Can Observer Bias Cause Problems In Relating To Other People?

Updated February 8, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many of our preconceived notions are so subtle and so deeply integrated that we don't acknowledge they are there. Many of them have to do with stereotypical thoughts about people or a group of people based on factors such as race, gender identity, socioeconomic background, etc. The APA defines observer bias as “any expectations, beliefs, or personal preferences of a researcher that unintentionally influence his or her recordings during an observational study.” 

Examples Of Observer Bias

A prime example of observer bias involves psychologist Cyril Burt (March 3, 1883- October 10, 1971), best known for his work on hereditary IQ. He believed children of low economic status were most likely to have lower intelligence than those who came from higher economic status. Much of his statistical work included case studies and IQ test results and was later dismissed as observer bias. But his influence on the educational system was great enough for England to separate out the economic classes throughout the 1960s, with the upper-middle-class children attending the more favored schools and the lower-class children attending the less desirable ones.

A Negative Outlook Can Impact Your Mental Wellbeing

One of the greatest observer biases relates to gender association. Typically, people have pre-conceived ideas of the differences in male and female capabilities. Our observations may tell us a man who crochets has a strong feminine side, not that he finds crocheting something relaxing to do with his fingers. Likewise, a researcher whose opinion is that girls are less capable of understanding math than boys may focus more on how well the boys are doing and less on the successful girls. They may justify the qualities of a girl's mathematic skills by stating she had to study harder and take more time to arrive at her math solutions than the boys did.

The Actor-Observer Bias

If even the biases of researchers throw off the finding of their scientific studies, the actor-observer biases of our daily lives throw a complete reality curve. As the actor-observer, we are swayed by both behavior and our actions. We have an expectancy of other people's actions that don't conform to our own. If somebody is late for an appointment, we may believe they are being discourteous and are making up excuses for being late, but if we miss our appointments by twenty minutes, it's because something unexpected came up that we had to deal with first.

We tend to look more favorably on our actions than we do on those of others. We may feel angry with someone who cuts in front of us while we're cruising at the designated speed but feels very justified in doing it ourselves if we are in a hurry to arrive someplace on time. It's okay for us to get irritable and say something rude to the sales clerk because we are having a bad day, but we become very annoyed if someone says something rude to us.

Our actor-observer bias is what causes us to see things differently at the scene of an accident than the other observers around us. Our eyes may single out the type of clothing the person was wearing and the color of the vehicle, while another may have noticed the race, age, and gender of the person involved and whether or not there was more than one person in the vehicle.

Actor-Observer Bias Influences

Our biases affect the way we view others and interpret their behaviors. They also have a secondary effect on how we interact as a group. Group behaviors are determined by the general agreement of the participants. 

As social people, we gravitate toward people whose behaviors, viewpoints, and interests are compatible with our own. In forming our friendships and alliances, we develop a sense of loyalty to the group. We become more encouraged in what we say and do because of the supportive structure of the group. We can also be led to agree with information we do not truly support or that we find in error.

The willingness of people to lend agreement to information they know to be in error has been proven through a series of studies now known as the Asch Conformity Experiment. The simple test used two rows of three various-sized strings. In a general study, participants asked to identify the correct match by size gave the correct answer 98% of the time. However, when they were placed with a control group that purposely gave the wrong answer, seventy-five percent gave the same answer as the erroneous control group.

Contributing Factors To Conformity In Observer Bias Relationships

Asch continued with his conformity studies to determine what factors affected the way people interacted and performed and at what point they conformed. His discoveries were consistent.

  • Conformity increases in groups of up to four or five people. However, the person who did not conform to the small group of six is unlikely to conform to a group of larger numbers.

  • Conformity increases when the task becomes too difficult to handle individually.

  • People tend to associate higher status with power, educational advantages, expertise, and knowledge surpassing their own.

The only disagreement among researchers in behavioral science is in the motives of those who initially conform even though they knew the answer wasn't correct. Many believe the desire to conform may not be as prevalent as the desire to avoid conflict.

Online Observer Bias

There is nothing better at revealing how observer bias causes problems in relating to people than within the arena of social networking. Meant to be a convenient way to stay in touch with family, friends, and online communities of like interests, it has become an explosive highway of bipartisan politics with clearly drawn lines. Even the bonds of old classmates get shaken under the bombardment of opposing views.

Memes, video clips, and news articles are sometimes used deliberately to cause divisiveness, often without first checking to see if the information was from a reliable source. 

Our Physical Reality

There is a primary difference between the way we relate online and the way we relate to the physical world. In the physical world, we are often timider about taking our biases with us in our individual communications. Topics we may discuss quite openly on an online forum will typically be limited only to a few trustworthy people we know will not make direct oppositional confrontations.

It's uncomfortable to speak outside the group, but we still bring our biases with us. Our behaviors give us away, even when we don't articulate our thoughts and feelings.

For instance, we may take a defensive posture in a setting where the majority have an opposing view and isolate ourselves with remarks that question the group's intelligence or the quality of their social lives. We may close ourselves off to a persuasive argument while we rummage around in our minds for a retort that has nothing to do with addressing the information presented. We might try to belittle or patronize the speaker, thereby diminishing the effect of the debate.

From Actor-Observer Bias To Objectivity

Objectivity is the most critical skill set needed for administrators, managers, diplomats, writers, and national leaders, yet objectivity is one of the most elusive viewpoints. We often bring our learned biases into our everyday lives and, as actor-observer, interpret the behaviors of others differently than we interpret our own. Actor-observer bias, like negativity bias, tends to ignore the positive aspects and give more emphasis on the negative sides of the situation.

Can observer bias cause problems in relating to people? We communicate our expectations of others through our behaviors. We often categorize people by their age, size, and gender, then create sub-categories for hair, eyes, complexion, and the way they dress before they even speak. 

A Negative Outlook Can Impact Your Mental Wellbeing

We communicate our negativities through body language, setting an immediate stage for opposition. The opposition doesn't necessarily result in open confrontation, but it is often expressed as avoidance or a lack of cooperation.

But in these cases, the opposition can be turned into a tool for examining your objectivity. By visualizing yourself as the person who, for instance, just received notice that insurance won’t cover the flooding in your basement, you might forgive your neighbor's abrasiveness. Or, by listening to the ideas of a fellow employee you decided you didn't like because she came from a high-class neighborhood, you might find your imagination ignited.

As a society, we can't agree with everything all the time. But that’s probably for the best. Universal agreement creates stagnancy. The opposition one experiences can lead to positive change. 


Observer bias can create problems in how we relate to and communicate with other people. Even if it isn’t deliberate, it can ruin our relationships at home, with co-workers, and with others that we encounter in our daily lives. Sometimes, people influenced by observer bias don’t even realize their contribution to difficulties in their relationships, and that can create more complications. 

If you have noticed a pattern of conflict in your relationships that is difficult to identify, observer bias may or may not be a contributor. Regardless of the causes, it’s important to uncover them to work through them. For this, many people find success in consulting a therapist experienced in conflict resolution. They can help identify the things that individuals do to create strife in their relationships and how to mitigate them. 

When you’re ready to speak with a professional, online therapy is an excellent option. Speaking to a mental health professional online is just as effective as in-person therapy for helping individuals establish healthier relationships and better well-being. And with platforms like BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist online any time anywhere with an internet connection via phone, text, online messaging, and video chat.

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