Actor-Observer Effect

What Is Actor-Observer Effect?

Although we have a general tendency to see people’s behavior as caused by dispositional factors, we are much less likely to see our own behavior as caused by such factors. In fact, we are very likely to focus on the role of the situation in causing our own behavior, a phenomenon called the actor-observer effect (Jones & Nisbett, 1972).

The actor-observer effect (also commonly called actor-observer bias) is really an extension of the fundamental attribution error Opens in new window. It refers to the tendency of people to attribute internal/dispositional causes when observing others’ behavior (as in the fundamental attribution error), but attribute external/situational causes to their own behavior when they are the actors. (Jones & Nisbett, 1972).

In other words, the actor-observer effect, involves the tendency for actors to attribute their own behaviors to the situation and for observers to explain behaviors in terms of personal traits.

To add more light, the actor-observer effect can be described as follows. As actors explaining our own behavior, we tend to cite the situational factors that led us to act. As observers, we tend to explain the behavior of other people in terms of personality factors.

One amusing example of the actor-observer effect is teenage drivers' tendency to attribute their own risky driving to situational factors, such as running late. But they attribute their peers’ risky driving to personal factors, such as trying to “act cool” (Harre et al., 2004).

Likewise, in one study, both prisoners and guards were asked to rate the cause of the prisoners’ offenses (Saulnier & Perlman, 1981). As you might expect, prisoners tend to see their crimes as caused by the situation, whereas guards tend to see these crimes as caused by internal/dispositional factors.

Why does the actor-observer effect occur?

There are two main explanations for the actor-observer effect:

1.   Perceptual focus

When we’re the actor, we have a lesser tendency to look to internal causes for the behavior than when we observe the same behavior in another person. Thus, when we see someone trip and fall, we tend to attribute this event to his or clumsiness. If we trip, however, we are more likely to attribute this event to the situational or external causes, such as a tiny crack on the sidewalk.

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Furthermore, an actor cannot ‘see’ him/herself behaving, so the background situation assumes the role of figure against the background of self. The actor and the observer quite literally have different perspectives on the behavior and thus explain it in different ways (Stomes, 1973).

Perceptual salience does indeed seem to have an important role in causal explanation. For example, McArthur and Post (1977) found that observers tended to make more dispositional attributions for an actor’s behavior when the actor was strongly illuminated.

2.   Informational differences

Another reason that actors tend to make external attributions and observers internal ones is that actors have a wealth of information to draw on about how they have behaved in other circumstances. As actors, we may actually know that they behave differently in different contexts and thus quite accurately consider their behavior to be under situational control.

Observers are not privy to this autobiographical information. They tend simply to see the actor behaving in a certain way in one context, or a limited range of contexts, and have no information about how the actor behaves in other contexts.

It is therefore reasonable that we always tend to perceive our own behavior, as arising due to the situational causes, but that of the others, as deriving mainly from their traits or characters. This explanation, first suggested by Jones and Nisbett (1972), does have some empirical supports (Eisen, 1979; White & Younger, 1988).