Actor-observer Effect: What Is It And What Are Its Causes?

Actor-observer effect

Attributional biases are biases or distortions that cause us to make certain errors 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 maintains that we tend to attribute the causes of behaviors in different ways, depending on whether we are talking about our own behaviors or those of others. Let’s see what this effect consists of, 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 one’s own actions to situational or external factors, and the actions of others to stable personal dispositions (that is, to internal factors). This effect was made known by two authors: Jones and Nisbett, in 1972.

In this case, when we talk about the “actor” we refer to “ourselves”, and when we talk about the “observer” we refer to “others”; hence the name of the effect. This effect, as we have already mentioned at the beginning, has been highly supported and demonstrated by empirical evidence.

On the other hand, it is interesting to mention that the actor-observer effect It appears especially when the behavior or the result of the behavior is negative (as we will see later in an example). That is, this effect would allude to the fact that we tend to “blame” others for their negative actions, and that we “excuse” ourselves for our own, looking for an external or situational factor that explains the negative result of our behavior. In other words, in a way it would be a way of “avoiding” responsibilities.

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This effect could be thought of as a kind of defense mechanism or mechanism that aims to protect our self-esteem or self-concept. However, there are various explanations that have been proposed to explain this effect, as we will see throughout this article.


An example to illustrate the actor-observer effect, it would be a failed exam by a student; In this case, while the teacher can attribute this failure to stable personal dispositions of the observer (for example “laziness” on the part of the student), the student himself (the “actor”) can attribute that same failure to situational or external factors ( for example family problems that have prevented you from studying).

Hypotheses about its causes

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

1. Information level hypothesis

According to this first hypothesis of the actor-observer effect, The level of information we have influences how we analyze the causes of behaviors

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

2. Perceptual focus hypothesis

The second hypothesis of the actor-observer effect refers to the 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. So, If our point of view changes, the attributions will also vary what we make of the behavior of the actor (“the others”) and that of the observer (“us”).


This hypothesis is also known as “perceptual explanation of the actor-observer effect”, and is based on an experiment carried out by Storms in 1973. In the experiment it was observed how The fact of perceiving a situation from angles or perspectives other than those initially shown could change attributions that people made about them.

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

3. Hypothesis of behavior and situation

On the other hand, there is a third hypothesis, similar to the first, which maintains that when we observe a person, We usually have more information about the behavior performed than about the individual’s situation or history who we observe (because many times we do not know him).

This causes a bias to be committed when attributing their behavior to one factor or another, that is, the actor-observer effect itself.

4. Motivation hypothesis (self-concept)

This hypothesis suggests, as we already suggested at the beginning of the article, that people usually 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 obtain “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 grade on a test and justifying that we were not feeling well that day (external or situational factors).

On the other hand, when we talk about others, we do not care so much whether their negative behavior is due to an internal cause, because many times we do not know the person, or it is simply someone foreign to us, this thought being certainly selfish or individualistic.

5. Salience hypothesis

The fourth hypothesis focuses on the concept of salience (where do we focus our attention?). This hypothesis establishes that when we observe our own behavior (and focus our attention on it), we tend to focus on the situation, the context; and yet When we observe other people’s behavior, we focus more on their behavior All of this will obviously influence the attributions we make of the actions.

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When does this bias especially appear?

The actor-observer effect, considered as an attributional bias or error when explaining the causes of behaviors, occurs especially not only in the face of negative behaviors, as we have already seen, but also appears more frequently with unknown people or people we know little Consequently, the effect is weakened with familiar or close people.

This is explained logically, since in the case of unknown people, we have less access to their feelings or thoughts (we know them less) and that makes it easier for us to “judge” them when explaining their behaviors as coming from factors internal and dispositional.

Limitations of this attributional bias

There are two limitations 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 loses consistency when actions or behaviors involve positive and negative results instead of neutral ones

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