The Actor- Observer Bias

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The actor-observer bias explains the commonly seen errors that one makes when forming attributions about behavior (Jones & Nisbett, 1971). When a person judges their own behavior, and they are the actor, they are more likely to attribute their actions to the particular situation than to a generalization about their personality. Yet when a person is attributing the behavior of another person, thus acting as the observer; they are more likely to attribute this behavior to the person’s overall disposition than as a result of situational factors. This frequent error shows the bias that people hold in their evaluations of behavior (Miller & Norman, 1975). People are more likely to see their own behavior as affected by the situation they are in, or the sequence of occurrences that have happened to them throughout their day. But, they see other people’s actions as solely a product of their overall personality, and they do not afford them the chance to explain their behavior as exclusively a result of a situational effect.

Operational Definitions: Attributions: Attributions are the inferences people make about situations they are involved in (Harvey, et al, 1976). Attributions are particularly important because they help to simplify cognitive processes by organizing information about oneself or other individuals (Kelley, 1971). Attributions can be of one’s own behavior in a situation, or while watching another person act in a particular event. The study of attributions can be used to predict behavior because the way that a person attributes the outcome of an event (as a function of their own self, or as a product of situational factors) can provide evidence as to how this person will act in subsequent events. An example of differing attributions affecting how a person will act in the future is in dating. Perhaps two men both go out on dates that are awkward and neither wants to continue seeing the girl. One man could attribute this date to his own difficulty in maintaining conversation, and resolves to read up on current events and best sellers to entertain his next date. The other man could attribute this poor date to a negative sense of self, and say that “I am not good enough to date anyone” or of an evaluation of only the situation, “this restaurant was too loud and not conducive to good conversation”.

Theoretical Explanations: Heider (1958) proposed that there were two main explanations people use to explicate events. The two kinds of explanations are internal factors or external factors (Heider, 1958). Internal factors are reasons that have to do with the self—personality, mood, ability and effort—whereas external factors are things like the task itself, other people, or luck. In a classroom example showing internal and external factor differences, teachers are more likely to explain poor test grades on internal factors of the student (for example, lack of ability) and the students to blame external factors (for example, a bad teacher, or a poorly written test) (Burger, Cooper, & Good, 1982).

Weiner (1971) added to Heider’s attribution hypothesis by adding another dimension to the internal versus external factor. He believed that attributions also fall into the category of stable versus unstable. Attributions fall into one of four categories: stable and internal, stable and external, unstable and internal or unstable and external (Weiner, 1971).

History: The initial study introducing the actor- observer bias was conducted by Jones and Nisbett in 1971. Through their study, they found that “there is a pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas the observers tend to attribute the same actions to personal dispositions” (Jones & Nisbett, 1971).

Reasons behind this Bias: The actor-observer bias works in conjunction with Heider’s attribution theory. The actor-observer bias shows the idea that people are more likely to make internal attributions while acting as observers and to make external attributions about their own behavior.

Actors are more likely to use external reasoning because of several cognitive functionings. Firstly, because actors are not able to observe their own behavior directly, they emphasize the importance of the situation in the reasoning behind their actions (Storms, 1973). Because of the observer’s ability to directly watch the behavior of the other person, they are not as influenced by situational factors. Storm concocted a study in which the actors were shown a videotape of their behavior in a situation. Now the actors were able to judge their own behavior from an outside perspective as well. With the introduction of this variable, actors actually made fewer situational (external) attributions than observers (Storms, 1973).

Another reason for this divergence is that actors can judge their own behavior as a result of history, context, and other experiences (Storms, 1973). Because of this information, actors are more likely to view their own actions as the effects of the situation rather than an indication of their disposition. But without entering the situation with previous knowledge, observers tend to view the person’s behavior as a “manifestation” of their personality, not as influenced by the situational context. This assertion is supported by evidence from a study in which observers watched a participant from an observation room and a videotape before making causal attributions. When participants were given access to more information about how a person usually acts in a situation, they made less internal attributions (Storms, 1973). In addition to cognitive factors, several motivational factors influence the actor observer bias. People strive to maintain a positive image of themselves, so they credit themselves with internal attributions when successful and external factors when they fail (Cunningham, Starr, & Kanouse, 1979). A study compared the attributions of actors and observers in negative events. Actors were shown to attribute the outcome of the negative event more to the situation or other people than to their own dispositional factors than did observers. Because observers lack the motivation to maintain a positive self image, they attribute the negative events more as a personality factor than as a result of the situation (Cunningham, Starr, & Kanouse, 1979).

