What Is Self-Serving Bias? | Definition & Example
Self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute our successes to internal, personal factors, and our failures to external, situational factors. In other words, we like to take credit for our triumphs, but we are more likely to blame others or circumstances for our shortcomings.
Self-serving bias prevents us from learning from our mistakes.This can distort our self-perception and significantly impair our ability to reflect on negative outcomes. Self-serving bias is evident when explaining our behavior in various contexts, such as job performance, sports, or even driving ability.
What is self-serving bias?
Self-serving bias is a type of cognitive bias in which an individual distorts reality in order to protect their ego. This bias frequently manifests as a tendency to attribute success to the self and failure to external causes.
More specifically, self-serving bias is a type of attribution bias, which occurs when we try to explain certain behaviors or outcomes. Actor-observer bias is a similar type of attribution bias.
Under the self-serving bias, how we explain the root cause of an outcome depends on whether the outcome is positive or negative. We tend to attribute positive outcomes to our characteristics or abilities, while negative outcomes are attributed to external circumstances.
For example, we are more likely to take personal credit for a high grade on an exam (positive outcome), but more inclined to blame another driver or the weather for a car accident (negative outcome). As a result, we make decisions or form judgments that are less than accurate but nevertheless beneficial for us.
What is attribution?
In psychology, attribution refers to how we perceive and explain the causes of behavior. Although we like to think that we are rational and objective in our attributions, these are in fact heavily subject to the same distortions as other forms of judgment. Causal attributions in particular, like those relating to success and failure, are often distorted by feelings (called affective behaviors). These processes occur without us even realizing it.
There are two main types of attribution:
- External (or situational) attribution interprets our behavior as being caused by situational factors beyond our control.
- Internal (or dispositional) attribution interprets our behavior as being caused by our personality traits.
As a result of self-serving bias, our attributions help us feel positively about ourselves. Due to this, we tend to make external attributions when the outcome of our behavior is negative, while we tend to make internal ones when the outcome is positive.
Why does self-serving bias occur?
Self-serving bias is caused by several factors. A number of theories can help explain why self-serving bias occurs:
- The need to maintain our self-esteem. One of the driving forces behind this bias is the (unconscious) need to feel good about ourselves. Because of this, we default to seeing things in a way that favors ourselves, rather than others. Taking credit for positive outcomes while attributing negative ones to external causes is a way to protect our self-esteem. At the same time, it is an effective coping strategy that helps us reduce the emotional sting of undesirable outcomes.
- The need to assign responsibility. When we make attributions, we are not only interested in what caused a certain outcome, but also in assigning responsibility. When we attribute someone’s dangerous driving to their poor driving skills (an internal factor), as opposed to an external factor like poor visibility on the road, we are also implicitly or explicitly placing the blame on them. Combined with the need to protect our ego, the need to assign responsibility can explain why it’s easier for us to blame external circumstances for our failures.
- Expectation alignment. Other researchers have proposed a different explanation, arguing that self-serving bias is related to how closely reality aligns with expectations. In other words, if the result of an event is consistent with an individual’s expectation, then they will attribute this to internal factors, but if it is unexpected, they will likely use external attributions and blame the circumstances. Given that humans tend to be optimistic, this can explain why negative outcomes usually come as a surprise and we are more likely to deflect responsibility for them (this is related to optimism bias).
Self-serving bias example
Self-serving bias is often observed in situations where an individual’s self-esteem is being threatened by negative outcomes, like in a sports event.
Other types of attribution bias
Although our attributions are reasonably accurate most of the time, there are several ways in which they can be misleading.
- Actor-observer bias. According to the actor-observer bias, we tend to explain other people’s behavior in terms of internal factors while explaining our own behavior in terms of external factors. In other words, we attribute different causes to the same (undesirable) behavior, depending on whether we are observers or actors.
- Fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overestimate the importance of character traits and underestimate the importance of situation and context when judging others’ behavior.
- Group-serving bias (or ultimate attribution error). Self-serving bias can spill over into the groups we identify with. Group-serving bias is the tendency to make more favorable attributions about our ingroups than our outgroups. For example, by crediting the ingroup for its successes, while blaming external factors for its failures.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions
- What is the difference between self-serving bias and actor-observer bias?
Self-serving bias and actor-observer bias are both types of cognitive bias, and more specifically, attribution bias. Although they both occur when we try to explain behavior, they are also quite different.
Self-serving bias refers to how we explain our behavior depending on whether the outcome of our behavior is positive or negative. For example, an athlete is more likely to attribute a good performance on their own ability, and a poor one on external causes like the event environment.
Actor-observer bias refers to how we explain the causes of (undesirable) behavior. When we are the actors, we attribute our behavior to external factors, while when we are the observers we are more likely to attribute the same behavior to internal factors. For example, when we drive dangerously, we may attribute this to the poor visibility on the road, while when another driver exhibits the same behavior, we are more likely to think they are just bad drivers.
- Why is self-serving bias a problem?
Self-serving bias is a problem because it causes us to only take credit for positive outcomes and deflect responsibility in case of negative outcomes. This prevents us from accurately reflecting on our behavior and understanding the real causes behind certain events. Due to this, self-serving bias hinders our ability to learn from mistakes or failures.
- What is a real-life example of self-serving bias?
More specifically, when an individual is promoted at work, they will attribute this to internal causes, such as their ability or work ethic. In contrast, when the same individual is fired, they will attribute this to external causes, such as an unfair manager or bad luck.
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