Actor–observer asymmetry (also actor–observer bias) explains the errors that one makes when forming attributions about the behavior of others (Jones & Nisbett, 1971). When people judge 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 an observer is explaining the behavior of another person (the actor), they are more likely to attribute this behavior to the actors’ overall disposition rather than to situational factors. This frequent error shows the bias that people hold in their evaluations of behavior (Miller & Norman, 1975). Because people are better acquainted with the situational (external) factors affecting their own decisions, they are more likely to see their own behavior as affected by the social situation they are in. However, because the situational effects of anothers' behavior are less accessible to the observer, observers see the actor's behavior as influenced more by the actor's overall personality. The actor-observer asymmetry is a component of the ultimate attribution error.
This term falls under "attribution" or "attribution theory". The specific hypothesis of an actor-observer asymmetry in attribution (explanations of behavior) was originally proposed by Jones and Nisbett (1971), when they claimed that "actors tend to attribute the causes of their behavior to stimuli inherent in the situation, while observers tend to attribute behavior to stable dispositions of the actor” (p. 93). Supported by initial evidence, the hypothesis was long held as firmly established, describing a robust and pervasive phenomenon of social cognition.
However, a meta-analysis of all the published tests of the hypothesis between 1971 and 2004 (Malle, 2006)  yielded a contradictory finding: there was no actor-observer asymmetry of the sort Jones and Nisbett (1971) had proposed. Malle (2006) interpreted this result not so much as proof that actors and observers explained behavior exactly the same way but as evidence that the original hypothesis was fundamentally flawed in the way it framed people's explanations of behavior—namely, as attributions to either stable dispositions or to the situation. Against the background of a different theory of explanation, Malle, Knobe, and Nelson (2007) tested an alternative set of three actor-observer asymmetries and found consistent support for all of them. Thus, the actor-observer asymmetry does not exist in one theoretical formulation (traditional attribution theory) but does exist in the new alternative theoretical formulation. Malle (2011) argues that this favors the alternative theoretical formulation, but current textbooks have not yet fully addressed this theoretical challenge.
Considerations of actor-observer differences can be found in other disciplines as well, such as philosophy (e.g., privileged access, incorrigibility), management studies, artificial intelligence, semiotics, anthropology, and political science (see Malle, Knobe, & Nelson, 2007, for relevant references).
- 1 Background and initial formulation
- 2 Early evidence and reception
- 3 Recent evidence
- 4 Theoretical reformulation
- 5 Cultural differences
- 6 Related but distinct concepts
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Background and initial formulation
The background of this hypothesis was in the 1960s, with social psychology's increasing interest in the cognitive mechanisms by which people make sense of their own and other people's behavior. This interest was instigated by Fritz Heider's (1958) book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, and the research in its wake has become known as "attribution research" or "attribution theory."
The specific hypothesis of an "actor–observer asymmetry" was first proposed by social psychologists Jones and Nisbett in 1971. Jones and Nisbett hypothesized that these two roles (actors and observers) produce asymmetric explanations. Their research findings showed that “there is pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal dispositions”(Jones & Nisbett, 1971, p. 80). For example, a student who studies hard for an exam is likely to explain her own (the actor's) intensive studying by referring to the upcoming difficult exam (a situational factor), whereas other people (the observers) are likely to explain her studying by referring to her dispositions, such as being hardworking or ambitious.
Early evidence and reception
Soon after the publication of the actor-observer hypothesis, numerous research studies tested its validity, most notably the first such test by Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, and Marecek (1973). The authors found initial evidence for the hypothesis, and so did Storms (1973), who also examined one possible explanation of the hypothesis: that actors explain their behaviors by reference to the situation because they attend to the situation (not to their own behaviors) whereas observers explain the actor's behavior by reference to the actor's dispositions because they attend to the actor's behavior (not to the situation). Based largely on this initial supporting evidence, the confidence in the hypothesis became uniformly high. The asymmetry was described as “robust and quite general”, "firmly established" (Watson, 1982, p. 698), and “an entrenched part of scientific psychology”. Likewise, evidence for the asymmetry was considered to be "plentiful” and “pervasive”.
Over 100 studies have been published since 1971 in which the hypothesis was put to further tests (often in the context of testing another hypothesis about causal attributions). Malle (2006) examined this entire literature in a meta-analysis, which is a robust way of identifying consistent patterns of evidence regarding a given hypothesis across a broad set of studies. The result of this analysis was stunning: across 170 individual tests, the asymmetry practically did not exist. (The average effect sizes, computed in several accepted ways, ranged from d = -0.016 to d = 0.095; corrected for publication bias, the average effect size was 0.) Under circumscribed conditions(i.e. if the actor was portrayed as highly idiosyncratic, or in negative events), it could sometimes be found, but under other conditions, the opposite was found. The conclusion was that the widely held assumption of an actor-observer asymmetry in attribution was false.
