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Self-Serving Bias: Definition and Examples

By Charlotte Ruhl, published April 19, 2021


Take-home Messages
  • The self-serving bias suggests that no one wants to admit to being incompetent and are likely to blame failures on something external to ourselves. This protects our self-esteem. However, we are happy to take credit for our success
  • We rely on this bias as a way of protecting and boosting our own self-esteem. Our minds don’t want to take responsibility for negative or failed outcomes in fear of hurting our confidence.
  • Although this bias is incredibly common in many areas of our lives, from the classroom to sports to the workplace, we can work to overcome it by recognizing its existence and practicing self-compassion.

Picture yourself sitting in a classroom, anxiously awaiting the results of your most recent math exam. When the teacher finally hands you your graded test, you turn it over only to see a giant C minus written in thick red ink.

While still in disbelief, your mind immediately begins to think of all of the possible explanations for this outcome. The exam questions were too hard, the teacher didn’t teach the topics well enough, the answers were graded unfairly, the list goes on…

Now imagine that when you turned over that graded test there was a giant A plus written instead. This time, with a huge grin on your face, you begin to praise yourself for how hard you studied, for your strong understanding of the material, for how smart you are, the list goes on… This is an example of what is called the self-serving bias in psychology.

The self-serving bias refers to the tendency to attribute internal, personal factors to positive outcomes but external, situational factors to negative outcomes.

As you may know, our minds are biased to act, judge, and see the world in such a way. These cognitive biases are the product of human nature, the people we interact with, and an attempt to simplify the millions of bits of information that the brain receives each second.

Together, these factors also often cause specific errors in thinking that influence our decisions and judgments. This type of bias is called cognitive bias, and it occurs without us even realizing it (Kahneman & Tversky, 1972).

These biases arise out of problems with memory, attention, and other mental mistakes, and while they can often be dangerous, cognitive biases help you make sense of the world, reach decisions, and make judgments with relatively quick speed.

The Fundamental Attribution Error and the Actor-Observer Bias

A common phenomenon in psychology is the fundamental attribution error, also referred to as the correspondence bias. 

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors when judging others’ behavior (Ross, 1977). 

For example, if an individual cuts in front of you on the street, you might think that they did this because they are a bad person and not consider external alternatives such as the fact that they were late to work and in a rush. But what happens if you are the actor? 

In other words, what if you were the one who cut in front of the pedestrian. Would you then make the same argument that you are a bad person. 

According to the actor-observer bias, we tend to explain other people’s behavior in terms of internal factors while explaining our own behavior on the basis of external factors (Jones & Nisbett, 1971).

Because we know ourselves better than anyone else, we are able to judge when our actions are the result of something external to who we are, but our minds default to assuming another person’s actions are a result of who they are. 

But that still isn’t the complete picture. While it is true that we often attribute personal or dispositional characteristics to explain other people’s behavior while attributing situational factors when making sense of our own behavior, this isn’t always the case. 

Whether or not the specific outcome of our behavior is good or bad will actually determine whether we make an internal or external attribution. This is the self-serving bias (Heider, 1982). 

As illustrated in the example above, a failed or negative outcome (such as performing poorly on a test) causes us to make external attributions, whereas a successful or positive outcome (such as acing a test) will result in us making internal attributions.


Examples

Over the past few decades, several empirical studies have illuminated the sectors, populations, cultures, and levels of organization in which self-serving bias is more or less common.

Sport

Self-serving bias is particularly prevalent in sports. If you’ve ever played or watched a sport, you’ve probably blamed the referee’s bad call or the other team cheating when you lost a game but praised your sheer talent and mental toughness when you won.

In sports, an individual’s performance (both your own and your opponent’s) is so clearly linked to a specific outcome that it is easy for the self-serving bias to seep in.

And because the outcome and players are so apparent, self-serving bias is especially common in individual sports, where the sole winner is even more defined.

Dating all the way back to 1987, a study conducted by Stephen Zaccaro and colleagues collected 549 statements from athletes who played both individual (e.g., tennis and golf) and team sports (e.g., baseball, football, and basketball) and found that individual sport athletes were significantly more likely to make self-serving attributions about their performance (Zaccaro et al., 1987).

In conjunction with the self-esteem theory for this form of bias, the researchers concluded that for individual sport athletes, their performance had a more significant impact on their self-esteem, so they relied more on the self-serving bias to increase their confidence.

Another empirical analysis that investigated the self-serving bias in Division I wrestlers further supports the prevalence of this bias among athletes (De Michele et al., 1998). The wrestlers were asked to self-report on their performance during preseason matches and supply the results of these matches.

