The concept of actor-observer bias revolves around the belief that we make different attributions depending on whether we are the actor or the observer in a situation. We will get into the details of this concept for a better understanding.
… 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)
When someone snaps at you, you are quick to jump to the conclusion that he/she is being very rude. The person’s behavior might be attributed to the fact that he is having a bad day, but it’s unlikely that you will take that into consideration. The bad day factor will only come into the picture if the roles are reversed, and it’s you who is having a bad day, as a result of which you snap at someone else. Well, that’s what the actor-observer bias is all about.
Actor-observer Bias Explained
In social psychology, actor-observer bias or actor-observer asymmetry refers to our tendency of attributing the other person’s behavior to his personal disposition, and his own behavior to the situation he is facing. When we are judging other people’s behavior, i.e., when we are observers, we are more likely to attribute it to their character. As opposed to this, when we are judging our own behavior, i.e., when we are the actor, we attribute our actions to the prevailing situation. We believe that other people’s behavior is all about their internal causes, but attribute our own behavior to external factors.
As we are not able to observe our behavior directly, we cannot make internal attributions about our own behavior. Therefore, we focus on the situation (external/environmental factor) as the reason of our behavior. That we are well-versed with the context and prior experiences also helps. When we are dealing with other people, we have no idea about the context, and therefore, we tend to assume that internal causes, i.e., their disposition, is responsible for their action. We assume that other people are nearly always one-dimensional, and thus, predictable.
Actor-observer bias is mostly seen in the case of negative situations. It’s worth noting that, it doesn’t come into the picture when we are dealing with people whom we know very well.
Actor-observer Bias Examples
❍ You come in contact with an old friend after a long time and decide to catch up. You even reach 10 minutes before the scheduled time, but your friend turns up 20 minutes late. He does apologize for this, but his apology falls on deaf ears, and you have already concluded that this friend of yours has no regard for you or your time. Now, let’s switch the roles. Let’s say your friend makes it on time, but you are 20 minutes late. In this case, it’s unlikely that you will have any qualms about being late, because you had a genuine reason―whatever it maybe.
❍ When you are going at a normal speed, and another car speeds past you, you consider that person foolish for his rash driving. However, when you yourself speed past another guy who is driving at normal speed, it’s unlikely that you would consider yourself foolish, because you are obviously in a hurry to get somewhere.
❍ You make a dinner plan with your partner, but by the time you reach home in the evening, you are exhausted. You decide to call off the plan because you are tired. On the other hand, if your partner decides to call off the plan because she is tired, you call her lazy.
❍ When your classmate is crying after being pulled up for something, you tend to believe that he is just trying to cover up his incompetence. On the other hand, when you cry after being pulled up for something, you say it is based on the situation.
❍ While playing, if your friend trips and falls, you will say he was clumsy. In contrast, if you trip and fall, you will say that you fell because your shoelace was untied.
Actor-observer bias is often confused with fundamental attribution error. While both are types of attributional biases, they are different from each other. Unlike actor-observer bias, fundamental attribution error doesn’t take into account our own behavior. It is often restricted to internal causes of other people’s behavior. In the first example, for instance, fundamental attribution error will be when your friend is late, and you don’t take into account the external factors that might have had a role to play in his behavior.