Clearing Cognitive Cobwebs: The Actor-Observer Bias
By Chuck Gallozzi
We often wonder why people do the things they do. In our attempt to understand, we frequently arrive at false conclusions. Our failures to understand others can lead to lost opportunities or needless trouble. Some of our misunderstandings become habitual, forming a part of the way we view life. Although we don't like to admit it, we all have biases. You see, our brain loves biases because it likes to arrive at conclusions as quickly as possible. Figuring out why people act as they do can be tedious. After all, there can be countless explanations. So, it's far easier, and quicker, to stereotype people.
When driving, were you ever cut off by a jerk? When shopping, did you ever have to deal with a rude sales person? At work, were you ever told what to do by an incompetent supervisor? If so, chances are you are suffering from a bias! Words like jerk, rude, and incompetent are labels or shortcuts that allow us to 'understand' others without taking the time to investigate the cause of their actions. Did you ever stop to think how strange it is that when you cut off someone on the highway, you always have a good reason for doing so, but when someone cuts you off, he or she is a jerk! This is an example of the Actor-Observer Bias.
In a word, when we do something undesirable, we blame our environment for causing us to act that way, but when someone else does something we don't approve of, we blame them, their character, their personality, or their nature. For example, Tom angrily snaps at Larry in the office. And when confronted by Larry and asked to explain, Tom answers, "Sorry about that. I'm having a bad day. I'm under a lot of stress today."
In other words, Tom sees himself as a nice guy who occasionally acts rudely, not because he is rude, but because he is under a great deal of stress. But when someone upsets him, Tom never thinks, "Oh, he must be having a bad day." Rather, Tom thinks, "What an idiot! What a jerk! He has some nerve! Who does he think he is?" So, we are soft on ourselves when we are the Actor and harsh on others when we are the Observer (watching others).
Why It's Important to understand The Actor-Observer Bias
1. We cannot solve problems unless we know their cause, and if we're not careful, The Actor-Observer Bias can obscure the cause. Suppose, for example, the government wants to improve the educational system and asks teachers and students why the students are getting poor grades. The teachers are apt to blame the students ("They don't study or do their homework. They can't concentrate. They are restless. They don't take their curriculum seriously."). And the students are apt to blame teachers and the educational system ("We have poor teachers. The material is boring. Subjects aren't explained clearly enough. We have poor text books.").The Actor-Observer Bias reminds us to avoid falling into the trap of studying just one side of the issue. We need to step back and objectively study all sides of the problem.
2. If we are unaware of the AOB (Actor-Observer Bias) and how we unfairly judge others, we are apt to have fewer friends, less success, and little happiness.
3. When we allow ourselves to fall prey to the AOB, we drift away from human compassion and find it easy to demonize others. What is a man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? Is he a thief or a loving father and husband?
One of the most powerful countries in the world is one of the weakest. Despite its incredible potential, the U.S. government can't get anything done because of partisan bickering. The AOB is rampant in the halls of congress.
4. Life itself can be at stake. On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for killing a police officer 20 years earlier. The execution took place despite new evidence that created reasonable doubt and the appeals for clemency from Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, Rev. Al Sharpton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former U.S. presidential candidate Bob Barr. You can read about the case here.
Why Are We Susceptible to The Actor-Observer Bias?
1. We are especially susceptible to the AOB, and other biases, when we are in a state of stress because we lack the energy to make exhaustive examinations and want to make quick decisions.
2. When we observe someone else perform an action, we focus on the actor, but when we perform an action, we focus on the situation. This is because we are aware of our thoughts and the situation we are in, but unaware of the thoughts and circumstances of others. Also, when people catch our attention, we focus on them, but the situation merely fades into the background.
This is particularly true with our interactions with strangers. Since we know a great deal more about our friends and family members, we are less likely to succumb to the AOB with them.
3. Since we strive to maintain a positive image of ourselves, we are apt to credit ourselves when we succeed and blame circumstances when we fail.
4. We tend to see ourselves as more complex and multi-faceted than others. So, we believe there are many factors influencing our behavior. But since strangers are 'less complicated' than us, their behavior is simple to explain. (They're stupid!)
5. We are inclined to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. (This is called the Just-World Phenomenon). So when others fail, it is because they are lazy, stupid, or incompetent. But when we fail, it is because life is unfair!
The Just-World Phenomenon can have horrible repercussions, such as when rape victims are blamed instead of helped and perpetrators are set free instead of brought to justice.
6. The AOB is prevalent in cultures that promote individualism, such as in the United States and Western Europe. But in interdependent cultures, such as those in Asia and Latin America, the importance of the group and getting along with others is stressed. So, when members misbehave, more weight is given to the circumstances that influenced their errant behavior than to the individual's character or personality.
How Can We Eliminate The Actor-Observer Bias?
1. Become aware of the extenuating circumstances. The cure for the AOB is empathy, but how can we walk in the shoes of another if we do not have their shoes (understanding of their circumstances)?
2. Compassion. It is not always possible to learn the circumstances that others are in, but if we always remember that we all make mistakes and everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances, it becomes easy to be tolerant and live in fellowship instead of friction.
1. He is stupid is not a fact; it is an interpretation. Remind yourself that all your conclusions, experiences, and beliefs are merely interpretations and subject to error. Although your brain loves to make decisions as quickly as possible, learn to stop and think things through before acting.
2. Sadly, some religions thrive on the AOB, demonizing those of other faiths. Novelist Anne Lamott expressed it well when she wrote, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
Yet, religion can be a beautiful thing, for as Indian Saint Mata Amritanandamayi Devi ("Amma") said, "There is no harm in having many religions and faiths, but it is harmful to think that they are different and that one faith is higher and the other one is lower. Children, do not see the differences. See the unity in them and the great ideals that they teach."
3. Good advice is also offered by Victor Daniels, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Sonoma State University, California, "We must learn to tailor our concepts to fit reality, instead of trying to stuff reality into our concepts."
4. We need to remember that we see the world not as it is, but as we are. Troubled people see a troubling world; angry people see a hostile world, and loving people see a loving world.
5. "We should be lenient in our judgment, because often the mistakes of others would have been ours had we had the opportunity to make them." (Dr. Rasmus Larssen Alsaker, 1883~1960)
6. "For all right judgment of any man or things it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad." (Thomas Carlyle, 1795~1881)
7. Remember that when we judge another, we do not define them, but define ourselves.
8. "A man is not good or bad for one action." (Thomas Fuller, 1608~1661)
9. Double Olympic Men's Sailing Gold Medal champion, Ian Percy, reminds us that "We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions."
10. If we must judge others, let's do so as we judge stained-glass windows: only in their best light.
Helpful Book to Clear the Cobwebs from Your Mind
Social Cognition: Making Sense of People by Ziva Kunda.
Chuck Gallozzi lived in Japan for 15 years, immersing himself in the wisdom of the Far East. He is the author of the book, The 3 Thieves and 4 Pillars of Happiness, 7 Steps to a Life of Boundless Joy. He is also a Certified NLP Practitioner, speaker, and seminar leader. Among his additional accomplishments, he is also the Grand Prix Winner of a Ricoh International Photo Competition, the Canadian National Champion in a Toastmasters International Humorous Speech Contest, and the Founder and Head of the Positive Thinkers Group that has been meeting at St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto since 1999. He was interviewed on CBC's Steven and Chris Show, appearing nationally on Canadian TV. Chuck is a catalyst for change, dedicated to bringing out the best in others and his main home on the web is at: Personal-Development.com.