Table Of Contents


What Is The Actor-Observer Bias?

Also known as Actor-observer asymmetry, it is a type of cognitive bias where a person makes attributions regarding their own or other people’s behaviour depending on whether they are “the actor” or “the observer” in a particular situation. Categorized under attribution theory, this social psychology hypothesis explains that people, as “the actor,” attribute their own behaviour to situational factors rather than their personality traits when judging their own actions. However, they tend to attribute another individual’s behaviour and actions to their internal personality dispositions, instead of specific situations, when judging them as “the observer.” A 2006 study 1 explains “The actor-observer hypothesis states that people tend to explain their own behaviour with situation causes and other people’s behaviour with personal causes. Widely known in psychology, this asymmetry has been described as robust, firmly established, and pervasive.” This cognitive bias is a form of fundamental attribution error 2.

The theory was originally introduced by American psychologists Edward Ellsworth Jones and Richard E. Nisbett in 1971. According to the MindJournal, the actor-observer bias refers to “the tendency of a person, acting in a particular situation, to attribute such behaviour to situational or external factors like peer pressure. However, as an observer, the individual is likely to attribute similar behaviour to personality or dispositional factors.” The bias may be more pronounced in situations with negative outcomes. For instance, when a person is diagnosed with high levels of cholesterol, they may think it is due to external influences like environmental or genetic factors. However, when someone else has the same diagnosis, then the person may blame it on an unhealthy lifestyle and poor diet.

Understanding Actor-Observer Bias

To put it simply, this cognitive bias makes us blame everything else, except our own selves, for our bad behaviour, but we only blame the other person when they behave in a negative way. The actor-observer bias can be explained by certain elements, namely –

  • Accessibility and volume information available to the actors
  • Differences in the perceptual focus of each participant
  • Motivational factors that make the actors focus on external reasons and observers focus on internal causes


As we are more aware of the situational factors that impact our own actions and behaviours, we are more likely to attribute them to social triggers. But as we have limited access to the situational factors that affect someone else’s behaviour, we are more likely to believe their actions are based on their personality. This bias is regarded as an element of the ultimate attribution error.

According to a study, which explored perceptual differences among active & passive observers in conflict situations, “Results indicate that observers who were engaged in interaction with the actor attributed more behavioural responsibility to the actor and less responsibility to the interaction setting than did passive observers.” It has been observed that the actor-observer asymmetry primarily occurs in situations where people express behavioural emotions, like in blind dates or initial meetings.

Actor-Observer Bias And Fundamental Attribution Error

Although both terms are related and similar, and may explain attribution bias, there is a subtle difference between the two concepts. Fundamental attribution error occurs when an individual attributes the actions of other persons to their personality/character. Fundamental attribution error primarily focuses only on the behaviour of the other individual, whereas actor-observer bias focuses on the behaviour of both the actor and the observer. In this bias, the observer judges the actor and may make certain mistakes in their judgement of the actor and themselves.

Actor-Observer Bias In Close Relationships

According to a 1995 study 3, the closer we are to someone, the more we know about their motivational factors, and the more likely we are to attribute circumstantial factors to their actions and behaviours. “Attributional biases are studied in the context of close relationships. Whereas the actor-observer bias implies more partner attributions than self-attributions, the egocentric bias predicts more self-attributions. Both phenomena can be reconciled within a language-based approach,” explains the study. It was also found that there is a temporal decline in dispositional attributions among long-term and short-term couples.

In fact, perspective-taking can impact actor-observer bias in infidelity judgments. According to a 2019 study 4, judgments may be influenced by perspective-taking in case of infidelity in romantic relationships, however, it is observed only in specific behaviours. The researchers found “Adults in the perspective-taking condition judged their partner’s and a stranger’s technology/online behaviours as less indicative of infidelity than their own and their partner’s solitary behaviours as more indicative of infidelity than their own or a stranger’s.”

Types Of Actor-Observer Bias

This cognitive bias can be categorized into the following subtypes:

1. Political and religious bias

When an individual is inclined towards a particular political belief or religion and thereby, impacting his/her actions. For example, a religious person or a theist would continue to believe in God even though his/her prayers were unanswered.