Sande, Goethals, and Radloff (1988) suggest that the reason behind this bias is that people tend to see themselves as more complex and multi-faceted than others. It is not that they believe the situation as necessarily more powerful in influencing their behavior than it would other people’s, but that because there are more factors, both external and internal, that are affecting their behavior, there are more reasons behind their actions. People tend to see their behavior as having more reasons behind it than other people’s behaviors because people think they are more complex than others are (Sande, Goethals, & Radloff, 1988).

Criticisms: Many studies have been conducted in support of the actor observer bias. Yet, some psychologists have added another dimension to the bias. Miller and Norman (1975) added the distinction between active and passive observers. An active observer is one that not only is observing the behavior of others but influences it as well. A passive observer just observes the action and does not influence the action. An active observer is more likely to attribute the behavior to disposition and a passive observer would attribute it to the setting (Miller & Norman, 1975).

Some psychologists doubt the accuracy of the actor observer bias predicting behavior in all situations. Some suggest that the bias more accurately predicts behavior in negative situations. This is because people are more likely to attribute negative situations as a function of the situation completely, and ignore any dispositional factors in their explanation of the event. This holds true for actors and active observers—people want to deflect blame from themselves onto another person or a situational reason. But the likelihood of actors and active observers attributing good outcomes as completely situational is not substantiated by the data. People want to attribute good events as more predictive of their disposition as to maintain a good outlook on themselves (Cunningham, Starr, & Kanouse, 1979).

Cultural Differences in Attribution Styles: Cultural differences in attribution styles can be seen between cultures that are considered “independent” and those that are considered “interdependent” (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Independent cultures such as the United States and Western Europe emphasize the distinctions between oneself and others and the autonomous ability to complete tasks. Interdependent cultures, like many Asian and Latin American cultures, put a greater emphasis on the connections between people and one’s ability to perform in group tasks and be affiliated in groups. Because of these differences in the type of culture a person is a part of, attribution styles and positive self concepts differ. For example, independent cultures more frequently use dispositional attributions, whereas people from interdependent cultures more frequently use situational attributions (Lee, Hallahan & Herzog, 1996).

The different attribution strategies work in accordance with the stated cultural differences. Independent cultures seek to emphasize a person’s own achievement, so in turn attributing success to their disposition heightens their own self esteem. Yet in interdependent cultures, success is more often linked to the success of the group as a whole, so external attributions credit the success to the larger group. Failures are more often attributed to dispositional factors in interdependent societies because a person’s own failure at their task is seen as the reason behind the entire group’s failure. While in an independent society, failure is attributed to external forces in an effort to sustain a positive view of their own ability (Anderson, 1999).

Works Cited Anderson, C. (1999). “Attributional Style, Depression, and Loneliness: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of American and Chinese”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25. 482-4.

Burger, J., Cooper, H., & Good, T. (1982). “Teacher Attributions of Student Performance: Effects of Outcome”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Cunningham, J., Starr, P., & Kanouse, D. (1979). “Self as Actor, Active Observer, and Passive Observer: Implications for Causal Attributions”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37;7, 1146-1152.

Harvey, et al (1976). Attribution of Freedom. New Directions of Attirution Research (vol. 1). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Heider, F. The Psychology of Interperonal Relations. New York: Wiley, 1958.

Jones, E. & Nisbett, R. (1971). The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press.

Kelley, H (1971). Attribution in Social Interaction. New York: General Learning Press.

Lee, F., Hallahan, M., & Herzog, T. (1996). “Explaining Real-Life Events: How Culture and Domain Shape Attributions”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 732-741.

Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Cultural Variation in the Self-Concept: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Self. Springer-Verlag.

Miller D., & Norman, S. (1975). “Actor-Observer Differences in Perceptions of Effective Control”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 503-515.

Sande, G., Goethals, G., & Radloff, C. (1988). “Perceiving One's Own Traits and Others': The Multifaceted Self”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54.

Storms, M. (1973). “Videotape and the Attribution Process: Reversing Actors' and Observers' Points of View”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 165-175.

Weiner, B. (1974). “An Attributional Interpretation of Expectancy-Value Theory” Cognitive Views of Human Motivation, Academic Press.

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