Actor-observer effect: what is it and what causes it?
This psychological phenomenon is related to how we see ourselves and how we see others.
Attributional biases are biases or distortions that cause us to make certain mistakes when explaining the origin of a behavior. One of these biases is the so-called actor-observer effectwidely studied in social psychology.
This effect has been supported by empirical evidence, and argues that we tend to attribute the causes of behaviors differently, depending on whether we are talking about our own behaviors or those of others. Let's see what this effect consists of, as well as its characteristics, explanations and limitations.
Actor-observer effect: what does it consist of?
The actor-observer effect is a psychological phenomenon studied in social psychology, which consists in a general tendency of people to attribute their own actions to situational or external factors, and the actions of others to stable personal dispositions (i.e. internal factors). (i.e., to internal factors). This effect was made known by two authors: Jones and Nisbett, in 1972.
In this case, when we speak of the "actor" we refer to "ourselves", and when we speak of the "observer" we refer to "others"; hence the name of the effect. This effect, as we mentioned at the beginning, has been strongly supported and demonstrated by empirical evidence.
On the other hand, it is interesting to mention that the actor-observer effect appears especially when the behavior or the outcome of the behavior is negative (as we will see later in an example). In other words, this effect would allude to the fact that we tend to "blame" others for their negative actions, and that we "excuse" our own, looking for an external or situational factor that explains the negative result of our behavior. In other words, in a way, it would be a way of "avoiding" responsibility.
This effect could be thought of as a kind of defense mechanism or mechanism that seeks to protect our self-esteem or self-concept. However, there are several explanations that have been proposed to explain this effect, as we will see throughout this article.
An example to illustrate the actor-observer effectIn this case, while the teacher may attribute the failure to stable personal dispositions of the observer (e.g. "laziness" on the part of the student), the student himself (the "actor") may attribute the same failure to situational or external factors (e.g. family problems that have prevented him from studying).
Hypotheses about its causes
Several hypotheses have been postulated to explain why the actor-observer effect occurs. Let us look at the five most important ones:
Information level hypothesis 2.
According to this first hypothesis of the actor-observer effect, the level of information we have influences how we analyze the causes of behaviors..
Thus, this first hypothesis holds that we tend to have more information about our own behavior and about our own situational variability, compared to that of others. This leads us to attribute others' behaviors to internal factors, and our own to external or situational factors. This hypothesis, however, has little empirical support.
2. Perceptual focus hypothesis
The second hypothesis of the actor-observer effect refers to the perceptual focus (or point of view). According to this hypothesis, our point of view will be different depending on whether we analyze our own behavior or that of others. Thus, If our point of view varies, the attributions we make to the actor's behavior will also vary. of the behavior of the actor ("others") and that of the observer ("us") will also vary.
This hypothesis is also known as the "perceptual explanation of the actor-observer effect", and is based on an experiment conducted by Storms in 1973. In the experiment, it was observed how the fact of perceiving a situation from angles or perspectives different from those initially shown, could change the attributions that people made about them. people's attributions about the situation.
Thus, in the experiment it was seen how the actors' attributions ("of oneself") became more external attributions (external factors), and the observers' attributions ("of others") became more internal (explained by internal factors).
3. Behavioral and situational hypothesis
On the other hand, there is a third hypothesis, similar to the first one, which holds that when we observe a person, we tend to have more information about the person's behavior, we tend to have more information about the behavior that he or she performs than about the situation or history of the individual we observe (because we often do not know him or her).
This leads to a bias in attributing their behavior to some factors or others, i.e., the actor-observer effect itself.
4. Motivation hypothesis (self-concept)
This hypothesis states, as we suggested at the beginning of the article, that people tend to apply mechanisms that allow us to protect our self-concept, when we have to explain why we behave in a certain way or why we obtain "X" results with our actions. In other words, it would be a way of maintaining a good image of ourselves.
On the other hand, the actor-observer effect would also be a way of "justifying" ourselves. would also be a way of "justifying" our bad actions or our bad results (e.g. getting a bad grade). (for example, getting a bad grade in a test and justifying ourselves with the fact that we were not feeling well that day (external or situational factors).
On the other hand, when we talk about others, we do not care so much that their negative behavior is due to an internal cause, because many times we do not know the person, or it is simply someone alien to us, being this thinking certainly selfish or individualistic.
5. Salience Hypothesis
The fourth hypothesis focuses on the concept of salience (where do we fix our attention?). This hypothesis states that when we observe our own behavior (and focus our attention on it), we tend to focus on the situation, the context; and, however, when we observe the behavior of other people, we focus more on their behavior.. All this will obviously influence our attributions of actions.
When does this bias especially appear?
The actor-observer effect, considered as an attributional bias or error when explaining the causes of behaviors, occurs especially not only with negative behaviors, as we have seen, but also more frequently with people we do not know or know little about. more frequently appears with unfamiliar people or people we know little about.. Consequently, the effect weakens with people we know or are close to.
This is explained by logic, since in the case of unknown people, we have less access to their feelings or thoughts (we know them less) and this makes it easier for us to "judge" them when explaining their behaviors as coming from internal and dispositional factors.
Limitations of this attributional bias
There are two limitations to the actor-observer effect. On the one hand, this effect does not occur in the same way (or with the same intensity) in all cultures; that is, cultural differences appear. On the other hand, the effect loses consistency when actions or behaviors involve positive and negative results instead of neutral ones..
Thus, we must understand this effect as something very common or frequent, which often occurs unconsciously; however, we must be cautious, since as in all psychological processes, there are always exceptions and not everything is black and white. Thus, many times we will have to go beyond the "general rule" and analyze the cases individually.
- Blanchard, F. and Fredda (1996). Causal attributions across the adult life span: The influence of social schemas, life context, and domain specificity. Applied Cognitive Psychology; Vol 10 (Spec Issue) S137-S146.
- Hogg, M. (2010). Social psychology. Vaughan Graham M. Panamericana. Editorial: Panamericana.
- Melià, J.L.; Chisvert, M. and Pardo, E. (2001). A Process Model of Attributions and Attitudes toward Workplace Accidents: Measurement and Intervention Strategies. Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17 (1), 63 - 90.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)