an understanding of the Actor-Observer Bias
The first documentation of the actor-observer bias was in the works of two American psychologists, Edward Ellsworth Jones and Richard E. Nesbitt, in the year 1971. They explained it as the â€œactor-observer asymmetry hypothesis,â€ and they named it thus because they purported that actors and observers play asymmetrical roles when it comes to attributions.
One possible explanation for this bias is that when people are actors in a given situation, they are blind to their own actions as they are attending to the situation, and hence, there is a tendency to attribute oneâ€™s actions to external causes, like the situational circumstances. This role is very different to the â€œobserverâ€ role. The observer tends to focus on the disposition of the actor, and not the situation. Hence, the actions/behaviors are attributed to internal causes, like personality traits or the disposition of the actor, for example.
Another reason for this lies in the fact that actors know more about themselves than do the observers. That gives the actor a better standing to attribute the occurrences to external factors. For instance, the actor has the knowledge of similar past occurrences, and is able to use that knowledge to compare to the current situation and how they might have reacted in the past, on the basis of their personality or temperament. This is a case of top-down processing, to use prior knowledge. An observer is not able to make use of the same top-down processing as s/he is not privy to those previous occurrences. This leads to the observer assuming that the actor acted as s/he always does.
Implications of the Actor-Observer Bias
The actor-observer bias is a frequently occurring one in our day to day lives. As such, plenty of instances can be found. A common example would be when you might attribute the reasons of doing poorly in your test to external forces, such as, the hot and stuffy temperature in the examination room, disturbances from the student sitting beside you, instead of your poor study habits. But if your friend did poorly on the same test, you are likely to attribute their poor performance to their study habits, or them skipping classes, their lack of note-taking, and other such behaviors.
We can deduce that this bias can be very problematic, and since it occurs so very frequently, it can cause problems in our daily lives. If delved into, one can see that it is often a common cause of arguments and misunderstandings. For example, in an argument or a fight, both the sides would see themselves as only responding to the actions of others. â€œBut you started it!â€ is one of the most commonly heard phrases in an argument.
In their book, â€œSocial Psychology and Human Nature,â€ Baumeister and Bushman explain that it is very natural for one to infer that they are fighting because the other person is mean and that they are only responding to the attack; in other more simple words, the only person to blame is always the other person. Due to this, there cannot be any room for sensible reasoning.
So, is there a way to overcome this bias? Yes. One of the main ways to do it is before making attributions pertaining to others, it is important to see the flaw in the way we are viewing things. In case of arguments, it is always helpful to be conscious of this bias and self-check or introspect our own faults and shortcomings. Another way to overcome this bias is to practice empathy towards others.
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