Why, oh why, do people do all those stupid things? The answer, according to psychologists, depends on whether you are the person doing the things — or the person watching and reeling at their idiocy.
For instance, remember how you woke up this morning. What did you do, and why did you do it? Maybe you got up late because the alarm didn't go off. You wanted to get a jump start, and were pressed for time, so you got one of those towering cups of coffee with lots of sugar and whipped cream on top from a coffee place. And then you crept in the back way at work because you didn't want to be spoiled for last night's episode of whatever was on television.
Fair enough, but that's not how others would describe it. Other people would probably say you got up late in the morning because you're a late riser. You got one of those overpriced coffees because you're the type to spend too much money. And then you crept into work by the back way because you're anti-social.
(Pictured Above: You.)
These aren't just different points of view. You think that you do things because specific circumstances dictate your actions. Other people observing you believe that your own character traits dictate your actions. This is why, when you hear complaints from parents on planes, for example, they'll say that their child was over-tired from getting up early for the flight, over-excited because of the new environment, and had an ear ache from the pressure change. So when the child started screaming, the people around them were rude and unsympathetic. The people around those parents will say permissive parents let a bratty child scream and they were stressed due to a presentation they had to give and finally told the parents to get a handle on their kid. We react to circumstances. They just suck.
It's Not Just a Technicality
You could argue that this is just a question of perspective. For one thing, the opinions of the actor and the observer don't always contradict each other. When your spouse comes in and finds you sleeping on the couch while the milk quietly spoils in the full grocery bag you left on the floor, you'll probably use different arguments during the ensuing fight. Your argument will be that you had a tiring day, you wanted to take off your shoes, and you didn't think you'd fall asleep that easily. Your spouse's take on the situation will be that you're a lazy ass. Both of those might be true simultaneously. But actor-observer asymmetry goes deeper than that.
Actor-observer asymmetry is the reason why people who are gambling will throw money away because it's fun or they had a feeling, and people who aren't will say they're foolish for throwing money away. It's why observers say they would do something different, but statistically do not. We can all look at people behaving badly and say we wouldn't do that, but are we really looking at the circumstances involved, or have we just decided that we're not like those other people?
You bought that t-shirt because its color goes well with your hair and you like the design, and you got a little extra money this month, but everyone else buys stuff because they always buy what's in fashion. Interviews with consumers consistently show that they believe they buy things for specific reasons, while everyone else buys things because they are conformist (or at least more conformist than the person being interviewed).
Out of the two people involved in this particular relationship, it seems the actor is a little more perspicacious. Researchers interviewed people in long-term relationships about their partner's motivations, and what their partner would see as their motivations. The actors knew exactly what the observers thought of them. They knew that all of their actions would be seen as evidence regarding their character. The observers couldn't catch on.
And the Flip Side
Just to put the perfect finishing touch on this sordid little tale of human nature, actor-observer asymmetry isn't constant. Yes, it's been observed across cultures and ages. Yes, it's been tested many different ways. There is, however, a way to erase it. Observers will credit the actor's circumstances while actors will credit their own character. All it needs is one little twist — make the outcome extraordinarily good.
As soon as a person does great things, the actor is more than willing to proclaim all the inborn traits they have that made that greatness possible. They alone are responsible for their achievement. The observer, on the other hand, considers the entire thing the outcome of a peculiar set of circumstances, and not as the result of the actors strength of character.
Top image: Stuart Jenner/Shutterstock.
[Via Perceptions of Behavioral Consistency, Alone in a Crowd of Sheep, Actor Observer Asymmetry: A Surprising Meta AnalysisActor Observer Asymmetry: A Surprising Meta Analysis, Actor Observer Asymmetry in Risky Decision Making]