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Actor Observer Bias – How to avoid and improve your workpace?

What is Actor Observer Bias and how will it affect your diversity and inclusion efforts?

What Is Actor Observer Bias?

Social Psychology defines actor-observer bias as a person’s tendency to associate his or her actions with external events while associating other people’s beliefs, values, and behaviors with internal causes.

Attribution is how a person determines the reason for our and other people’s behavior and how they end up in the situations that they are in. We have two different options on how we can attribute these situations:

  • Internally Actor Observer Bias is basing it on how the individual presents themselves and their character
  • Externally Actor-Observer Bias is basing it on the situation, circumstance, or the people around an individual

We often feel calmer when we start acknowledging the fact that the person is in that situation because of external factors. With this, it is also evident that we feel angrier when we put it in our heads that the situation is because of internal factors.

To put it simply, we are the observers, and we are observing someone from afar. We see how other people experience life, and we often blame them for it. But once we are the ones experiencing hardships, we tend to blame the situation and not ourselves.

Actor Observer Bias is a specific form of attributional bias that has a significant role in how we, humans, view and interact with each other. To simply put it, Actor Observer Bias is actually how people have the tendency to show themselves to other people depending on how they view themselves – either as observers or actors in a specific situation.

This type of attribution is more commonly seen in negative situations. However, it is scientifically proven in various researches that people tend to stay away from Actor Observer Bias if the person or people involved are their close friends, family members, or people they are acquainted with.

This happens because they have a background on who the person is and how the person involved really is, so it is harder to blame them for getting themselves in these negative situations. Because of a deeper relationship, people tend to hold external forces accountable instead of the people involved.

Actor Observer Bias can be extremely toxic and problematic. This way of thinking often leads to conflicts that can lead to misunderstanding and arguments. If this continues to become a normal part of someone’s way of thinking, there is a high probability that they may become toxic to other people’s lives. This article is a continuation of our understanding bias series. You can review our other articles on Unconscious vs subconscious bias, Social Desirability bias, Actor Observer Bias, self-serving bias, response bias and non response bias, Affinity bias, and hiring bias plus many more.

Common Characteristics of Actor Observer Bias

Actor Observer Bias is quite easy to characterize. It has such a simple context, but here are some common characteristics that are often manifested by Actor Observer Bias:

Blaming the person instead of the situation

Whenever we see someone suffering, we often think that they are responsible for why they are in their current situation. We blame the person without considering external factors that might have been the ultimate reason why they are struggling.

Blaming the situation instead of ourselves

When we are struggling, we tend to blame external factors such as other people around us or other pesky things that annoy us. We don’t focus on improving ourselves because we get stuck in an endless cycle of feeling the need to pity ourselves instead of being honest with ourselves about our weaknesses.

Focusing on the negative aspect of the situation

Instead of being more positive, we tend to dwell on the negative parts of the situation that other people or we are currently in. This is human nature, and it is because we always seek to find the bad in the good.

Now that we know this, we must start to seek the good in the bad. By doing this, we are allowing ourselves to have a more mature perspective in life.

Being biased when you know the individual involved personally

Even though we completely know that it is the person’s fault for being in their current situation, we still make them feel as if they are not to blame. This is a disadvantage because we are stopping them from growing as individuals who can acknowledge their own mistakes.

We need to be honest with them so that they will have the chance to improve themselves. Because of this, they will know better in the future, and they will not put themselves in an awkward or tight situation ever again, thanks to your honest feedback.

Examples of Actor Observer Bias

A lot of different situations can exemplify actor Observer Bias. Here are some examples that will help you further understand what it really is:

For the first example, an individual is diagnosed with high levels of cholesterol. He or she might blame other factors besides himself, such as their genetic makeup and other environmental factors. But if other people will learn that he or she got diagnosed with elevated levels of cholesterol, they will blame the individual, thinking that he or she probably has a poor diet and poor physical exercise.

Another solid example is whenever you take an exam, and you fail it, you will probably blame others than yourself. You will say that your professor did not even teach it in the lesson; the room was noisy when you were studying, or that you did not have enough time to finish the test properly.

However, your professor will view you as someone who did not study well and that you do not take your academics quite seriously as you should. But still, if you see your classmate with a failed mark, you will probably blame them for not studying and for not attending class regularly.

As an observer, you attribute other people’s situations to their internal characteristics. But if you are the actor, you attribute the situation to external circumstances. In simpler words, if it happens to us, it is other people’s fault. But if it happens to other people, it’s their own fault.

That is how Actor Observer Bias affects our lives as individuals who live and interact with each other on a daily basis.

How to Avoid Actor Observer Bias

It is important to avoid having this type of way of thinking, so here are some ways that you can stop having an Actor Observer Bias:

Solve the Problem Instead of Figuring Out Who or What to Blame

Yes, it is easier to find someone to blame for a messy situation but what is more important is that you get to move on from that awful context. So instead of using all of your energy to get mad at people or the external forces that may have contributed to your situation, just focus on finding ways how to take yourself into a better place.

Be Grateful That It’s Not Any Worse

Of course, it’s a bummer when you find yourself feeling helpless in a terrible event. However, it is still important that you find the time to be grateful that you are not in a worse environment. Yes, it sucks that you’re forced to deal with a horrible situation now, but it’s still better than dealing with a worse problem.

Stop Being So Judgmental

Humans are said to find judging each other sort of a hobby. Well, this is terrible news! We should learn to be more appreciative of each other instead of judging each other because the truth is that it’s not doing us any good. We are just putting ourselves in situations that will only make us feel bad in the end.

Actor- Observer Bias References

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About the author

Jess Man

Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief and Senior Diversity Advisor at Diversity Social. Jessica has over 10 years of working with and advising employers to be more diverse and create an inclusive working environment.
Jessica's experience spans private and non-profit sectors in multiple industries.
Jessica's expertise experience is beyond Diversity & Inclusion, she is also a certified professional IT recruiter in Data & Analytics, Database administration, Artificial Intelligence area.