How Observer Bias, Actor-Observer Bias, And Biases Can Affect How We Relate To Others

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Researchers have discovered several types of biases that can affect our judgment, often without our knowing it. Many of our preconceived notions, or biases, may be so subtle and so deeply ingrained that we don't acknowledge they are there. These can include observer bias, actor-observer bias, and many more. Below, we’ll explore different types of bias and their implications for how we relate to each other.

Observer bias

The American Psychological Association (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.” 

A prime example of observer bias involves psychologist Cyril Burt (March 3, 1883–October 10, 1971), who is perhaps best known for his work on hereditary IQ. He mistakenly believed children of low economic status were 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 for observer bias. However, his influence on the educational system was great enough for England to separate individuals from different economic classes throughout the 1960s, with upper-middle-income children attending the more favored schools and lower-income children attending the less desirable ones.

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A negative outlook can impact your mental well-being

One of the most common types of observer bias relates to gender association. Typically, people may have preconceived ideas about the differences between people of different genders. For example, traditional observations may lead a person to believe that a man who crochets has a strong feminine side, not that he finds crocheting something relaxing to do with his fingers. 

Likewise, a researcher who holds an erroneous stereotype 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.

When observer bias influences researchers, it has the potential to bleed into the conclusions they draw, which can inform practice in various fields and have an impact on people’s beliefs.

Actor-observer bias

In addition to affecting the findings of scientific studies, various types of bias can have an effect on our everyday lives. One such bias is called the actor-observer bias, which is related to the actor-observer effect. The APA describes the actor-observer effect as follows: “In attribution theory, the tendency for individuals acting in a situation to attribute the causes of their behavior to external or situational factors, such as social pressure, but for observers to attribute the same behavior to internal or dispositional factors, such as personality.” 

We may have an expectation regarding 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 an appointment by 20 minutes, we may attribute it to something unexpected that came up.

We may look more favorably on our actions than we do on those of others. For example, we might feel angry with someone who cuts in front of us while we're driving at the designated speed, but then we might feel justified in doing it ourselves if we are in a hurry. 

Bias in memory

Bias can also sometimes lead us to see and remember things differently. For example, at the scene of an accident, we may see things differently than the other observers around us. Our eyes and memory may single out the type of clothing the person was wearing and the color of the vehicle, while another may have noticed the age or hair color of the person involved and whether or not there was more than one person in the vehicle.

How bias can influence us in group contexts

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

As social people, we may gravitate toward people whose behaviors, viewpoints, and interests are compatible with our own. In forming our friendships and alliances, we may develop a sense of loyalty to the group. We can 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.

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The willingness of people to lend agreement to information they know to be in error has been demonstrated through a series of studies. The simple test used two rows of three various-sized strings. In a general study, participants were asked to identify the correct match by size, and they gave the correct answer 98% of the time. However, when they were placed with a control group that purposely gave the wrong answer, 75% of them gave the same answer as the erroneous control group.

Contributing factors to conformity in groups

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.

One disagreement among researchers in behavioral science is related to the motives of those who initially conformed 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.

Bias in social media

Social networking also provides a venue for exploring observer bias. Although social networking may offer a convenient way to stay in touch with family, friends, and online communities of interest, social media sites often serve as a venue for bipartisan politics with clearly drawn lines. Even the bonds of old friends can get shaken under the bombardment of opposing views.

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

There is sometimes a difference between the way we relate online and the way we relate to each other in the physical world. In the physical world, we may be timid about taking our biases with us in our individual communications. Topics we may discuss quite openly on an online forum may be limited only to a few trustworthy people in person.

When we do speak outside of an ingroup, we often still bring our biases with us. Our behaviors sometimes 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 has an opposing view and isolate ourselves with remarks that question the group's intelligence. 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 bias to objectivity

The ability to think objectively can be a valuable skill for administrators, managers, diplomats, writers, and national leaders, yet objectivity can be elusive. We often bring our learned biases into our everyday lives and interpret the behaviors of others differently than we interpret our own. For example, actor-observer bias, like negativity bias, may lead someone to ignore the positive aspects of a situation and emphasize its negative aspects.

Also, we often communicate our expectations of others through our behaviors. For example, we may categorize people by their age and then create sub-categories for hair, eyes, complexion, and the way they dress before they even speak.

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A negative outlook can impact your mental well-being

We also often communicate our negative attitudes through body language, which can set an immediate stage for opposition. Opposition doesn't necessarily result in open confrontation, but it is often expressed as avoidance or a lack of cooperation.

However, in these cases, opposition can be turned into a tool for examining your objectivity. For example, if you’re getting frustrated because someone is expressing an opposing viewpoint, it may help to pause and consider whether any unconscious biases are influencing your attitude. This may help you see their arguments in a different light, and it could even lead to personal growth.

Exploring observer bias with the help of a therapist

If you have noticed a pattern of conflict in your relationships that is difficult to identify, various types of bias may or may not be a contributor. Regardless of the causes, it may help to uncover them to work through any biases that could be influencing you. To accomplish this, you might find it helpful to consult a therapist experienced in conflict resolution. A licensed therapist may be able to help you identify unconscious beliefs that could be contributing to conflict in relationships. They may also be able to help you mitigate against their effects in the future.

If you don’t have time for in-office therapy, you might consider talking to a licensed therapist online. Research shows that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist from anywhere with an internet connection via audio or video chat. You can also connect with your therapist anytime via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can. 

Takeaway

Observer bias, actor-observer bias, and other forms of bias can have a significant impact across various areas of life. If you are curious about how bias may be influencing your thinking, you don’t have to try to explore it on your own. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience helping people uncover and overcome their biases. Take the first step toward developing the skill of bias recognition and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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