Actor-Observer Bias: Examples & Summary

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Instructor: Gretchen Hendricks

Gretchen has taught at the college level for the past eight years and has a master's degree in psychology.

Actor-observer bias happens when we attribute the behaviors of others to individual traits and our behaviors to external causes. This lesson gives an in-depth definition and examples that will help you better understand your everyday interactions in life.

Definition of Actor-Observer Bias

Have you ever wondered why people tend to harshly judge the behaviors and actions of others, but often let themselves off the hook for similar scenarios and situations? The concept of actor-observer bias states that the causes of behaviors and events in our lives are motivated by attribution. Attribution is an inference that we make about our behaviors and the behaviors of others. The attributions we make depend directly on whether we are the actor or the observer.

Understanding Actor-Observer Bias

Rooted in the field of social psychology, actor-observer bias was first documented in 1972 by U.S. psychologists Edward Ellsworth Jones and Richard E. Nisbett and is one way we can better understand social behavior. The bias happens when individuals base their perceptions of others on internal factors such personality, motives, or thoughts. In turn, we tend to explain our own behavior with external or situational factors, like time of day or the weather.

As actors, we cannot directly see our own behaviors, so instead we focus our attention outward on the environment around us. As observers, we attribute the behavior of others specifically to that person's disposition, which often leads us to inaccurate or biased conclusions. We do not like to blame ourselves when something negative happens, so we point to the surrounding circumstances as the cause. On the other hand, we are quick to blame others when things go wrong, typically attributing it to some sort of personal shortcoming.

Examples of Actor-Observer Bias

Examples of actor-observer bias are easy to come by; they happen every day in our basic interactions with others. Consider your reaction to a date who is late to a movie. We attribute this undesired behavior as caused by the individual. In this case, we may be thinking they are inconsiderate or rude. In turn, if we were late to a movie, we would likely attribute our behavior to situational factors, such as getting stuck in traffic or being unable to find parking. While our behavior is purely circumstantial, our date's behavior was judged as personal.

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