2. Heuristics

When an individual has a certain view of the world, it can lead to biases. A person who believes in stereotypes can’t channelize his/her thought processes in a different direction.

3. Confirmation bias

Some people look for information just to validate their beliefs. At the same time, they ignore other findings that don’t match their viewpoint.

What Causes Actor-Observer Bias?

This attributional bias may occur due to the reason that people as actors cannot observe their own actions, and therefore hold external factors accountable for their behaviour. However, as observers, they can easily observe others’ behaviours and therefore attribute their problems to their own faults. Mostly, this biased attitude arises when individuals desperately attempt to protect their own self-esteem. They want to accelerate their self-confidence by blaming forces that are outside their control.

The actor-observer asymmetry varies with age and gender. Men are more easily carried away by external attributions than women. However, older people tend to attribute internal aspects while reaping the fruits of success.

Actor-Observer Bias And Locus Of Control

There is a fine thread of difference between actor-observer bias and locus of control. Locus of control mainly revolves around a person’s ideology and general preference to allocation of responsibility, whether internal or external, for actions and outcomes. More specifically, it can be termed as how a person’s belief system and mindset responds to the causes of events in his/her surroundings. However, actor-observer bias mainly refers to a double standard about explaining behaviors of self and others.

Actor-Observer Bias vs. Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving bias is a cognitive process that makes an individual take credit as per his/her skills and abilities while relating failures to outside forces like luck. Self-serving bias makes us look at ourselves in a favourable way to build and protect our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Hence, we attribute successes to our efforts and abilities, while blaming failures on external factors. The self-serving bias emphasizes only on self-behaviour, while actor-observer bias focuses on both behaviour and external factors. As an observer, we attribute others’ failures to their personality and successes to external factors.

A research paper 5, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, explains “Self‐serving attributional bias is the tendency for a subordinate to attribute personal (internal) cause for successful performance but to assign a cause for failures to external factors. The actor‐observed difference in attribution is the tendency for concerned observers (managers) of a subordinate’s performance to attribute the cause for the performance to factors internal to the subordinate, in direct opposition to the subordinate’s external attribution for the same performance.”

How Actor-Observer Bias Can Affect Us

The impact of this bias can range from mild to severe depending on the person and circumstances. Heated arguments, racist comments, hate speech and passing lewd comments to women are the most common outcomes of this biased mindset. In some situations, the actor-observer bias can be problematic leading to misunderstandings. Instances of heated arguments are also very common in this regard. It is believed that when it comes to arguments most individuals tend to blame the other person for initiating it. This is because behavioral attributes are different for both sides and their ways of responding to the situation are also different.

Diagnosis Of Actor-Observer Bias

The actor-observer asymmetry often goes unnoticed unless there is a situation that evokes the biasness and prejudiced mindset of the person. Though it is very common to most of us, sometimes it can trigger aspects like, racism, patriarchy and hatred towards others that aren’t desirable. This can lead to disasters and mishaps, if left uncontrolled. Mental health professionals often implement the below-mentioned diagnostic procedures to treat patients who are adamant and biased towards someone/something:

1. Laboratory testing

With this method, the doctor has a deeper understanding of the patient’s condition while simultaneously taking the situational circumstances into account.

2. Natural investigation

If an individual makes self-assessment, it can ease the task of medical practitioners to a great extent. With the self-report attributions, the counselors can assess how a person is viewing and perceiving his/her successes and failures.

3. Neural imaging

For better understanding, several doctors opt for neural imaging as it gives them access to the neural images that showcase the various parts of the brain responsible for decision-making.

