Self-serving bias describes the tendency of individuals to attribute their successes to internal factors, such as their abilities and effort, while blaming their failures to external factors, such as luck or situational factors beyond their control.
What is self-serving bias? Definition and explanation
Self-serving bias is a cognitive bias where one attributes positive events or outcomes to one’s abilities or internal traits, and negative events or outcomes to external factors.
This bias leads us to take credit for our success but avoid responsibility for our failures.
For example, a student may attribute their good grades to their intelligence or hard work but attribute their poor grades to a difficult teacher or an unfair grading system. Similarly, athletes may attribute their wins to their skill but blame their losses on bad luck or the referees’ calls.
Self-attribution bias versus self-serving attribution
Self-serving bias can take on different forms depending on the context in which it occurs. For example, self-attribution bias and self-serving attribution are both considered forms of self-serving bias.
Self-attribution bias is an example of the fundamental attribution error (attributional bias), while self-serving attribution is an example of the self-serving bias.
Learn more about the difference between them all below.
Self-attribution bias refers to people’s tendency to attribute successes to internal or dispositional factors (e.g., abilities or efforts) and failures to external or situational factors (e.g., luck or other people’s actions).
- A student does well on an exam and attributes his success to his intelligence and hard work while attributing his classmates’ poor performance to lack of effort or intelligence.
- A saleswoman closes a deal and attributes her success to her sales skills while blaming her failure to close a deal to a tough market or uninterested clients.
This bias can protect one’s self-esteem, as it allows individuals to maintain a positive self-image by taking credit for their successes while deflecting responsibility for their failures.
Self-serving attribution involves a more extreme form of self-attribution bias.
Like self-attribution bias, individuals attribute their successes to internal or dispositional factors and their failures to external or situational factors – but with the additional motivation to enhance their self-esteem or self-image.
This bias often involves overestimating one’s own abilities/efforts and underestimating the role of luck/other people’s actions in determining outcomes.
- Athletes who win a game attribute their success to skill and dedication while attributing their failure to poor refereeing or unfavorable weather conditions.
- Students who fail a test blame a difficult exam or an unfair grading system while attributing their classmates’ good grades to an easier test.
Self-serving bias – examples from daily life
Self-serving bias is a common bias that people exhibit in their daily lives. Below are some examples of daily occurrences.
In romantic relationships, individuals may exhibit self-serving bias by attributing their partner’s negative behaviors to their partner’s personality traits while attributing their own negative behaviors to situational factors.
For example, if one partner forgets a date, they may attribute it to a busy schedule – but if the other partner forgets the date, they may attribute it to forgetfulness or indifference.
In the workplace, employees may exhibit self-serving bias by attributing their success to their own abilities and hard work while attributing their failures to external factors such as a demanding boss or a lack of resources.
For example, if a project succeeds, employees credit their hard work, but if it fails, they may blame external factors.
When it comes to health, individuals may exhibit self-serving bias by attributing positive health outcomes to their own healthy behaviors, while attributing negative health outcomes to external factors such as genetics or bad luck.
For example, people may credit their good health to their regular exercise routine while attributing bad luck or environmental factors to a health problem.
Athletes often exhibit self-serving bias by attributing their success to their own abilities and effort while attributing their failures to external factors such as injuries, weather conditions, or poor officiating.
For example, a football player may credit their winning touchdown to their superior skills while blaming a loss on a missed call by the referee.
What causes self-serving bias?
Self-serving bias can be caused by a variety of factors such as the following:
- Social and cultural influences: Can shape how people view themselves and their successes, as well as how they attribute failure. For example, living in a culture that values individualism and self-reliance may encourage people to take credit for their successes and avoid blame for their failures.
- Cognitive heuristics: Fundamental attribution error is an example of a cognitive heuristic that can contribute to self-serving bias. It leads people to overemphasize internal factors when explaining their own behavior.
- Motivational factors: For example, the desire to protect one’s self-esteem can lead people to engage in self-serving bias to maintain a positive self-image.
The effect of self-serving bias
Self-serving bias can positively and negatively affect individuals and society.
On the positive side, self-serving bias can be a source of motivation and self-confidence, as people take credit for their success and feel good about their abilities. This can help people achieve their goals and feel more in control of their lives.
On the negative side, however, the bias can lead to overconfidence and complacency, as people underestimate the role of external factors in their success and fail to learn from their mistakes.
Additionally, self-serving bias can contribute to conflict and misunderstanding in social interactions, as people attribute negative behavior to others’ personality traits rather than situational factors.
How to reduce self-serving bias
One approach to reduce self-serving bias is to encourage people to take a more balanced perspective when they evaluate their behavior. For example, asking people to consider both internal and external factors when explaining their successes and failures. Or imagining how someone else might view the situation in their shoes.
Another approach is to provide feedback and accountability, which can help people see the gap between their self-perceptions and reality. For example, receiving honest feedback from a supervisor can help an individual see where they need to improve and how they can avoid repeating past mistakes.
Finally, an excellent way to reduce self-serving bias is to practice mindfulness and self-reflection, as it increases awareness of one’s own thought patterns and biases. This is particularly a good practice when it comes to unconscious bias or conscious bias.