Actor–observer Asymmetry

Fundamental attribution error

Actor-observer asymmetry (also actor-observer bias) explains the errors that one makes when forming attributions about behavior. When a person judges 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 a person is attributing the behavior of another person, thus acting as the observer; they are more likely to attribute this behavior to the person’s overall disposition than as a result of situational factors.

People are more likely to see their own behavior as affected by the situation they are in, or the sequence of occurrences that have happened to them throughout their day. But, they see other people’s actions as solely a product of their overall personality, and they do not afford them the chance to explain their behavior as exclusively a result of a situational effect.

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 research from 1971 to 2004 yielded a stunning finding: there was no actor-observer asymmetry of the sort proposed. Malle 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 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 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  The background to this hypothesis was social psychology’s increasing interest in the 1960s 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.

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 result of the recent 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: 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.

A recent empirical theory of how people explain behavior was proposed and tested by Malle, 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.

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 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.

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, when they portray another person in a positive light, and when they explain behaviors of nonhuman agents for whom they have ownership and affection (e.g., a pet fish). Conversely, people use fewer reasons and more CHR explanations when explaining behaviors of collectives or aggregate groups. 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.).

Instead of speaking of a hypothesis of an actor-observer asymmetry, some textbooks and research articles speak of an ‘actor-observer bias’ (within the framework of dispositional vs. situation causes). 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 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 argued that actors don’t really know the true causes of their actions and often merely invent plausible explanations. Jones and Nisbett 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’).

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