Home > Cognitive Bias > Why we overlook our own shortcomings: a description of the Actor Observer Bias

Why we overlook our own shortcomings: a description of the Actor Observer Bias

Picture this: you are running late to drop your kids off at school in the morning and your children are having a fit in the back seat. On top of this, it is pouring rain outside. While you are driving down the highway, another car abruptly cuts you off as they are merging. As a result of your frustration, you begin to think of how they must be a rude person who is also a terrible driver. You assign internal (personality) traits to this person based on their action of cutting you off. You do not take into account the situational factors that were affecting their driving ability, like the fact that they were late for an important meeting, or they were driving their sick pet to the vet. You automatically attribute their actions to internal factors without even thinking about what else could have caused them to cut you off. A couple of minutes later, you, yourself accidentally cut off someone while trying to take the exit off the highway to your child’s school. Instead of reacting in the same way you did to the previous person who carried out the same action as you did and automatically telling yourself you are a bad driver and rude person, you inform yourself your action is a result of the fact that you are late for your child’s dropoff at school and you cannot see well as a result of the heavy rain. You tell yourself that on a normal day you would be much more careful. You do not think of yourself as a bad driver and rude person, as you thought of the other person, even though they did the same thing that you did. Why is it that we automatically assume others’ negative actions are a result of who they are as a person while being sympathetic and giving ourselves excuses? The actor-observer bias is an explanation for this confusing phenomenon.

Do you think you would make a dispositional attribution or a situational attribution?

When you attribute internal factors to situations that occur around you, like assuming the person who cut off you is a rude person, and attribute external factors to yourself, you are engaging in the actor-observer bias (Storms 1973; Nisbett 1973). Let’s start by understanding what external and internal factors are. An external factor is an uncontrollable outside influence that affects one’s ability to perform, such as a screaming child in the back seat or the rainstorm. An internal factor, otherwise known as a dispositional factor, is a personal factor such as feelings, ability, emotions, or traits. These factors are controllable and a result of how you react to situations. The actor-observer bias attempts to explain the long studied idea that people understand their own actions differently than the way an observer might view the situations and make inferences about it (Nisbett 1973; Malle 2006). The actors in a situation, for example, the driver who cut you off, attribute their behavior to external factors while the observers of a situation, you, who were cut off, attribute the behavior to dispositional (internal) factors. This bias is most commonly seen when a person’s action results in a negative effect, and instead of giving that person the benefit of the doubt like you would yourself, you automatically attribute their response as a result of the type of person they are. Storm (1973) provides evidence to prove the bias in which four participants were given roles, two as the observers and two as the actors. The actors had a 5-minute conversation while the observers listened, and in the end, the participants were asked to judge whether what the speakers said was a result of their internal factors or external factors. As predicted, the participants almost always stated internal factors as the reasons behind what was said in the conversation which means that many people are influenced by the actor-observer bias

A good example of the actor-observer bias in effect

 So why does the actor-observer effect occur? According to Nisbett’s (1973) study examining this bias, the general explanation is that the actor-observer effect is thought to occur as a defense mechanism for maintaining high self-esteem, which is extremely important to humans. Think about it. If you take part in an action that results in a negative outcome, like procrastinating studying for a test all night and then receiving a bad grade as a result of it, your self-esteem will drop. You can minimize the extent to which you lower your self-esteem by attributing your actions to external factors like “my siblings were being distracting” or “I wasn’t feeling too good” versus acknowledging the real internal factor, that you made a mistake and are a procrastinator. We would rather believe that our faults come from factors we cannot control because then we cannot change them and it is easier for us to accept the outcome. With the general understanding that the actor-observer effect takes place as a protector of self-esteem, now let’s discover more in-depth the reasoning behind the attributions of the actors and the observer. 

There are two possible reasons that influence the type of attributions made in the actor-observer effect. Reason number one, according to Nisbett (1973), is that at the moment, the actor’s attention is focused on situational cues, like the environment, so when they act with negative effects, they attribute the outcome to the situational cues which is what they are focused on. Attention is a limited resource and the actor can only focus on so many things at once, so if the actor has their attention focused on the external factors, they do not have the attentional capacity to focus on internal factors. In the observing condition, the observer is more focused on the internal cues of the person, so it is easy for them to overlook the situational factors and assume the action is a result of the person’s disposition. Reason number two is that the actor knows more about himself than the observer does, so the actor is better able to attribute what occurred to external factors. The actor utilizes prior knowledge to compare the current situation to how they would have reacted in the past, based on their personality and temperament. Using prior knowledge to fill in concepts of oneself can also be known as a top-down process. The observer does not have the ability to process the situation in a top-down manner because they do not know the actor and do not have past information of how to actor would have handled a similar situation, therefore the observer assumes the actor is reacting in a way they always would. 

