Quick Definition: Actor-observer bias refers to the biases we have in overestimating the role of external factors in our own behavior and overestimating the role of internal factors in others’ behavior. This leads to blaming external factors for our own failures, but blaming others for their own failures.
When we try to explain human behavior, we often attribute it to either internal causes (e.g. an internal locus of control) or external circumstances (e.g. an external locus of control). When we do so, we are rarely being objective and impartial.
For example, especially in individualistic societies such as those of Europe and North America, people are more likely to attribute academic or professional success to internal factors and attribute failures to external circumstances.
In more collectivist societies, the opposite is true: success is often seen as a result of external circumstances, while failures are seen as arising from internal factors.
Here ,we see that people have tendencies of overestimating the importance of internal factors in some cases, and overestimating the importance of external circumstances in others.
The bias which makes us overestimate internal factors when analyzing the behavior of others, combined with our tendency to overestimate external factors when thinking about our behavior, is known as the actor-observer bias (Jones & Nisbett, 1971).
The actor-observer bias, also known as the actor-observer asymmetry, is a bias one makes when explaining behavior.
The bias consists of two tendencies:
- Judging others for their failures: The tendency to assume that the behavior of others is disproportionately driven by internal factors (such as laziness or lack of skill). This tendency is known as the fundamental attribution error. This part of the actor-observer bias is more prominent in individualistic societies.
- Giving excuses for ourselves: The tendency to overestimate the importance of external factors (the late bus, unfair teachers, etc.) for our behavior.
These two tendencies combined are known as the actor-observer bias and were first proposed by Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett in the 1970s. They defined it as follows:
“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 & Nisbett, 1971).
What follows is a list of five real-life and five hypothetical examples of the actor-observer bias.
Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett began their paper (1971) with the example of a student and an advisor.
- The student, when justifying his inadequate performance, usually points to specific external obstacles such as family issues, a large workload, emotional stress, and so on.
- The advisor would overestimate the importance of internal factors, such as the student’s laziness or lack of knowledge.
Here the fundamental attribution error is at play: the observer (the advisor) tends to overestimate the importance of internal factors when analyzing the behavior of someone else (the student).
Another example given by Jones and Nisbett (1971) is about the autobiographies of former political leaders.
The past acts of politicians are seen in a completely different light by the actors:
- Politicians usually explain their past blunders by reference to unavoidable external circumstances;
- The general public is more likely to see their actions as arising from the internal character defects of those same politicians.
Jones and Harris (1967) conducted the following experiment: they asked college students to read essays or listen to speeches presumably written by fellow students.
The researchers told the students that some essays and speeches were written under no-choice conditions. For example, a student was asked to write a “short cogent defense of Castro’s Cuba” no matter how they felt about it.
The researchers found that, despite knowing that the other students had no choice in picking sides, the observer students still tended to attribute the arguments in the essays to the personal feelings of the authors.
Another interesting example comes from McArthur’s study (1970). The researcher gave the subjects one-sentence descriptions of actions, such as: “George translates the sentence incorrectly.”
The researcher then asked the subjects for more information about the sentence. They asked about George’s mistake whether:
- It was something about the person that caused them to act in this way (“Something about George probably caused him to translate the sentence incorrectly”), or
- It was something about the stimulus that caused them to act in this way (“Something about the sentence probably caused George to translate it incorrectly”).
The results provide evidence for the fundamental attribution error: answers which attributed behaviors to external circumstances were very infrequent, amounting to just 4% of the total attributions.
Another experiment by Leslie McArthur (1970) induced the subjects to perform a particular act. A written account of the actor and the surrounding circumstances was given to the observers.
The researcher then compared the attributions made by the actors to the attributions made by the observers.
As the original hypothesis would suggest, actors were inclined to attribute their actions to external circumstances, while the observers attributed the behaviors of the actors to their personal inclinations.
