The self-serving bias involves taking credit for our success but blaming others for our failures. It’s why we might boast about our talents and hard work when things go our way but focus on external, situational factors when we don’t live up to expectations.
For example, it’s why you might attribute your good score on an exam to your inherent intelligence (“Of course, I did great; I’m gifted!”). It’s also why you might blame your teacher when you do poorly on an assignment (“She never explained anything, and the questions on the test didn’t make any sense!).
While the self-serving bias is a natural human tendency, it can become a really problem when it distorts how people interpret the reality of a situation. If you think your successes are really due to your own inherent skills or knowledge, you might be tempted to never try to learn more to get better. And if you are always blaming bad things on outside factors, it inhibits personal growth and stops you from reflecting on the ways that you could improve.
How Does the Self-Serving Bias Work?
The self-serving bias is a type of cognitive bias, which are errors in thinking that can distort perceptions and judgments. In this case, this is a form of attribution bias that affects how we perceive and explain behavior.
Attributions can be generally divided into two different types:
- External: When we make external attributions, we blame outside factors for why something happened or why someone behaved a certain way. For example, blaming being late for work on heavy traffic is an example of an external attribution.
- Internal: When we make internal attributions, we chalk a behavior up to someone’s internal characteristics. So when someone else is late for work, we might blame it on a personality flaw such as a lack of conscientiousness.
The above examples also help explain a related phenomenon called the actor-observer bias. The attributions we make depend on whether we are the actor of the observer in a situation. If we are the actor, our attributes are more self-serving—we take credit for the things that go right but cast the blame elsewhere when things go wrong.
We don’t give others this same grace, however. When we are the observers in a situation, we attribute other people’s failures to their personal characteristics.
What Causes the Self-Serving Bias?
There are a number of different explanations to describe what causes the self-serving bias:
It Protects Self-Esteem
People need to protect their self-esteem and self-image. Blaming external factors for failures is a defense mechanism that protects the ego from negative feelings.
By doing this, people can maintain a positive sense of self. It helps to reinforce the idea that people are capable while minimizing feelings of anxiety and insecurity.
Your own tendency to make either internal or external attributions can also influence whether you engage in a self-serving bias. Your locus of control refers to whether you believe you have control over the events in your life or whether you feel like your destiny is out of your hands.
If you have an internal locus of control, it means that you believe that you have the power to control what happens in your life. If you tend to have more of an external locus of control, you’re more likely to feel that outside forces have a more powerful effect.
If you tend to feel like outside forces hold greater sway, you might be more likely to blame external factors for your mistakes. This can help protect your self-esteem and keep you from feeling shame or guilt when things don’t turn out.
Social comparison can also make the self-serving bias stronger. When we compare ourselves to others, we are inclined to highlight our own strengths and achievements while downplaying our weaknesses.
This can become particularly strong when identifying with a particular social group. By attributing positive outcomes to internal factors, individuals bolster their social identity and align themselves with the positive characteristics associated with their group, further reinforcing the self-serving bias.
There are also societal and cultural factors that can influence the self-serving bias. People who live in individualistic cultures are more likely to use self-serving explanations to help preserve self-esteem.
These cultures have a much stronger emphasis on individualism and personal achievement. Protecting the sense of self is seen as highly important.
People who come from more collectivist backgrounds are more likely to see their own good fortunes as the result of their communities or even luck.
Examples of the Self-Serving Bias
Some examples of how the self-serving bias works in real-world situations include:
Scenario: You are looking for a new job.
Self-serving bias: When looking for work, the self-serving bias leads you to attribute any success you have to your own talent (like the great resume you wrote or your charming interview skills), while any failures are caused by outside forces (like poor interviewers, a tight job market, etc.).
Scenario: Your team with a game.
Self-serving bias: When a team wins a game, players attribute the success to their own individual skills and contributions. They may downplay the contributions of other players on the team. But if the team loses, they are more likely to blame the poor performance on other teammates, unfair referees, or unfavorable environmental conditions.
Scenario: You get a positive performance review at work.
Self-serving bias: At work, the self-serving bias might lead people to take credit for good outcomes. When things go well, they might attribute the success to their intelligence, hard work, or other internal factors. But when failures happen, they might blame outside forces like a tight economic market or poor management.
Scenario: A committed, long-term relationship either succeeds or fails.
Self-serving bias: When a relationship is going well, a person might credit their own efforts, romantic abilities, or communication skills. When problems arise, they might blame the failed relationship on their ex-partner’s shortcomings or outside pressures.
Health and Wellness
Scenario: A person has good health or experiences health problems.
Self-serving bias: When a person is enjoying good health, they might credit their own efforts and lifestyle choices. But when health problems arise, they might be more inclined to blame other factors, like environmental problems or lack of access to quality healthcare.
What Are the Effects of the Self-Serving Bias?
The self-serving bias can have both positive and negative effects.
The self-serving bias often helps people keep going even when they are facing challenges and obstacles in their path.
Positive Effects of the Self-Serving Bias
Some of the potential positive effects of the self-serving bias include:
- Better self-esteem
- Improved self-image
- Increased confidence
- Improved motivation
- Encourages setting challenging goals
- Increase perseverance despite obstacles
- Better emotional well-being
- Greater resilience
- Increasing leadership and assertiveness
Negative Effects of the Self-Serving Bias
The self-serving bias can also have a number of serious disadvantages, however. This is particularly true if this bias is overused. Some downsides include:
- Reduced accountability
- Greater interpersonal conflict and misunderstandings
- Excessive risk-taking
- Blaming others
- Impaired collaboration and teamwork
- Lack of personal growth
- Increased perceptions of narcissism
- Poor decision making
Preventing the Self-Serving Bias
While you can’t completely eliminate the self-serving bias, there are things that you can to do minimize its negative effects. Tactics that can help include:
- Become more aware of the self-serving bias and try to notice when it’s affecting your judgments
- Develop greater self-awareness and spend time thinking about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
- Consider other explanations for successes and failures
- Seek feedback from others so you can see situations from other perspectives
- Challenge your assumptions about situations and the attributions you’re inclined to make
- Take responsibility for your choices and actions
- Try to acknowledge your role in both positive and negative outcomes
- Work on developing a growth mindset and looking for opportunities to grow and improve
- Try journaling so that you can gain more insight and perspective into both good and bad outcomes
It may take time, but incorporating these strategies into your life can help you look at situations from a more realistic point of view. Rather than simply taking credit for success and blaming failures on others, you’ll be able to see your role in various scenarios much more clearly. This can not only help you make better decisions; it can also encourage personal development, better decision-making, and healthier social relationships.
Key Points to Remember
The self-serving bias affects judgments and decision-making across a wide range of situations and scenarios. It’s a normal part of how we think, and it isn’t always a bad thing. It can act as a defense mechanism that props up self-esteem and protects us from feelings of anxiety.
When we overuse the self-serving bias as a way to avoid taking responsibility, it can have a negative effect on our lives. If we don’t adequately consider how we contribute to mistakes, it minimizes the chances that we will learn and grow from those experiences.
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