Actor-observer effect

Steve Kimmens Career, high performance, psychology Leave a Comment

Understand the actor-observer effect for your long term career health


Actor-observer effect = When we do something wrong, we blame the environment. When someone else does something wrong, we blame them – it is because of who they are.


Actor-observer bias was first defined by Edward Ellsworth Jones and Richard E. Nisbett – US Psychologists.

“Actors tend to attribute the causes of their behaviour to stimuli inherent in the situation, while observers tend to attribute behaviour to stable dispositions of the actor.”

Jones, Edward; Nisbett, Richard (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning Press.


Why does the Actor-Observer effect matter for my career?


In the workplace we often run into the Actor-Observer effect and that psychological error can lead us to do things that are not good for our career.

For instance, we send an AGGRESSIVE email after we have been wronged by someone.


Case study: Email requesting a change to a document


Charlotte has been busy working on a document, and out of the blue has received feedback to make changes to the document.

She didn’t ask for the feedback.

She doesn’t like the person giving the feedback.

The feedback looks irrelevant and pedantic to her.

She thinks that the person giving the feedback is doing this on purpose to annoy her and waste her time.

So she sends an email back, saying that change isn’t relevant and she doesn’t have time to waste.


Charlotte’s reaction to the feedback email is driven by the Actor-Observer effect


Maybe she should push back against the requested changes.

But if she chooses to do that, she should be confident that they are irrelevant.

Her thought process seems more weighted to the person giving the feedback – “This is just the sort of irrelevant feedback Jim would give.”


The danger of vengeance and email in the workplace


Sending a vengeful email is hugely satisfying. We feel vindicated. We got our own back.

In the short term, you might feel better. In the long term you can seriously damage your career.

Emails last FOREVER.


What can you do to combat the Actor-Observer effect in the workplace?


Give the benefit of the doubt (like we do for ourselves)


Take a deep breath.


  • We want the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of  our brain – to kick in.
  • That means take a deep breath.
  • We want to move from our fight-or-flight centre – the amygdala.
  • To resist the desire to get even you may need to go for a walk.
  • Whatever you do – don’t send that email!




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