Life makes us constantly change perspective and step into different roles: Sometimes you are Actor, other times you are Observer.
Actor & Observer
1 Who is Who?
As Actor, you’re the one performing a behaviour. As Observer, you observe others (Actors) performing.
The difference lies in the perspective that’s being adopted in a certain moment or situation: The Actor focuses on the Self (his/her own behaviour), while the Observer focuses on the Other.
2 Actor-Observer Asymmetry
(Jones & Nisbett)
Jones & Nisbett (1972) found that people don’t make the same causal attributions, depending on whether they are in the role of Actor or Observer, giving rise to an asymmetry between self-perception and social perception (i.e. the perception of others).
Note: The fact that we can see a systematic and pervasive tendency that always points in the same direction, indicates the presence of a bias in assessment.
3 What causes the asymmetry?
Actor & Observer rely on different information
Actor and Observer don’t have access to the same information.
As Actor, you typically have more and more precise information on what motivates or explains your actions relative to outsiders.
Without comparable insights, Observers rely on incomplete, indirect pieces of information, when trying to explain Actors’ behaviour.
Actor & Observer focus on different things
Another source of asymmetry is a differential focus of attention between Actor and Observer.
The Actor focuses on the demands and constraints of the situation he/she faces or monitors, while the Observer focuses his/her attention on the Actor him/herself (i.e. their traits, behaviour…).
Observer attributes difference in behaviour to individual differences
When several Actors are faced with a situation with so to say “identical” or “equivalent” features, they show dissimilar behaviours and reactions.
But, if objectively, they all faced the same demands and constraints dictated by the situation, how can it be that others nonetheless act completely different from you?
It would seem that divergent behaviours can’t be the result of situational factors. Rather they must be the result of personal factors, revealing something about each Actor’s underlying traits, views and priorities.
This assumption relates to “the illusion of superior personal objectivity” (Ross, 2018):
We see our own perception of reality (of a situation/event) and our beliefs, preferences and priorities as realistic and objective and the behavioural response we give as reasonable.
Hence, we interpret any deviating response or disagreeing belief as unreasonable or irrational – telling something about other people’s disposition or the “biased lenses” through which they see reality.
4 Self-serving bias in attribution
Another separate but equally relevant effect is the tendency for Actors to attribute successes to themselves and failures to external factors.
The self-serving bias in attribution has to do with Actors’ desire to preserve their self-esteem and the need to justify blameworthy actions.
Interestingly, for Observers, this tendency either shows in the opposite direction, or does not show at all.
Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1972). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the cause of behavior. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, & B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior (pp. 79–94). Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.
Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 132(6), 895.
Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological review, 111(3), 781.
Ross, L. (2018). From the fundamental attribution error to the truly fundamental attribution error and beyond: My research journey. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(6), 750-769.