Actor-Observer Bias and Perceived Sensitivity to Internal and External Factors in Competitive Swimmers

By Wolfson, Sandy | Journal of Sport Behavior, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Actor-Observer Bias and Perceived Sensitivity to Internal and External Factors in Competitive Swimmers


Wolfson, Sandy, Journal of Sport Behavior


Research into social perception has demonstrated that people are generally inclined to focus on internal attributions when explaining behaviour, although they tend to be more willing to use external attributions when analysing their own behaviour as opposed to the behaviour of others. For example, in the classic study by Nisbett et al. (1973), students made internal attributions to explain their friends' reasons for studying a particular university course, but relatively more external attributions to explain their own reasons.

Although there is considerable evidence in mainstream psychology for such actor-observer differences, the bias has been given very little attention in a sports context. Yet the process has potential implications for performance and for relationships between sports participants and their teammates and coaches. Firstly, if people do indeed focus relatively more on situational factors for themselves, they may give insufficient weight to internal influences such as effort or skill, thus limiting improvement-related strategies. Secondly, coaches might systematically overlook situational influences on their players and come to underestimate the impact of such factors as venue, climatic conditions, and crowd behaviour. Most importantly, the disparity in actor-observer explanations might very well lead to interpersonal conflict and hostility between players and their teammates or coaches, as each person will believe that his or her analysis of an outcome is the correct one and that the other lacks knowledge and insight.

Explanations for actor-observer bias help to clarify the problem in relation to sport. From a motivational perspective, it may simply be less effortful and time consuming for the "cognitive miser" (Heider, 1958) to label and conceptualise people as having particular characteristics and dispositions. This view suggests that unless performers and coaches are particularly motivated to ponder someone else's situation, the easiest option is to ascribe traits and focus on their causal effects. Along these lines, Prager and Cutler (1990) found a positive relationship between level of acquaintance and the use of external attributions.

Alternative explanations suggest that people obtain and process information differently for others than for themselves, with situational obstacles and internal responses to external stimuli more available for self analyses. For example, a swimmer will be acutely aware of an unusually low water temperature, but such information is unavailable to the observer. Furthermore, situational features are more salient to the actor, causing these to be seen as the cause of an event, while other people are prominent for the observer, who thus sees others as the cause of their own behaviour. McArthur and Post (1977) increased internal attributions by making people more salient through illumination, movement or vividness, and Storms (1973) used videotapes to alter the vantage points and thus the attributions made by actors and observers.

Sande, Goethals and Radloff (1988) have suggested that actor-observer differences might emanate from people's views that they are more complex and multi-faceted than others. This re-conceptualisation of the attribution process contends that people believe that they have more traits than other people, not that they are less governed by internal factors, and thus that more factors, both internal and external, will affect them than other people. This is likely to be due to a combination of motivational and information processing effects.

Although little research has examined actor-observer differences in a competitive context, Luginbuhl and Bell (1989) provided evidence for sports performers' general tendency to focus on dispositional explanations for the behaviour of others. In this research, athletes tended to give internal reasons for another athlete's unexpectedly poor performance, particularly if the performance was not in their own specialty sport.

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