Attribution Bias


Actor-Observer Bias

The research has indicated a clear fundamental attribution error bias wherein individuals typically underestimate variabilities in context (situation) in favor of dispositional attributions when evaluating others (Crisp & Turner, 2010; Moskowitz, 2005l; O’Sullivan, 2003).  However, this tendency does not transfer to evaluations of our own behavior in similar variable contexts, i.e., the actor-observer difference (Moskowitz, 2005).  According to Moskowitz (2005), there are several reasons why differential evaluations occur.  First, actors and observers have differing available information in the form of “self-knowledge and insight” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 276).  As the actor, I am aware of my motivations and goals directing my behavior, whereas when observing others it is necessary to infer motives and goals relating to behavior.

Second, actors and observers have differing available information relating to “consistency and distinctiveness” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 276).  As the actor, I am able to reflect on similar situations and my behaviors in them to determine if my behavior is consistent or distinctive, whereas the observer does not have information regarding the behavior of the actor in other situations and contexts to discriminate between situational or dispositional patterns.  Lastly, environmental salience plays a factor differing based on role: actor or observer.  As the actor, salient factors revolve around me and the context (environment) which may or may not influence my behavior, whereas as an observer the salient factor is the behavior of the actor.

Upon reflection, I realize I have experienced the actor-observer difference first hand.  For instance, one the ongoing family dramas in my life involves my sister and her seemingly poor life choices.  On more than one occasion she has overdrawn her checking account resulting in numerous bounced checks, and ultimately, asking my father for another money loan.  Within the observer role, I have typically taken the position that my sister has unnecessarily indulged financially resulting in the bouncing of checks.  However, on the occasions, I have accidentally overdrawn my checking account; it was never due to overindulgence.  Rather, it is usually because I underestimated expenses, made a mathematical/calculation error, or forgot an expense (essentially spending the same money twice).

This bias can be prevented through perspective taking wherein I imagine the behavior from my sister’s perspective, i.e., as if I were the one who bounced the check.  “Displacing ourselves from our egocentric view of the world and taking the perspective of others is an essential ingredient to accurate attribution” (Moskowitz, 2005, p. 277).

Self-Serving Bias

“A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem…particularly evident when individuals formulate attributions about the causes of personal actions, events, and outcomes” (Forsyth, 2008, p. 429).  To wit, individuals attribute positive behaviors or outcomes to dispositional, stable (inherent) traits, but negative behaviors or outcomes to irregular or variable situational influences (Moskowitz, 2005).  Further, individuals engage in this type of bias because it allows them to protect and/or enhance their self-esteem.

As a long-term Weight Watchers (WW) member, I have engaged in the self-serving bias on many occasions.  I attend weekly meetings where I weigh in privately and then stay for a half hour meeting discussing nutrition or exercise topics.  During these meeting it is typical to share your positive or negative weight loss experiences in a support group fashion.  During weeks where I have lost weight I often participate and will share positive behaviors I engaged in during the week that contributed to this positive outcome.  However, during weeks I have not lost weight (negative outcome) I either do not stay for the meeting or if I stay I do not share my behaviors for the week because the negative outcome was likely due to situational influences such as my husband wanted to go out to eat, we attended a family birthday party with cake, or I was too busy to get in my two walks per day, etc.  Therefore, I would have lost weight had it not been for situational constraints.  According to this bias, my rationalizations are protecting my self-esteem during those weeks when my executive control was not quite up to par for keeping me on track in the losing weight department, or enhancing my self-esteem through congratulating myself on my hard work and positive behaviors during the weeks where I stay on track and lose weight that week.

Differential Evaluation of Information

In a similar vein, differential evaluation of information operates to protect an individual’s self-concept and psyche from potential cognitive dissonance associated with discrepancies between beliefs and behaviors (Moskowitz, 2005).  Cognitive dissonance occurs when an individual’s beliefs are not in harmony with their behavior or actions.  When this occurs, the person experiences cognitive discomfort and to reduce the discomfort must typically either change their behavior to match their beliefs or change their beliefs (cognitive rationalization) to match their behavior (Crisp & Turner, 2010).  Therefore, people use differential evaluation of information to maintain their self-concept and avoid cognitive dissonance.  Simply, people reject, diminish, or criticize information that could disjoint their attitudes or beliefs in comparison to their behavior.  However, these people readily accept information either consistent with their beliefs or which has a positive impact on their self-concept (Moskowitz, 2005).

As previously mentioned, I am a WW member and as such typically count points (nutritional nutrients converted into WW points) for the foods that I eat.  One lesson learned early on is that it is unwise to waste finite points on drinks such as soda or alcohol.  In order to drink enough fluids and still enjoy my beverages I have become an avid tea drinker.  I use Splenda or NutraSweet artificial sweetener in both my tea and morning coffee.  Various persons have informed me that Splenda and/or NutraSweet have been linked to cancer in some research studies.  Ordinarily such information would have me scouring the medical journals for relevant information to determine the veracity of such information.  However, I have purposely not done so, and rather, have chosen to dismiss the information outright because to face that reality would require that I make the responsible choice and give up sweetener lest I be plagued with cognitive dissonance.  The only two options available to me at that point would be natural sugar, which has many, many empty calories (points) or drink unsweetened tea and coffee.  Neither of these options is acceptable to me so I have chosen to remain blissfully ignorant as to the potential negative health consequences of using artificial sweetener.  I would rather maintain my motivated skepticism than endure the full-fledged cognitive dissonance that would ensue should I be faced head on with actual black and white facts relating to Splenda or NutraSweet causing cancer.



Arkin, R. M., Appelman, A. J., & Burger, J. M. (1980).  Social anxiety, self-presentation, and the self-serving bias in causal attribution.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(1), 23-35.  Retrieved from

Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2010).  Essential social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Forsyth, D. R. (2007).  Self-serving bias.  In International Encyclopedia of the social sciences (2nd, p. 429).  Retrieved from

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995).  The correspondence bias.  Psychological Bulletin, 117(1), 21-38.  Retrieved from

Moskowitz, G. B. (2005).  Social cognition: Understanding self and others.  New York, NY: Guilford Press.

O’Sullivan, M. (2003, October).  The fundamental attribution error in detecting deception: The boy-who-cried-wolf effect.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(10), 1316-1327.


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