Treatment And Coping Strategies For Actor-Observer Bias

As it is a psychological tendency, a person simply cannot suppress biases in specific situations or events. Proper treatment, such as psychological interventions and self-help strategies can help someone overcome the bias. Here are some available options for treating actor-observer asymmetry:

1. Psychotherapy

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is considered as “a class of interventions that share the basic premise that mental disorders and psychological distress are maintained by cognitive factors,” explains a 2012 study 6. Mental health professionals often recommend psychotherapy techniques, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) where individuals are trained to come across prejudiced thoughts without trying to avoid them. It helps them to make a more deliberate choice that is also reflected in that individual’s behavior when dealing with someone with a hostile mindset.

Research 7 shows that “CBT often focuses on replacing negative automatic thoughts,” and may “include desensitization to triggers that provoke anxiety.” However, as the process may take time to show positive effects, the person and their loved ones need to be patient and supportive. After several therapy sessions, people can sense their diminishing urge of biases relating to an incident/event/person.

2. Self-help strategies

In addition to therapy, different coping techniques, such as lifestyle changes, can also help someone build a more positive mindset and attiude. Some of the coping mechanisms recommended for overcoming actor-observer bias may include:

A. Practicing meditation

Meditating regularly for at least 10-20 minutes can substantially help a person to relax and to keep this biased mindset at bay. One 2015 study 8 has found that meditation “may be effective in promoting good decision making and increasing prosocial behaviour.”

B. Practice compassion & empathy

If a person is compassionate with himself/herself, it can work wonders as it defends you from judging yourself keeping in mind the external forces. One study 9 has found that compassion is associated with greater altruistic helping of others. Moreover, being empathic can result in “stronger affective skills and are capable to acquire, develop, reinforce, and display strong affective behaviours, abilities, and attitudes,” explain researchers of a 2018 study 10.

C. Introspection

Introspection plays a great hand in reducing this biased mindset of individuals. The more you introspect, the more you will learn from your previous actions and thereby, rectifying yourself.

Prognosis Of Actor-Observer Bias

It has been found that this cognitive bias can be cured through rigorous counselling sessions. A patient’s recovery also depends on his/her flexibility and adaptable mindset to the situation. This biasness is very much present in most of us but we need to control it which otherwise will evoke in a crude manner damaging our reputation while questioning our trait of ‘social animal’.

Overcoming Biases

Actor-observer bias can lead to misunderstandings and arguments very often. Most of us generally blame it on the other person as the instigator of any given argument, this attributional bias lets us be on the safe side. It’s human nature to want to shift the blame to the other person, and that is the basis of this bias. However, with therapy and self-help techniques, one can change their mindset and behavior to live a more positive life.

References:
  1. Malle BF. The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: a (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2006 Nov;132(6):895-919. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895. PMID: 17073526. []
  2. Stangor, C., Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2014). Principles of social psychology. []
  3. Fiedler K, Semin GR, Finkenauer C, Berkel I. Actor-Observer Bias in Close Relationships: The Role of Self-Knowledge and Self-Related Language. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 1995;21(5):525-538. doi:10.1177/0146167295215010 []
  4. Danica Kulibert & Ashley E. Thompson (2019) Stepping into their shoes: Reducing the actor-observer discrepancy in judgments of infidelity through the experimental manipulation of perspective-taking, The Journal of Social Psychology, 159:6, 692-708, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1556575 []
  5. Gioia, D. A., & Sims, H. P. (1985). Self-serving bias and actor–observer differences in organizations: An empirical analysis. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 15(6), 547–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1985.tb00919.x []
  6. Hofmann, S. G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I. J., Sawyer, A. T., & Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive therapy and research, 36(5), 427–440. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-012-9476-1 []
  7. Chand SP, Kuckel DP, Huecker MR. Cognitive Behavior Therapy. [Updated 2020 Oct 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470241/ []
  8. Sun, S., Yao, Z., Wei, J., & Yu, R. (2015). Calm and smart? A selective review of meditation effects on decision making. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1059. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01059 []
  9. Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Hessenthaler, H. C., Stodola, D. E., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). The Role of Compassion in Altruistic Helping and Punishment Behavior. PloS one, 10(12), e0143794. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0143794 []
  10. Ratka A. (2018). Empathy and the Development of Affective Skills. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 82(10), 7192. https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe7192 []
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