In contrast to the Malle (2006) article, other research has shown a strong presence of the actor-observer asymmetry even in instances with familiar people. Krueger et al. (1996), conducted a study on pairs of university dorm roommates who liked and knew one another well. The researchers aimed for familiar pairs of participants was to discover whether or not actor-observer asymmetry existed in conditions that might atypically work against it. Previous literature suggests that actor-observer asymmetry would not be present in situations where the actors and the observers were familiar with each other, which is why Kreuger and colleagues wanted to perform the study with familiar pairs. Each participant answered three questionnaires where the final scores were weighed against each other in order to understand the presence of actor-observer asymmetry. The results showed that gender did not affect the findings, so whether or not the pairs were the same or opposite sex was not a mediator for the data. The researchers found that actors were aware of the actor-observer asymmetry, but the observers were not, which is typically what happens in everyday life. Kreuger and colleagues showed another side to the actor-observer asymmetry, wherein it is present even among familiar people.
Even more recent evidence was published on the social acceptability of actions and the speed with which an observer’s perception of an actor’s moral character are determined and affected by actor-observer asymmetry. Critcher et al. (2012) conducted two experiments in order to support the idea that an immoral action is quickly followed by a negative evaluation of the actor’s moral character by the observer. On the other hand, a morally good decision by an actor is readily given a positive evaluation of that actor’s moral character. This is due to the fact that actions are observed as having been made with a degree of certainty and intentionality on the part of the actor, and more distinct motives are the underlying cause of these actions, thus creating more contrasted evaluations of the actor by the observer.
The result of the meta-analysis implied that, across the board, actors and observers explain behaviors the same way. But all the tests of the classic hypothesis presupposed that people explain behavior by referring to "dispositional" vs. "situational" causes. This assumption turned out to be incorrect for the class of behavioral events that people explain most frequently in real life (Malle & Knobe, 1997): intentional behaviors (e.g., buying a new car, making a mean comment). People explain unintentional behaviors in ways that the traditional disposition-situation framework can capture, but they explain intentional behaviors by using very different concepts (Buss, 1989; Heider, 1958). A recent empirical theory of how people explain behavior was proposed and tested by Malle (1999, 2004), centering on the postulate that intentional behaviors are typically explained by reasons—the mental states (typically beliefs and desires) in light of which and on the grounds of which the agent decided to act (a postulate long discussed in the philosophy of action). But people who explain intentional behavior have several choices to make, and the theory identifies the psychological antecedents and consequences of these choices: (a) giving either reason explanations or "causal history of reason (CHR) explanations" (which refer to background factors such as culture, personality, or context—causal factors that brought about the agent's reasons but were not themselves reasons to act); (b) giving either desire reasons or belief reasons; and (c) linguistically marking a belief reason with its mental state verb (e.g., "She thought that..."; "He assumes that..."). Empirical studies have so far supported this theoretical framework (for a review see Malle, 2011).
Within this framework, the actor-observer asymmetry was then reformulated as in fact consisting of three asymmetries: that actors offer more reason explanations (relative to CHR explanations) than observers do; that actors offer more belief reasons (relative to desire reasons) than observers do; and that actors use fewer belief reason markers than observers do (Malle, 1999). Malle, Knobe, and Nelson (2007) tested these asymmetries across 9 studies and found consistent support for them. In the same studies they also tested the classic person/disposition vs. situation hypothesis and consistently found no support for it.
Thus, people do seem to explain their own actions differently from how they explain other people's actions. But these differences do not lie in a predominance of using "dispositional" vs. "situational" causes. Only when people's explanations are separated into theoretically meaningful distinctions (e.g., reasons vs. causal history of reason explanations) do the differences emerge.
In addition, an alternate theory has been proposed called the folk conceptual theory. In contrast to the actor-observer asymmetry, it posits that people's explanations of behavior varies based on three key parameters (these parameters being: use of reason explanations vs. causal history explanations, use of belief reasons vs. desire reasons, and the use of mental state markers).
