Psychologists claim that the human mind is biased to preassume, act, and view the world in a particular way that is aligned with the previously stored information (values or beliefs). Due to the tendency of the human brain to simplify the large amount of information that we receive on daily basis based on prior information, people tend to fall victim to various cognitive biases. In this article, we’ll discuss the self-serving bias. Self-serving bias refers to the people’s tendency to associate the positive events such as wins with their own actions or character, while the negative events such as losing to external factors. Self-service bias makes the people take the credit for anything good that happens and blame the others people or factors for anything bad that happens. It is said that the majority of populations exhibit a self-serving bias. Let’s discuss the various factors that influence the self-serving bias, background, real-life examples of self-serving bias, and different ways to overcome the self-serving bias.
Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias
Fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency of the person to ignore the various situational or external factors and overemphasise the dispositional factors (Ross, 1997). For example, suppose you are driving your car in your lane and a car behind you suddenly overtakes you. You are more likely to assume that the driver of that car is irrational or impatient without considering the external factors such as maybe that person was in hurry or had an emergency. Now, suppose you are the one who suddenly overtakes the other person’s car. Will you consider yourself irrational or impatient? Well, the chances are very low as you might try to explain your behaviour through several other factors. This can be understood through the actor-observer bias. According to this bias, we tend to judge other people’s behaviour based on internal factors, while we judge our own behaviour based on external factors (Jones & Nisbett, 1971). However, an Austrian psychologist, Fritz Heider claimed that whether the person makes the external or the internal attributions depends upon the outcome of the behaviour, i.e., whether the outcome is good or bad. This is termed the self-serving bias. For example, a person tends to make the external attribution (blaming the teacher) if he/she fails the exams (negative outcome), while the person tends to make the internal attribution (praising oneself) if he/she aces the exams (positive outcome).
Background of Self-serving Bias
The term self-serving bias becomes notable in the late 1960s. The theory related to the self-serving bias was first formulated on the basis of the research related to the attribution biases. Attribution bias refers to the cognitive bias due to which the people commit several systematic errors while evaluating the causes of their and others’ behaviour. Fritz Heider analyse the findings of the attribution research and found that the attributions that people make for the cause of anything are highly influenced by their own needs, i.e., they exhibit the self-serving bias to feel good about themselves and maintain high self-esteem. Self-serving bias is also influenced by several factors such as age, culture, gender, and clinically diagnosis. We’ll discuss these factors further in this article. Nowadays, researchers are using several advanced methods such as lab tests, and naturalistic experiments to explore more about the self-serving bias and how it impacts the various other fields. Moderns researches on the self-serving bias also consider the various physiological manipulations to understand the various biological factors that influence the self-serving bias.
Factors Determining the Self-serving Bias
Not every person is equally likely to exhibit a self-serving bias. Various external factors impact the self-serving bias and certain people are more likely to get affected by the self-serving bias than the others. The following are certain factors that determine the self-serving bias.
There are mainly two types of motivation that impact the self-serving bias, i.e., self-enhancement and self-presentation.
Self-enhancement is considered a primary factor that makes people fall victim to the self-serving bias. People tend to rely on self-serving bias to maintain their self-image and identity. For example, you applied for a job and you got selected for the interview process. You gave the interview and the next day you got the mail that you are not selected for the interview. The self-serving bias can make you think that you gave the interview well but the hiring manager was rude and biased. In this manner, you maintain the self-image that you were a well-deserved candidate for that position but the external factors (the rude hiring manager) lead to your rejection.
ii. Self Presentation
As suggested by the name itself, self-presentation refers to the way that the person presents himself/herself in front of others. People desire to look smart in front of others due to which they rely on a self-serving bias. People take the responsibility for their success but they use various excuses to justify their failure. In this manner, they tend to present themselves better in front of other people.
Fritz Heider claimed that in the case of ambiguous events (events where the cause of the outcome is not clearly defined), people’s attributions are largely based on their need to maintain high self-esteem. Many other psychologists also claim that the need for high self-esteem is what drives people to show a self-serving bias. People tend to take the responsibility for the positive outcomes to increase their self-esteem, and they put blame on the external factors in case of the negative outcomes to maintain their self-esteem. High self-esteem allows people to feel confident about themselves and also in maintaining positive relations with others. Also, a person with high self-esteem takes the feedback positively and is open to learning new things. Hence, to maintain their self-esteem people tend to rely on self-serving biases. The association between self-esteem and self-serving bias is a prominent theory, but as claimed by some psychologists there are several other factors that explain the commonality of the self-serving bias. The psychologist Dale Miller and Michael Ross suggested that the self-serving bias depends upon how closely the expectations of the person aligns with the reality. This means that if the outcome of any event is aligned with the expectations of the person, the person will attribute the depositional factors to the outcome. However, if the outcome is unexpected then they will make the external attribution and blame their surroundings. Self-serving bias can also be explained through natural optimism (“Self-serving bias – biases & heuristics,” 2021), i.e., people are naturally optimistic, and they do not expect the negative outcomes, hence when negative outcomes occur they tend to attribute it to the external factors. Although the root cause of the self-serving bias is still debatable, Miller and Ross’s theory helps in understanding the cause of the self-serving bias to a great extent.
