What is Self Serving Bias?
Self serving bias is a cognitive bias that refers to the tendency for individuals to take credit for their successes while blaming their failures on external factors. In other words, people tend to see themselves positively by attributing their accomplishments to their internal abilities and failures to things outside their control.
A classic example of the self serving bias is a student who receives an A on an exam and attributes their success to their intelligence and hard work. However, if they receive a lower grade, they blame the teacher or some aspect of the test. You can imagine this type of distortion occurring at work, in sports, and so on.
Self-serving bias is our brain’s way of maintaining a positive self-image. People want to feel good about themselves. Attributing success to internal factors like intelligence or hard work helps them do so. Another reason is that people may have an inflated sense of self, leading them to overestimate their abilities and attribute success to themselves rather than external factors.
This habit might seem harmless, but it can significantly affect our lives. Therefore, it is crucial to identify and curb the behavior associated with the self-serving bias to prevent it from negatively impacting our decision-making processes and future opportunities.
Self-serving bias can cause distortions in our thinking. For example, it can lead us to be overly confident in our abilities, making it difficult to learn from our mistakes. Overall, this distortion can make it harder for us to make accurate judgments and decisions.
Learn more about Cognitive Biases.
Self Serving Bias Examples
Here are several examples of self-serving bias in action:
A salesperson who meets their monthly quota attributes their success to their excellent sales skills. However, when they miss their quota, they blame external factors like the economy or the company’s product line.
A basketball player who scores the winning shot in a game attributes their success to their skill and practice. Conversely, if they miss a shot, they blame the referee or the lighting in the gym.
Why Self-Serving Bias Occurs
This cognitive distortion was first identified as a notable phenomenon in the late 1960s when Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider researched attribution bias, another type of cognitive defect. Heider found that people tend to make attributions based on their own needs in ambiguous scenarios to maintain a higher level of self-esteem, defining this tendency as the self-serving bias.
Since then, researchers have explored the link between the self-serving bias and depression. Clinically depressed individuals exhibit this cognitive pattern less than average. In fact, they tend to attribute adverse outcomes to their internal faults and characteristics while crediting successes to external factors and luck.
Frequently, researchers study the self-serving bias in a lab setting by having people do tasks like solving problems or teaching skills. They randomly given fictional feedback to the participants. This feedback doesn’t correlate with their actual performance. Sometimes, the experimenters will manipulate conditions and the subjects’ emotions.
After completing the task and the subjects receive their “feedback,” the researchers ask the participants why they succeeded or failed and use their answers to determine if they have distorted attributions for their outcomes.
Self-serving bias occurs due to various factors such as locus of control, motivational factors, age and gender, and cultural differences.
Locus of Control
Locus of control is a psychological concept that describes people’s beliefs about how much they control the outcomes in their lives. Individuals with an internal locus of control tend to take responsibility for their successes and failures. In contrast, those with an external locus of control attribute their achievements and setbacks to external factors such as luck, fate, or the actions of others.
In this context, the self-serving bias tinkers with our locus of control to make us feel better. It gives us an internal locus of control for our successes but an external locus for our failures and mistakes. To some extent, this process is psychologically healthy, but don’t let it get out of hand.
Maintaining our self-esteem can contribute to the self-serving bias. It allows us to attribute our successes to our abilities. But when faced with failure, we often blame external factors, shielding ourselves from criticism. This cognitive bias alters our self-perception and distorts our view of reality, all in the name of preserving and boosting our self-esteem.
Age and gender can also play a role in the self-serving bias. Studies have shown that people become less likely to exhibit this distortion as they age. Over time people tend to develop a more realistic understanding of their abilities and limitations. Finally, men are more likely to display this distortion than women.
Cultural differences can also impact the frequency of this type of distortion. For example, individualistic cultures tend to emphasize personal achievement and self-reliance, which can lead to greater self-serving bias. In contrast, collectivistic cultures prioritize group harmony and interdependence, which may reduce its prevalence.
In conclusion, the self-serving bias is a common cognitive bias that can affect our perceptions. By understanding this cognitive blind spot and being aware of how it can distort our views, we can strive to make more accurate judgments and decisions.
Although this distortion can help safeguard our self-esteem, it can also cause individuals to evade accountability for their actions. Failing to perceive a situation accurately can hinder their ability to learn from mistakes.
On the other hand, when someone is experiencing depression or low self-esteem, they may exhibit the opposite distortion. In such cases, they may attribute favorable outcomes to external factors like luck or assistance while blaming themselves for adverse events.
Greenberg, Jeff; Pyszczynski, Tom; Burling, John; Tibbs, Karyn (1992). “Depression, self-focused attention, and the self-serving attributional bias”. Personality and Individual Differences. 13 (9): 959–965. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(92)90129-D.
Miller, Dale; Michael Ross (1975). “Self-serving Biases in the Attribution of Causality: Fact or Fiction?”. Psychological Bulletin. 82 (2): 213–225.