• Thomas Milus, PhD

The Actor-Observer Bias

I was reminded of it the actor-observer bias this morning as I read a New York Times article about how the two major American political parties are becoming irreconcilably different. They are not merely two sides of the issues, but have actually come to represent different issues. They are not arguing about what to do with "the" sacred cow; they actually have different cows. It is a complex issue with many facets and contributing factors.


Jones and Nisbett wrote about the Actor-Observer bias in 1971. If you are into social psychology, you have likely heard of it. Essentially, it describes how we judge our behaviors and those others. If someone asks me why I behaved in a certain way, I would generally say that it was due to the situation, that is, who was there, what were the pressures on, or expectations of, me, etc. The "situation" would be the reason I acted as I did. On the other hand, if someone who was watching me was asked to speculate as to why I did what I did, they would say that it was due to something inside me...my disposition. They would discount the external circumstances that I, as the actor, had used as reasons for my actions. The truth generally lies somewhere in a melding of the two positions.

Anyone, who has been alive for long, and is paying attention, should begin to see that important issues require multiple perspectives. We cannot see the entire elephant at once. We can only see the part within our field of view. If we are very close, we see finer detail of a smaller piece. We can't see both sides from any single vantage point. Important issues with many stakeholders must be examined by a representative group of those stakeholders. The goal being to bring as many perspectives into the conversation as possible.


So, what's the problem? It seems simple enough: just get people together to share their perspectives. DeSteno and his colleagues found that on average 90 percent of people in their studies cheated on the tasks when they felt confident that no one would know or that there would be no negative consequences down the road...90%! This was consistent with Ariely's research. By the way, that didn't mean that those who didn't cheat on those tasks would not cheat in the future or that those who cheated would cheat every time.


Prior to the tasks in DeSteno's research, participants were asked about the morality of cheating. They all said that is was wrong. Here's where Jones & Nisbett come in. Those who cheated made up excuses (often weak and lame) for why they did what they did. Essentially, they excused their bad behavior due to the circumstances. Those observing them, however, didn't cut them any slack for the "circumstances."


DeSteno decided to see if the actors really believed the excuses they used to justify their cheating. Without boring you with the details, DeSteno's team was able to demonstrate that beneath the superficial excuses, the actors DID actually know they were wrong. They didn't accept their own excuses.


Bringing this all together I see this:

  1. Our political parties' failure to share perspectives has contributed to the "belief" that there is not one elephant (or sacred cow) but many.

  2. My bias explains my behavior based on the situation (outside me), whereas it explains your behavior as due to your disposition (stuff inside you - your beliefs, reasons, goals).

  3. Since nearly everyone (or everyone) will distort outcomes in self-interested ways (cheat) when they are not held accountable by anyone other than themselves, no one can really be trusted without transparency and accountability.

  4. Consequently, your sacred cow means nothing to me as I understand it. I might be looking at the same cow, but don't know it. I am not interested in hearing your perspective because I suspect that you will lie to me (because I would lie to you.) I see my behavior as being driven by the situation whereas yours are driven by your self-interest.

We have some work ahead of us if we intend to move into a future that is less cynical and more functional. Cynicism separates us, decreases our empathy, and increases the chance that I will not know you. I cannot understand how your attitudes and beliefs actually connect to your words and actions without hearing from you. I cannot count on being my best without some level of accountability to you and others.