The researchers found that wrestlers who won were more likely to attribute their success to internal factors than those who lost.

And in 2020, a comprehensive meta-analysis that looked at 69 studies and 10,515 total athletes demonstrated that those who play sports have a tendency to attribute success to dispositional factors and failure to external factors (Allen et al., 2020).

Workplace

From the hiring phase to the firing phase to everything in between, self-serving bias is just as common in the workplace as it is in the sports sector.

People who are hired for a position often attribute this decision to personal factors, such as an exceptional resume or other strong qualifications, but are quick to point to external factors, such as a short-sighted hiring manager, when they are not given the position.

And in the office setting itself, self-serving bias can run rampant in the event of any workplace incident: the victim is likely to blame external factors, while the coworkers and management are more likely to see the accident as a result of the victim’s actions.

In situations like these, the self-serving bias proves to be an obstacle to productivity by blocking the ability to evaluate a situation fairly and take responsibility for any shortcomings.

This can also hurt professional relationships as a result. And when these relationships are tarnished, self-serving bias increases. Specifically, a 2007 conducted by Joseph Walther and Natalya Bazarova found that the more distant the relationship between employees and their colleagues were, the more easily co-workers blamed each other for workplace failures.

But this form of bias can also occur when workplace successes arise, whether it be a promotion or a presentation that went well. The employee is likely to take full responsibility for these outcomes and neglect the people and circumstances that helped them earn their success.

Self-serving bias is even visible when an employee is terminated: people are quick to attribute external factors for the decision to lay them off (Furnham, 1982). Regardless of the job application stage, type of work, or an individual’s title, the self-serving bias is incredibly pervasive in the workplace.

Depression, Culture, and International Effects

Sports and the workplace are just two areas where we can identify this form of bias. Consumer decisions, interpersonal relationships, and other areas of life are also affected by the self-serving bias, and certain populations are affected more than others.

For example, research has shown that individuals with depression experience self-serving bias to a much lesser degree. A 2004 meta-analysis analyzed 266 studies that surveyed people from different age groups, diverse regions, and with various forms of psychopathology (Mezulis et al., 2004).

The researchers found that the presence of the bias was smallest among those who were clinically diagnosed with depression. They posited that this effect might be due to the fact that these individuals already have lower-than-average levels of self-esteem, so they are more likely to attribute negative events to something they did.

Relating back to the hypothesis that the self-serving bias is tied to how closely an outcome aligned with our expectations, a person with depression might also expect more negative outcomes, and so when those do occur, they take responsibility for them.

The same study also revealed that Asian samples displayed significantly smaller biases than U.S. or Western samples. This finding highlights the cross-cultural differences of the self-serving bias – it is much more prominent in individualistic than collectivist cultures.

This may be because in individualistic societies, there is a larger focus on individual goals and identity which increases the need for people to protect and increase their personal self-esteem levels.

Finally, research has also indicated that the self-serving bias occurs on a national scale. That is, instead of an individual attributing personal factors to their own successes and external factors to their failures, groups often attribute factors unique to their country when successes arise and factors related to other countries when they run into failures.

A common example of this nationalistic self-serving bias is with climate change. A 2011 study conducted out of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Zurich investigated citizens’ perceptions on which country should lower its greenhouse gas emissions (Kriss et al., 2011).

The team administered surveys to college students in both the U.S. and China and found that they all held nationalistic self-serving biases in regard to the economic burdens that result from reducing these emissions, demonstrating the challenges of making international agreements.

The researchers note that with proper intervention, these biases can be mitigated in an attempt to stimulate environmental policy legislation across the world.

Why Does It Occur?

During the 1960s, when psychologists began to investigate the fundamental attribution error.

An Austrian psychologist named Fritz Heider found that in certain ambiguous situations (situations in which the reason for the outcome is unknown), people tend to make attributions based on their need to maintain a higher level of self-esteem for themselves (Heider, 1982).

To many psychologists, a need for increased self-esteem is the driving force for the presence of this bias. We default to taking responsibility for positive outcomes as a mechanism for preserving our self-esteem and are quick to divert the blame of negative outcomes to protect ourselves.

Having these high levels of self-esteem allows us to feel confident and secure and have positive relationships with others as a result. Additionally, when you have high self-esteem, you’re more open to learning and feedback. Thus, we subconsciously rely on this self-serving bias as a way of maintaining our self-esteem.