When explaining why you insulted someone in the past, according to the original hypothesis, you are more likely to attribute your behavior to external factors, such as the idea that you were directly provoked by the other person.
If the actor-observer bias holds, then despite blaming external factors for your actions, you’d blame someone more harshly if the shoe was on the other foot.
Thinking about why A insulted B, you are more likely to attribute A’s behavior to factors internal to A, for example, their anger issues.
If Alice succeeds in her goal of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University, you, as an observer, are more likely to attribute her success to internal factors such as Alice’s intelligence and conscientiousness.
This would be especially true if you held individualistic beliefs.
In the opposite situation, you would be more likely to attribute your failure to get a Ph.D. to external factors such as your economic background or your other responsibilities.
We can see the actor-observer bias among any cohort of students after they get their grades back from their exams.
A student who studied hard for the exam and got a great grade is likely to explain their success by reference to their hard studying. They may downplay the fact they got extra help from the professor or that they were actually highly intelligent in the first place.
Other people (observers) would explain this same student’s success by reference to their internal qualities – they’re just smart; their dad is a professor; and so on. Their personal hard work may be downplayed.
According to the hypothesis, if you’re procrastinating and not working on some project you know you should be working on, you are likely to explain your behavior by reference to external factors such as the boring nature of the project.
When others observe your behavior, they are more likely to attribute it to internal causes, such as your laziness.
If you were late for an important meeting, you are likely to explain your behavior by reference to external factors such as heavy traffic.
Others are more likely to explain your behavior by reference to internal factors such as your unpunctual nature.
As a result, the interviewers (the ‘observers’ in the theory) will judge you harshly, regardless of whether or not there was actually uncharacteristically heavy traffic.
For a long time after the original paper by Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett in the 1970s was published, researchers believed that the actor-observer bias was:
- “robust and quite general” (Jones, 1976, p. 304)
- “firmly established” (Watson, 1982, p. 698)
- “an entrenched part of scientific psychology” (Robins et al., 1996, p. 376), and
- “pervasive” (Aronson, 2002, p. 168).
However, the first meta-analysis on the actor-observer bias, conducted in 2006, challenged this assumption.
The meta-analysis reported the results from 173 actor-observer studies published between 1971 and 2004 (Malle, 2006). The findings were unfavorable for the original hypothesis: the asymmetry (or the bias) held only “when the actor was portrayed as highly idiosyncratic, when hypothetical events were explained, whe actor and observer were intimates, or when free-response explanations were coded” (Malle, 2006, p. 895).
In other cases, the researchers did not observe the bias. The paper does not claim that this discredits the hypothesis in general but that the hypothesis should be significantly modified (Malle, 2006, p. 914).
The actor-observer bias/asymmetry is a bias one makes when attributing the behaviors of others or their own behavior to internal and external factors in varying degrees. The original hypothesis (Jones & Nisbett, 1971) stated that people tend to attribute their own behavior to external factors (when they are in the role of an actor) and have a converse tendency to attribute the behaviors of others to internal factors (when they are in the role of an observer). This hypothesis has a large amount of empirical support in specific cases but has several problems outlined in more recent research (Malle, 2006 & Malle et al., 2007).
Aronson, E. (2002). The social animal (8th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Jones, E. E. (1976). How do people perceive the causes of behavior? American Scientist, 64, 300 –305.
Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0
Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1971). The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. General Learning Press.
Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 895–919. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895
Malle, B. F., Knobe, J. M., & Nelson, S. E. (2007). Actor-observer asymmetries in explanations of behavior: New answers to an old question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 491–514. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111
McArthur, L. A. (1972). The how and what of why: Some determinants and consequences of causal attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22, 171–193. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0032602
Robins, R. W., Spranca, M. D., & Mendelsohn, G. A. (1996). The actor– observer effect revisited: Effects of individual differences and repeated social interactions on actor and observer attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 375–389.
Watson, D. (1982). The actor and the observer: How are their perceptions of causality divergent? Psychological Bulletin, 92, 682–700.