Actor-observer effect: what is it and what are its causes?

Attributive biases are biases or biases that lead us to make certain mistakes when explaining the origin of a behavior. One of these biases is the so-called actor-observer effect, Widely studied in social psychology.

This effect has been supported by empirical evidence and argues that we often 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 is, 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 of a general tendency of people to attribute their own actions to situational or external factors, and the actions of others to stable personal dispositions (In other words, to internal factors). This effect was reported by two authors: Jones and Nisbett, in 1972.

    In this case, when we speak of “the actor”, we are referring to “ourselves”, and when we speak of “the observer”, we are referring 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 result 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 “apologize” for our own, looking for an external or situational factor that explains the negative result. of our conduct. In other words, in some respects it would be a way of “shirking” responsibility.

    This effect could be thought of as some kind of defense mechanism or mechanism that seeks to protect our self-esteem or our self-concept. However, we need several explanations that have been proposed to explain this effect, as we will see throughout this article.


    An example to illustrate the actor-observer effect, Would be an exam failed by a student; in this case, if the teacher can attribute this suspense to stable personal dispositions of the observer (ex: “laziness” on the part of the pupil), the pupil himself (the “actor”) can attribute this same suspense to situational or external factors (for example, family problems which prevented him from studying).

    Hypothesis on its causes

    Some hypotheses have been made as to why the actor-observer effect occurs. Let’s look at the five most important:

    1. Information level assumption

    According to this first hypothesis of the actor-observer effect, the level of information we have influences the way we analyze the causes of behavior.

    Thus, this first hypothesis argues that we tend to have more information about our behavior and about our own situational variability, compared to that of others. This leads us to attribute the behaviors of others to internal factors and our own to external or situational factors. This hypothesis, however, has little empirical support.

    2. Hypothesis of perceptual focusing

    The second hypothesis of the actor-observer effect alludes to 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. like that, if our point of view varies, the attributions will also vary what we do with the behavior of the actor (“others”) and that of the observer (“us”).


    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 as perceiving a situation from different angles or perspectives than those initially presented, could change the attributions that people played on them.

    Thus, in the experiment, we have seen how the attributions of the actors (“of oneself”) became more external attributions (external factors), and the attributions of the observers (“of the others”) became more internal (explained by internal factors).

    3. Hypothesis and behavioral situation

    On the other hand, there is a third hypothesis, similar to the first, which holds that when we observe a person, we tend to have more information about the behavior he is performing than about the individual’s situation or history that we observe (because often we do not know it).

    This leads to a bias to be committed when attributing their behavior to a particular factor, that is to say to the same actor-observer effect.

      4. Motivation hypothesis (self-concept)

      This hypothesis raises, as we suggested at the beginning of the article, that people generally 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 let’s get “X” results with our actions. In other words, it would be a way to maintain a good image of ourselves.

      On the other hand, the actor-observer effect would be also a way to “justify” our bad actions or our bad results (For example by getting a bad mark on a test and justifying that we did not feel well that day (external or situational factors).

      On the other hand, when we talk about others, we don’t really care that their negative behavior is due to some internal cause, because often we don’t know the person, or it’s just someone outside of us. , therefore certainly selfish or individualistic thought.

      5. Salience hypothesis

      The fourth hypothesis focuses on the concept of salience (where do we focus our attention?). This assumption states that when we observe our own behavior (and focus our attention on it), we tend to focus on the situation, the context; and even when we observe the behavior of others, we focus more on their behavior. All of this will obviously influence the attributions that we make of the actions.

      When does this bias appear in particular?

      The actor-observer effect, considered as an attribution bias or an error in the explanation of the causes of behavior, occurs above all not only in the face of negative behavior, as we have seen, but also it appears more frequently with strangers or people we know little about. Therefore, the effect is weakened in known or close people.

      This is logically explained, because in the case of strangers, we have less access to their feelings or thoughts (we know them less) and it allows us to “judge” more easily when we explain their behaviors. As arising from internal and dispositional factors.

      Limitations of this attribution bias

      There are two limits to the actor-observer effect. On the one hand, this effect does not occur in the same way (nor with the same intensity) in all cultures; that is, cultural differences appear. On the other hand, the effect it loses consistency when positive or negative results are involved in actions or behaviors instead of neutral ones.

      So, we have to understand this effect as something very common or frequent, which often occurs unconsciously; however, one must be careful, because as in all psychological processes, there are always exceptions and not everything is black and white. In this way, we will often have to go beyond the “general rule” and analyze cases individually.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Blanchard, F. and Fredda (1996). Causal attributes throughout adulthood: the influence of social patterns, life context and domain specificity. Applied cognitive psychology; Vol 10 (number specific) S137-S146.
      • Hogg, M. (2010). Social psychology. Vaughan Graham M. Panamericana. Posted by Panamericana.
      • Melià, JL; Chisvert, M. and Pardo, I. (2001). A procedural model of attributions and attitudes towards work accidents: measurement and intervention strategies. Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17 (1), 63-90.

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