What Is Actor-Observer Bias? | Definition & Examples

Actor-observer bias is the tendency to attribute the behavior of others to internal causes, while attributing our own behavior to external causes. In other words, actors explain their own behavior differently than how an observer would explain the same behavior.

Example: Actor-observer bias
As you are walking down the street, you trip and fall. You immediately blame the slippery pavement, an external cause. However, if you saw a random stranger trip and fall, you would probably attribute this to an internal factor, such as clumsiness or inattentiveness.

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 judgments 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 behavior as being caused by their environment, or by factors outside of their control.
  • Internal (or dispositional) attribution interprets someone’s behavior 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.

Note: Attribution & culture
The idea behind attribution is that all people think more or less in the same way, and thus are equally prone to actor-observer bias. However, this is not entirely true. Culture impacts the way we perceive the world, which in turn influences the attributions we make.

Individualistic cultures, which tend to be found in countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, are more achievement-oriented. Here, a person’s character is thought to be the primary explanation for their behavior.

In contrast, people from collectivist cultures, which tend to be found in East Asian, Latin American, and African countries, are more group or relationship-oriented. Due to this, they are more likely to seek a broader perspective, also taking into account situational factors when explaining someone’s behavior.

What causes the actor-observer bias?

Human behavior 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:

Attentional differences

As actors, we cannot easily perceive our own behavior. 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 behavior 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 behavior 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 behavior 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 behavior 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.

Motivational differences

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.

Example:  Actor-observer bias 
A student who is performing poorly is having a meeting with a faculty advisor. The student shows up late. When asked about the reasons that led to their poor grades, the student explains this by pointing to external circumstances: the heavy course load, family issues, and stress. The advisor nods in understanding, but in reality has a different take on the matter: they are convinced that the student is just lazy and indifferent due to their tardiness.

In other words, the advisor, as an observer, is attributing the student’s performance to their personality traits, underestimating the role that circumstances might have played. On the other hand, the student, reflecting as an actor on their own behavior, attributes their poor performance to situational forces, ignoring their own responsibility.

In reality, both factors are likely at play here.

Other types of research bias

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 behavior.

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 recognize 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 behavior 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’ behavior. Depending on whether we are actors or observers, we tend to judge behavior differently, even if it concerns the  same behavior. As a result, one may avoid taking responsibility for their actions, blame others even for things out of their control, and become overly judgmental. 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 behavior and external factors (difficult circumstances) to justify the same behavior in themselves.

Sources in 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

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, February 10). What Is Actor-Observer Bias? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-bias/actor-observer-bias/

Sources

Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1987). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. Preparation of This Paper Grew Out of a Workshop on Attribution Theory Held at University of California, Los Angeles, Aug 1969.

Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 895–919. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895

OpenEd CUNY. (n.d.). What Is Social Psychology? https://opened.cuny.edu/courseware/lesson/76/student/?section=12

Psychology, P. (2022, September 20). Actor Observer Bias (Definition + Examples). Practical Psychology. https://practicalpie.com/actor-observer-bias/

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.