The choices of different explanations for intentional behavior (reasons, belief reasons, etc.) indicate particular psychological functions. Reasons, for example, appear to reflect (among other things) psychological closeness. People increase reason explanations (relative to CHR explanations) when they explain their own rather than another person's behavior (Malle et al., 2007), when they portray another person in a positive light (Malle et al., 2007), and when they explain behaviors of nonhuman agents for whom they have ownership and affection (e.g., a pet fish; Kiesler, Lee, & Kramer, 2006). Conversely, people use fewer reasons and more CHR explanations when explaining behaviors of collectives or aggregate groups (O'Laughlin & Malle, 2002). Actor-observer asymmetries can therefore be seen as part of a broader continuum of psychological distance people have to various kinds of minds (their own, others', groups', animals' etc.).
Cultural differences may impact how certain behaviors or actions are attributed and interpreted. Current research supports the idea that Western culture emphasizes individualism, whereas East Asian cultures emphasize collectivism. Individualistic cultures focus on the object and attribute behavior to an overall disposition within a situation, whereas collectivist cultures focus on the context and external factors that influence behavior. Masuda and Nisbett (2001) found when viewing an underwater scene Americans focused more on fish in the foreground and the direction they were swimming within the tank than the background of the environment. This supports the idea that Americans are more like to attribute behavior to dispositional cue that are directly present in the environment or foreground. This is opposed to Japanese participants who focused on the fish, but additionally focused on the background of the environment (plants, other animals). This shows how people from East Asian cultures are more likely to attribute behavior to both dispositional and situational cues in the environment. In addition, Choi & Nisbett (2008) found that when situational constraints of participants in an experiment were made more salient that only the East Asian participants had an increased perception of the situational constraints and made their judgements accordingly. This is opposed to North American participants who showed little to no change in perception of the situational constraints as they were made more salient.
Related but distinct concepts
Instead of speaking of a hypothesis of an actor-observer asymmetry, some textbooks and research articles speak of an "actor-observer bias." The term "bias" is typically used to imply that one of the explainers (either the actor or the observer) is biased or incorrect in their explanations. But which one—the actor or the observer—is supposed to be incorrect is not clear from the literature. On the one hand, Ross's (1977) hypothesis of a fundamental attribution error suggests that observers are incorrect, because they show a general tendency to overemphasize dispositional explanations and underemphasize situational ones. On the other hand, Nisbett and Wilson (1975) argued that actors don't really know the true causes of their actions and often merely invent plausible explanations. Jones and Nisbett (1971) themselves did not commit to calling the hypothesized actor-observer asymmetry a bias or an error. Similarly, recent theoretical positions consider asymmetries not a bias, but rather the result of multiple cognitive and motivational differences that fundamentally exist between actors and observers.
The actor-observer asymmetry is often confused with the hypothesis of a self-serving bias in attribution — the claim that people choose explanations in a strategic way so as to make themselves appear in a more positive light. The important difference between the two hypotheses is that the assumed actor-observer asymmetry is expected to hold for all events and behaviors (whether they are positive or negative) and require a specific comparison between actor explanations and observer explanations. The self-serving bias is often formulated as a complete reversal in actors' and observers' explanation tendencies as a function of positive vs. negative events. In traditional attribution terms, this means that for positive events (e.g., getting an A on an exam), actors will select explanations that refer to their own dispositions, (e.g., "I am smart") whereas observers will select explanations that refer to the actor's situation (e.g., "The test was easy"); however, for negative events (e.g., receiving an F on the exam), actors will select explanations that refer to the situation, (e.g., "The test was impossibly hard") whereas observers will select explanations that refer to the actor's dispositions (e.g., "She is not smart enough").
The actor-observer asymmetry can seem similar to the hypothesis of a positivity bias in attribution- the claim that people are biased toward favorable evaluations. This hypothesis states that people will attribute their behavior with positive consequences to internal factors and their behavior with negative consequences to external factors. The positivity bias is described in terms of the actors attributions of their own behavior. This means that people will attribute their behavior which received a positive consequence (passes their driving test and receiving their drivers license) to an internal factor (I really know the material). However, people will attribute their behavior in which they received a negative consequence (failing a driving test) to an external factor (the sun was in my eyes).
Observers attribute actions of others to their future behavior. Witnessing one’s actions brings the witness to attribute those same actions to that person’s future behavior. This explains why first impressions are so important to us. Once an action is seen, it is hard for the observer to imagine any other differing behaviors from the actor. However, on the other hand, it is hard for actors to attribute one action they have made to their whole behavior. They view themselves as more responsive, and therefore believe themselves to be in control of all situational matters. As the actor can attribute every action in the past he/she has done, the observer can only attribute the one action that is witnessed to that actor. Therefore, will attribute dispositional, rather than situational means to the actor.
- Attribution (psychology)
- Fundamental attribution error
- List of biases in judgment and decision making
- Self-serving bias
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