Actor-Observer Bias: Why We Blame Other People Instead of Ourselves

actor-observer bias

The actor-observer bias is the tendency that people view their own actions as caused by the situational context, while others’ actions are seen as caused by personality or stable dispositions.

In other words, we judge others based on what we see, but ourselves based on what we think and feel. It is an important social bias because it has shown to be systematic and predictable, and it may lead to a number of erroneous judgments.

A review by Pronin (2008) suggests that the bias is unconscious since it relies on involuntary perceptual mechanisms. We simply have more information about our own actions and the feelings and intentions of these than we have about others’.

We do not analyze our own actions as much as we analyze others’. This is partly due to the fact that we lack visual information of ourselves, and therefore we can only judge ourselves on the basis of introspection (i.e., the ability to look inwards).

The actor-observer bias contributes to a number of perceptual shortcomings, and one of them is positive illusions which is the tendency for us to think more positively about ourselves and our own futures, e.g. wealth and health than we do of others’.

This optimism is rooted in the internal desires and intentions of ours, which we cannot see in others. Another perceptual mistake is that we think we know people very well after an encounter, whereas we do not think they know us well.

People also think that the motives of others are egoistic because they fail to see the situational contexts of others, whereas the exact opposite is true for ourselves since we are familiar with our own motives from introspection.

The bias also leads to difficulties in communication because people know what their intentions are, while others only hear what they say. We also see ourselves as having free will because we have intentions, but in fact we are extensively determined by environmental influences. The information we have about others, and the information we have about ourselves is very different.

We judge people on the basis of direct perceptual information, and for this reason, we do not see others’ good intentions to the same extent as we see our own. This is because we experience our own intentions from within.

There is also evidence that the more we find other people similar to ourselves, the more we identify and understand their intentions, so we do not judge them exclusively on their overt behaviors like we would do with complete strangers.

Since you read this article, you might also be interested in knowing about the self-serving bias. In short, the self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute one’s successes to personal characteristics, and one’s failures to factors beyond one’s control (Ross et al., 1991). For this reason, the self-serving bias may also explain why we tend to blame others instead of ourselves.

Image: Emily Raw