What Is the Self-Serving Bias?

Girl experiencing the self-serving bias
The self-serving bias often leads us to blame our failures on ourside sources. Blend Images/Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

The self-serving bias is a type of cognitive bias that involves attributing our successes to internal characteristics and blaming failures on outside forces. When we are taking in information and making judgments about the world and events around us, we don't always interpret these things objectively. Cognitive biases such as the self-serving bias often interfere with how we evaluate information and arrive at decisions.

What Is the Self-Serving Bias?

The self-serving bias refers to our tendency to take personal credit for success while blaming outside sources for our failures. Essentially, we tend to believe that our successes are due to internal traits and talents, while our failures are caused by variables outside of our control.

Let's take a closer look at a couple of examples of how this bias works.If you ace an exam, the self-serving bias will lead you to believe that it's because you studied hard. If you failed, on the other hand, this same bias will cause you to believe that it was because the teacher didn't explain the subject correctly, the classroom was too warm or your roommate kept you up all night before the exam.

Why Does the Self-Serving Bias Occur?

In many cases, this cognitive bias allows people to protect their self-esteem. By attributing positive events to personal characteristics, people get a boost in confidence.

By blaming outside forces for failures, people protect their self-esteem and absolve themselves from personal responsibility.

A number of factors have been shown to influence the self-serving bias, including:

Age: Older adults tend to make more internal attributions.

Gender: Men may tend to make more external attributions.

Locus of Control: People with an internal locus of control are more likely to make internal attributions, while those with an external locus are more likely to lay the blame on outside factors.

Culture: People from individualistic cultures are more likely to engage in the self-serving bias.

Depression and Self-Esteem: Depressed individuals are less likely to participate in the self-serving bias.

Role in the Situation: People are often more likely to make internal attributions when they witness other people's failures. However, people directly involved in a situation are more likely to engage in the self-serving bias. This is highly related to what is known as the actor-observer bias.

More Examples of the Self-Serving Bias in Action

  • Following a car accident, both parties involved blame the other driver for causing the crash.
  • After a disastrous meeting with a potential client, a businessman blames losing the account on a competitor's dirty business practices.
  • A high school basketball player makes a throw during the final seconds of a game and manages to make a basket. He attributes this to his skill at the game.
  • A student fails an exam. She blames the teacher and accuses the professor of including "trick questions" on the test.

Observations

Some experts suggest that while the self-serving bias can lead to problems in how people think, it can also have a number of benefits as well. One major advantage of this bias is that it encourages people to persevere even in the face of adversity. An unemployed worker may feel more motivated to keep looking for work if he blames his joblessness on a weak economy rather than his own incompetence. An athlete might feel more motivated to perform well if she believes that her failure during a previous event was the result of bad weather rather than her own lack of skill.

One important thing to note is that there are also major cultural differences in the prevalence of the self-serving bias. Experts suggest that while this bias is quite widespread in Western cultures including the U.S. and Canada, it tends to be much less frequent in Eastern cultures including China and Japan. Why? While individualist cultures such as the U.S. place a greater emphasis on individualism and self-esteem, so protecting the self from feelings of failure becomes more important. Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, are more likely to attribute personal success with luck and failures to lack of talent.
 

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References:

Eysenck, M. W. (2000). Psychology: A student's handbook. East Sussex, UK: Taylor & Francis Group.

Nevid, J. S. (2013). Psychology: Concepts and applications, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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