Don’t we all…

So how does this affect our experiences with surrounding people? The actor-observer bias is the cause of many arguments between the actor and the observer as a result of a misunderstanding of the effect of external and internal factors. So what is the problem? How can we stop thinking this way and become more sympathetic to the people around us? This is where it gets tricky because the observer’s dispositional attributions are an automatic process which means they occur almost immediately and unconsciously. It is hard to stop the dispositional attribution from entering the observer’s thoughts because the process occurs so quickly and without the observer realizing it. In order to become more sympathetic towards surrounding people in situations, we must make the attributions a controlled process. A controlled process is when the observer purposely focuses attention on something and are consciously aware of the process, unlike an automatic process. Forcing yourself to think about the situational factors affecting a person is much harder than automatically making an attribution, but over time will become easier and eventually you will be able to automatically think of the situational factors affecting a person, not just the dispositional factors. Knowing what the actor-observer effect and how it can influence your own attributions is a good step in becoming more sympathetic and kinder to people you interact with.  

Sources:

Malle, B. F. (2006) The Actor–Observer Asymmetry in Attribution: A (Surprising) Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 132 (6) pp. 895–919

Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., & Marecek, J. (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, M. D. (1973) Reversing actors’ and observers’ points of view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(2), 165–175.

  1. December 4th, 2019 at 18:33 | #1

    I thought that your example of how we often assume that people who cut us off while driving are bad drivers or rude people was very relatable. I thought it was helpful how you compared this example to how people often blame external factors when they cut other people off while driving. As you explained in your blog, this bias occurs because the actor’s attention is focused on external (environmental) cues while the observer’s attention is focused on internal cues. In class, we talked about how our attention is limited. Directing our attention to one thing impairs our ability to notice other things. I wonder if we assume that people who cut us off while driving are bad drivers or rude people because we are focusing our limited attention on internal cues and failing to notice external cues.

  2. December 5th, 2019 at 18:29 | #2

    Hey Eliza! This was a really interesting post, especially because it can be related to scenarios that occur on a daily basis. Something I tend to do is blame others for being late, whether it be for lunch, a meeting, or a movie. However, when I am late, I like to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault; the traffic was bad and the person in front of me was driving so slowly! I wonder if the Actor-Observer Bias is more common in people who are extremely narcissistic or self-absorbed. Also, it would be interesting to observe whether people are less likely to commit to this bias if they are aware of it and have learned about it. Personally, now that I’ve learned about the Actor-Observer Bias, I will be much more cognizant before I place blame on someone for something I do all too often!

  3. December 16th, 2019 at 20:39 | #3

    I have definitely noticed this effect in real life but never knew what it was. This post was very informative and easy to understand. I really like the connections to attention that this bias has, because it makes sense that what the person was attending to during the crash would be blamed. It was interesting to read about different aspects of attention in this post and relate them to the things we learned in class, and other studies that had to do with attention and driving. I think that this tic can relate to metacognition because our limited attentional capacity causes us to not be able to analyze our own performance while attending to someone else actions or other cues on the road and it think this is a big factor in blaming someone else in a situation like this.

  4. December 16th, 2019 at 20:40 | #4
  5. December 17th, 2019 at 01:14 | #5

    @Kathryn Devine
    Hi Kathryn!
    I agree with your points completely. I as well tend to blame others for situations, like being late, while making excuses for myself. It is crazy how much being aware of bias has changed my perspective on situations because I am hyper-aware about making internal attributions. To answer your first question, based on what I have learned about the actor-observer bias it would make sense that this bias is more prevalent in people with narcissistic qualities or who are very self-absorbed because these types of people are more focused on protecting their self-image and keeping a high self-esteem. I have not found any definitive research yet on this topic so I would be interested if you ever find any. To address your second question, personally, I think that knowing about this bias has helped me to see where I am making internal attributions and forces me to think about the way I would treat myself compared to other people in situations.

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