What Is the Self-Serving Bias?

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

What Is the Self-Serving Bias?

The self-serving bias is a type of cognitive bias that involves taking personal credit for successes while blaming negative outcomes on external factors.  Although this bias sometimes means evading personal responsibility for your actions, the self-serving bias also acts as a defense mechanism that protects your self-esteem. 

The self-serving bias occurs in a wide range of settings, including school, work, interpersonal relationships, consumer choices, and sports. It is influenced by a range of different factors including locus of control, motivation, age, and culture

Examples of the Self-Serving Bias

There are a number of different signs that the self-serving bias might be influencing how you attribute events.

Let’s say you ace an exam. The self-serving bias would lead you to believe that it's because you studied hard. If you failed, on the other hand, you might believe 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.

All of these things may be true, but they’re not painting a complete picture of all the circumstances that led to your performance on the test. Some other examples of this bias:

  • 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.

Factors That Play a Role

There are a few different factors that can influence whether or not people are likely to engage in self-serving explanations for behavior.

Locus of Control

Locus of control involves personal beliefs about the factors that cause different events to happen. Generally speaking, people tend to have either an internal locus of control or an external locus of control.

A person with an internal locus of control believes that they have a great deal of control over the events that happen in their life. They may take credit for the great things that happen, but it also sometimes means that they take the blame for things that are outside of their control. 

Someone with an external locus of control is more likely to attribute outcomes to outside forces. Instead of believing that they have the power to influence what will happen, they tend to assume that nothing they do will have any impact and that only external factors determine what will happen.

A person with an internal locus of control may feel good about their accomplishments, but they may also take on shame and guilt that don't really belong to them. A person with an external locus of control avoids this guilt, but they also tend to feel more helpless and powerless to control their fate. 

A person with an external locus of control is more likely to engage in self-serving explanations for failure than people with an internal locus of control. By taking credit for successes and assigning blame elsewhere for failures, they're able to protect their self-esteem.

Motivational Factors

Different types of motivation can also influence the self-serving bias. When motivated by self-enhancement, people feel a need to use internal attributions for success and external attributions for failure in order to improve their view of the self. 

The image that people want to convey to others, or their self-presentation, also affects self-serving attributions. Taking credit for positive outcomes and placing the blame elsewhere for negative ones helps people present themselves to others in a more positive light.

Age and Sex

A number of factors have been shown to influence the self-serving bias, including age and gender. Older adults tend to make more internal attributions, that is, credit themselves for their successes. Men are more likely to make external attributions, meaning they tend to blame outside forces for their failures.

Cultural Influences

Cultural influence can play a role in how frequently people engage in the self-serving bias. While this bias is quite widespread in Western cultures including the United States and Canada, it tends to be much less frequent in Eastern cultures like China and Japan.

This is because individualist cultures such as the U.S. place a greater emphasis on personal achievement and self-esteem, so protecting the self from feelings of failure is more important. ​On the other hand, collectivist cultures, such as tend to be found in Eastern cultures, are more likely to attribute personal success to luck and failures to lack of talent.

There are some scenarios where self-serving bias is less likely. People in romantic relationships and close friendships may tend to be more modest, for example. Your friends or your partner, in other words, keep you in check with honest criticism about when a bad situation might be part of your own doing.

Impact of the Self-Serving Bias

In many cases, this cognitive bias allows you to protect your self-esteem. By attributing positive events to personal characteristics, you get a boost in confidence. By blaming outside forces for failures, you protect your self-esteem and absolve yourself from personal responsibility.

One advantage of this bias is that it leads people to persevere even in the face of adversity.

An unemployed worker may feel more motivated to keep looking for work if they attribute their joblessness to a weak economy, for instance, rather than some personal failing. An athlete might feel more motivated to perform well if they believe that their failure during a previous event was the result of bad weather rather than a lack of skill.

How to Avoid the Self-Serving Bias

While the self-serving bias is quite common, it can have a number of negative effects on decision-making. There are some strategies that may help you avoid this bias or prevent it from affecting your choices in detrimental ways.

  • Learn to spot it: Becoming more aware of the bias may help you see situations more realistically. When you assess situations, take a moment to consider whether your assessments might be influenced by this bias.
  • Practice self-acceptance: Being able to accept flaws and treat yourself with kindness reduces the impact of failures on self-esteem.
  • Treat yourself with compassion: Look at yourself with kindness, even when you make mistakes. Research has found that using self-compassion reduces negative feelings and thoughts.
  • Reduce self-criticism: Part of practicing self-compassion also involves working to be less self-critical. Studies suggest that athletes who use self-compassion are less critical of themselves after making a mistake. 

Potential Pitfalls

While the self-serving bias can protect self-esteem, it can lead to people avoiding responsibility for their own actions. If they are unable to see the situation accurately, it means they may not learn anything from their own mistakes. 

Often when a person is depressed or has low self-esteem, this kind of bias may be reversed: they’ll attribute positive outcomes to outside help or even luck, and blame themselves when bad things happen.

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8 Sources
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