Self-Serving Bias

Self-Serving Bias Definition

The self-serving bias refers to the tendency to take credit for successful outcomes in life, but to blame the situation or other people for failing outcomes. For example, when an individual gets a promotion at work, he or she will explain this by citing an internal cause, such as his or her ability or diligence. In contrast, when the same individual is fired from a job, he or she will explain this by pointing to an external cause, such as an unfair boss or bad luck. In general, the self-serving bias allows individuals to feel positively about themselves and to protect themselves from the negative psychological consequences of failure.

Self-Serving Bias Background and History

Self-Serving BiasThe self-serving bias is part of a larger area in social psychology known as causal attributions, or the way individuals explain events in the social world. Fritz Heider, a social psychologist, argued in his classic work on attribution theory that four basic types of attributions can be made regarding an individual’s behavior. These include two internal attributions, ability and effort, and two external attributions, difficulty and luck. Internal attributions apply to something about the person and external attributions apply to something about the situation. For example, if a person successfully rows a boat across a lake, his or her success could be attributed to internal factors: the person’s ability (e.g., strength or rowing skill) or effort (e.g., the person was motivated because he or she had a good friend on the other side or was being chased). The person’s success could also be attributed to external factors: the difficulty of the task (e.g., it was a small lake) or luck (e.g., an unexpected breeze blew him or her across). Bernard Weiner, who played a central role in creating modern attribution theory, later expanded on these ideas.

The self-serving bias occurs when individuals make attributions for their own (rather than others’) behavior. When the outcome is positive, individuals make more internal attributions; when the outcome is negative, individuals make more external attributions. This difference in attributions for positive and for negative outcomes is why the self-serving bias is considered a bias. This bias is readily apparent when you think about a group situation. Imagine a classroom of students who have just gotten grades back on a test. The students who get A’s are likely to explain their success by ascribing it to their intelligence and work ethic; the students who failed are likely to explain their failure by ascribing it to the fact that the test was too hard or unfair, or only asked questions about the one area they didn’t study. Both groups of students cannot be correct in their attributions. Either the test was fair and the students who failed were not smart enough or did not study sufficiently, or the test was truly unfair and the students who received A’s really just got lucky. Importantly, although the self-serving bias in this example leads to a distortion of reality by many students, it also leads to all students feeling as good about themselves as possible. The students with A’s think they are smart, and the students with F’s think it was not a reflection of their ability or effort.

Self-Serving Bias Situations and Measurement

The self-serving bias can be observed in a wide range of situations. Individual situations are the most commonly studied. These simply involve a person engaging in a task by himself or herself, and then receiving positive or negative feedback about the performance. Taking an exam would be an example of an individual task. Dyadic tasks and group tasks involve more than one person. In a dyadic task, a person and a partner work together on a task, and feedback is directed toward their combined efforts. For example, if two students worked together on a class project, they would only receive a single grade for their combined effort. A group task is similar, but involves more than two people. For example, a team playing a soccer game would be an example of a group task. Finally, there are situations that involve two or more people, but in which the performance feedback is given to a single person whom the other directs. For example, in a teacher-student task, a teacher who has a failing student might be asked how personally responsible the student is, relative to the teacher, for the failure. Likewise, a therapist might be asked how personally responsible the client is, relative to the therapist, for the failure to get well.

There are two basic strategies for assessing the self-serving bias. The first is to ask someone to complete a task, give that person success or failure feedback, and then ask him or her to attribute responsibility for the performance to internal or external factors. When this strategy is completed in a psychology lab, the participant usually completes a task, such as a novel creativity test, and then is given randomly determined success or failure feedback. In other words, the experimenter will tell the participants at random that half of them succeeded and half of them failed. When this strategy is used in a classroom setting and the participants are students, the students simply take a test and are given accurate results. They are then asked to attribute the results to internal or external causes.

The second basic strategy for assessing the self-serving bias is to use paper and pencil questionnaires. Participants are presented with a series of hypothetical situations that have positive or negative outcomes and then are asked to what they would attribute each outcome. The most used questionnaire of this type is the Attributional Style Questionnaire.

Causes, Consequences, and Contexts of Self-Serving Bias

The primary cause underlying the self-serving bias is the desire to protect or enhance the positivity of the self. The self-serving bias allows individuals to maintain positive feelings about themselves in the face of failure (“it wasn’t my fault”) or to feel particularly good about themselves following success (“I am a genius!”). This means that the self-serving bias will be most evident in those individuals or in those situations in which the desire to protect or enhance the self is the strongest.

Certain individuals or groups are more likely to show the self-serving bias than are others. Individuals who feel particularly good about themselves, such as those who are narcissistic or in happy moods are more likely to show the self-serving bias. In contrast, depressed individuals are less likely to show the self-serving bias. Individuals who care more about achievement and success also report a greater self-serving bias.

At a group level, men show a greater self-serving bias than do women. This is because men, on average, are more narcissistic and have higher self-esteem than do women. Similarly, U.S. citizens and Westerners more generally show a greater self-serving bias than do East Asians. Again, this parallels the great narcissism and higher self-esteem found in the West.

Certain situations also can increase or reduce the self-serving bias. If the task is important, such as a major exam, individuals are more likely to show the self-serving bias than they are on unimportant tasks. Likewise, moderately challenging tasks are more likely to elicit the self-serving bias than very easy tasks. Individuals also show the self-serving bias more when they choose the task they are participating in rather than being told what task to complete. For example, if an individual wants to play tennis in school, he or she is more likely to show the self-serving bias than if his or her parents force the individual to play. Furthermore, the self-serving bias will be greater when the individual expects to do well on a task than when he or she expects to perform poorly.

Finally, any situation that makes an individual more self-aware is likely to increase the self-serving bias. This is because self-awareness makes people think about their own internal goals and standards. For example, if someone completes a musical performance while being filmed (a simple way to increase self-awareness), the self-serving bias will increase.

One particularly interesting situation is when the self-serving bias is reported publicly. In public, individuals are less likely to show the self-serving bias. The reason for this is that it often looks better to take responsibility for failure and share credit for success. For example, imagine if a quarterback after a winning football game said at an interview: “I won this game single-handedly!” The fans would think he was an arrogant jerk and his teammates would stop supporting him. This is why most athletes on a winning team will readily share the credit with other players and even the fans.


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