Although the linkage between self-esteem and the self-serving bias is a leading theory, psychologists have identified several other reasons for why this bias is so prevalent among individuals.

As this phenomenon was gaining traction in the 60s and 70s, two prominent psychologists, Dale Miller and Michael Ross, pushed back on the self-esteem explanation and argued that self-serving bias is instead tied to how closely reality aligns with an individual’s expectations.

In other words, if the outcome of an event is consistent with a person’s expectation, then they will attribute internal factors to the outcome (Miller & Ross, 1975). But if the outcome is unexpected, then they will make external attributions and blame their surroundings.

Another possible explanation is that self-serving bias is a result of natural optimism (“Self-serving bias - biases & heuristics,” 2021).

This theory holds that because humans are inherently optimistic, negative outcomes come as a surprise, and so when these outcomes do occur, we are more likely to attribute these results to external factors as opposed to internal ones.

This helps further explain Miller and Ross’ theory – because humans are naturally optimistic, we expect positive and successful outcomes, so when they don’t occur we assume it is a result of situational factors alone.

These leading theories help illustrate why we might regularly fall victim to the self-serving bias. And although the root cause is still debated, there is no doubt that this form of bias is incredibly prevalent.


How to Overcome It?

Just as the researchers in Zurich and at Carnegie Mellon alluded to, overcoming self-serving bias is not futile. And the first step is something you are doing right now: awareness!

Like most cognitive biases, bringing something from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind is the first step to mitigating the bias.

And recognizing that biases grow out of our mind’s tendency to think quickly and make snap judgments and decisions, it is important to try to slow down your thinking – taking all relevant factors into consideration and trying to avoid making rash decisions or statements.

The self-serving bias is unique in that it is closely related to our self-esteem. When we rely on this bias to help elevate our sense of self-worth, it makes self-improvement difficult because we are less likely to learn from our mistakes and accept any negative feedback.

But because knowing how to admit when you are in the wrong or are responsible for a negative outcome is paramount to growth, it’s important to challenge the self-serving bias and learn how to be better at taking criticisms.

An important way to do this is by practicing self-compassion – allowing yourself to be imperfect and still treating yourself with unconditional kindness when you fall short of your own expectations (Neff, 2003).

You can practice self-compassion through mindfulness, therapy, and even on your own. These are just a few ways to help combat self-serving bias. The bottom line is that although this bias is inherent in who we are as humans, we can still work towards overcoming this pattern of thinking and, at the end of the day, recognize that it is okay to make mistakes.

About the Author

Charlotte Ruhl is a member of the Class of 2022 at Harvard University. She studies Psychology with a minor in African American Studies. On campus, Charlotte works at an implicit social cognition research lab, is an editor for the undergraduate law review, and plays softball.

How to reference this article:

Ruhl , C. (2021, April 19). Self-serving bias: definition and examples. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Self-serving-bias.html

APA Style References

Allen, M. S., Robson, D. A., Martin, L. J., & Laborde, S. (2020). Systematic review and meta-analysis of self-serving attribution biases in the competitive context of organized sport. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(7), 1027-1043.

De Michele, P. E., Gansneder, B., & Solomon, G. B. (1998). Success and failure attributions of wrestlers: Further evidence of the self-serving bias. Journal of Sport Behavior, 21(3), 242.

John, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1971). The actor and observer: Divergent perception of the causes of behavior: Attribution: Perceiving the causes of behavior.

Furnham, A. (1982). Explanations for unemployment in Britain. European Journal of Social Psychology, 12(4), 335-352.

Heider, F. (1982). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Psychology Press.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1972). Subjective probability: A judgment of representativeness. Cognitive psychology, 3(3), 430-454.

Kriss, P. H., Loewenstein, G., Wang, X., & Weber, R. A. (2011). Behind the veil of ignorance: Self-serving bias in climate change negotiations. Judgment and Decision Making, 6(7), 602-615.

Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711.

Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction?. Psychological Bulletin, 82(2), 213.

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173-220). Academic Press.

Self-serving bias - biases & heuristics. (2021). Retrieved from https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/self-serving-bias/

Walther, J. B., & Bazarova, N. N. (2007). Misattribution in virtual groups: The effects of member distribution on self-serving bias and partner blame. Human Communication Research, 33(1), 1-26.

Zaccaro, S. J., Peterson, C., & Walker, S. (1987). Self-serving attributions for individual and group performance. Social Psychology Quarterly, 257-263.

How to reference this article:

Ruhl , C. (2021, April 19). Self-serving bias: definition and examples. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Self-serving-bias.html

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