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The Actor-Observer Effect

No one is born perfect; every person on earth makes many, many mistakes in their lifetime. This isn’t something one should be embarrassed of. In fact, it is important to keep a mindset where we let ourselves learn from mistakes without any harsh judgements. However, in the midst of doing this, it is also necessary to keep in mind that others, no matter how put together they may seem, are also susceptible to making the same mistakes. I know for sure I’m not the only one who can recall several occasions where I have judged and labelled a person because of the mistakes he makes, without realising that I am not any better. I say this because in this article, I am explaining a term in psychology used to explain this behaviour: The Actor-Observer Bias.

The actor-observer effect or bias – a type of cognitive bias – is a term used to explain the tendency for a person to blame external forces or causes for his or her own actions, while holding others’ accountable for their behaviours because of internal causes (Cherry, 2019). In simple words, we tend to make excuses by blaming a situation in order to make us look less bad when we make mistakes. Yet when we catch another person making that same mistake, without hesitating, we point a finger on that person’s character or personal choices. In the first scenario, we are the “actors” whereas in the second scenario, we are the “observers”.

A perfect example for this can be a student getting straight A’s and a student getting low grades. The student getting really good grades may look at the other student and think, “oh he’s probably lazy and doesn’t like to study, no wonder he keeps failing even the easiest classes!”. The first student has no idea what actually may be going on in the failing student’s personal life, I mean for all we know he could be dealing with personal health or family related issues that get in the way of his schoolwork! As we can see, in this scenario, the student with the good grades is the observer, whereas the failing student is the actor. Before even thinking about the fact that external causes may be the reason for failing classes, the student is labelled as “lazy”. Another thing about the actor-observer bias is that, it can also be switched around. It is like a paradox, because when an actor’s outcome is positive (rather than a mistake or something negative), the observer is more likely to attribute this to an external cause rather than an internal factor (Psychologia, n.d.). Elaborating on the same example above, if the failing student is the observer, he or she may say that the other student gets good grades due to reasons such as his social or financial status, or an easier life with less personal problem. He might even say “oh its obviously easier to get straight A’s if you’re naturally born smart.” This mostly happens because both the actors and observers are unaware of their actions, and due to double standards, end up blaming the other for the same errors they may also be making (Psychologia, n.d.).

Although in this article I didn’t explain a more “self-help” or lifestyle topic like I usually do, I do think we can take away a really good life lesson from it. It isn’t fair to define someone’s character solely based on their actions. My mother has always taught me that before pointing a finger on someone, we should remember that three fingers point right back at us. We usually don’t know what others are going through unless we are very close to them, so it isn’t right to judge others based on our perception of them without actually trying to understand them or their situation. Let’s all take this as a reminder to be more self-aware and live with a little more kindness towards everyone.


1. Cherry, Kendra. “How Actor-Observer Biases Affect the Way We Interact With People.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 23 Sept. 2019,

2. Psychologia. “BLOG.” Psychologia, n.d.,

#actorobserverbias #bias #psychology

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