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Actor/Observer Difference

 

Explanations > Theories > Actor/Observer Difference

Description | Research | So What? | See Also | References 

 

Description

We tend to see other people’s behaviors as being caused by their personal disposition, whilst perceiving our own actions as due to situational factors.

We also tend to see ourselves as being less stable and predictable, whilst others are assumed to be more one-dimensional, with less possible behaviors.

This can be due to the fact that we have far more consistency and distinctiveness data about ourselves than observers have (see Covariation Model). That is, we know better how and why our behavior varies between different situations. People watching us have to guess.

The effect can be reversed when we put ourselves in the place of the other person, such as when we like them. In these cases, we will make dispositional attributions.

We will also reverse the actor/observer difference when we are making negative conclusions. We thus make situational attributions when we make mistakes and dispositional attributions when other people do something reprehensible.

Research

Storms (1973) sat two people facing each other for a conversation, with two observers, one either side. Afterwards, they were all asked to make dispositional and situational attributions about the conversationalists. The observers made more attributions to the disposition of the conversationalists they were facing. After watching a videotape, the conversationalists made even more situational attributions about themselves.

So what?

Using it

Beware of causing conflict and losing trust by making internal attributions about other people who are likely to be making external attributions about their own behavior. Demonstrate empathy by putting yourself in their place.

See also

Attribution Theory, Perceptual Salience, Covariation Model, Fundamental Attribution Error

References

Storms (1973), Jones and Nisbett (1972), Baxter and Goldberg (1988)

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