3. Locus of Control
The locus of control impacts the attribution style of a person. It refers to the belief system of a person about the causes of the events, and associated attractions. There exist two categories of Locus of Control, i.e., internal locus of control, and external locus of control.
i. Internal Locus of Control
People who possess the internal locus of control associate their success and achievements (positive outcomes) with their own efforts, work or consistency.
ii. External Locus of Control
People who possess the external locus of control associate their success and achievements (positive outcomes) with various external factors such as luck.
Out of these two categories, the people who possess the internal locus of control are highly likely to exhibit the self-serving bias.
The tendency to exhibit the self-serving bias also depends upon the level of awareness of the person. If the person is aware of his/her strengths or weaknesses he or tends to accurately attribute the success or the failure. A person with a low level of self-awareness tends to attribute success internally while failure externally.
Several studies reveal that there exists a huge difference in the tendency to exhibit the self-serving bias between males and females. A survey was conducted on the couples, and it was found that the males are more likely to attribute the negative interactions in the relationship to their partner than the females. This shows that males tend to show the self-serving bias more than the females. Although this study did not describe the attribution styles in the case of positive interaction.
Some studies reveal that older adults are less likely to exhibit a self-serving bias. Older adults tend to make internal attributions in case of any negative outcomes. It was also found that the older adults who made the internal attribution for the negative outcomes rated their health as poor, so these negative emotional factors could be the reason there makes the internal attributions.
A study was conducted to analyse the self-serving bias exhibited by the people suffering from depression. It was found that the people who were suffering from depression were less likely to exhibit a self-serving bias than the normal people. People suffering from depression tend to attribute the bad outcomes to their own characteristics and actions while the positive outcomes to the external factors say luck. This is also supported by a meta-analysis conducted in 2004 based on the analyses of 266 studies which surveyed people of different regions, ages and suffering from various psychological disorders. Researchers explain this phenomenon by claiming that people suffering from depression have low levels of self-esteem, which is why they tend to attribute the negative outcomes to their own actions.
8. Cultural Differences
A study revealed that the Asian samples (subjects belonging to Asia) are less likely to display the self-serving than the Western Samples (subjects belonging to Western countries). This highlights the impact of cross-culture differences on the self-serving bias, and it reveals that the self-serving is prominent in the countries where the individualistic approach is more prevalent than in the countries that follow the collectivist culture. This is because, in the countries that support the individualistic approach, their primary focus is on the growth of the individuals, which makes the people more concerned about their self-esteem while in the countries that follow the collectivistic approach, the decisions are largely based on the favour of the groups or the families. The findings of the study titled “Explicit and Direct Self-Serving Bias in Japan Reexamination of Self-Serving Bias for Success and Failure” conducted by Kudo and Numuzaki revealed that the participants that had the more chances of success gave the more internal attributions than the participants who were in the condition of failure. This research contradicts some previous studies that revealed that Japanese people are less likely to exhibit a self-serving bias. Another study titled “The foreign language effect on the self-serving bias: A field experiment in the high school classroom” conducted by Hugten and Witteloostuijin revealed that the subjects of age 13 to 15 years were less likely to show the self-serving bias if they process the feedback of their performance in the Dutch language (native) then the students who process the feedback of their performance in the English language (non-native). Although as suggested by various studies there are several differences in the attribution ways of the individualistic and the collectivist culture some of the literature also shows the similarities between these two cultures, for example, the similarities between the West Bengal, Germany, South Korea and England.
A study was conducted on undergraduate students in 2011, they were asked to fill out an online test. They experienced the emotional induction, then provided with the feedback and they were asked to make attribution of their test performance. The findings of the study showed that some specific emotions impacted the self-serving bias. Another study conducted in 2003 highlighted the neural basis that impacts the self-serving bias with the help of the brain imaging tools such as MRI. This study revealed dorsal striatum, a part of the brain which is responsible for the various cognitive processes that control the motor activities, influences the self-serving bias.
Self-serving Bias Examples
Self-serving bias research is common in the workplace, interpersonal relationships, sports and athletic performance, consumer decisions, computer technology and many other domains. Let us discuss the example of self-serving bias observed in daily life.
1. Good or Bad Grade in Exams
Imagine that you are sitting in a classroom, and the teacher is distributing the graded test to all the students. Your turn comes and you see a big C on your test sheet. You get shocked to see the C grade as you expected better grades because according to you, you performed well in your exams. You immediately start thinking about the possible causes of this outcome. You may think that the questions were very difficult, the teacher was not good at teaching, the teacher deliberately gave you the lower grades and many other excuses that put the blame on the outwards factors of this situation and not on yourself. Now imagine, that you scored a grade of A on your tests. This time, you are likely to attribute this outcome to your own actions. You’ll praise yourself that you did the hard work and that you are good at understanding the educational concepts. This situation shows the influence of the self-serving bias.
2. Schools and Management
Many studies show that the teachers and the students are highly likely to fall victim to the self-serving bias. It is often seen in the school meetings that both teachers and students refuse to take the blame for the negative outcomes. For example, most teachers tend to blame the students for their bad grades even if they themselves did not teach them properly, and most students tend to blame the teachers for their bad grades even if they themselves did not study the whole year. Similar behaviour is observed if the student scores well, i.e., the student praise himself/herself for his/her good marks while the teachers or the school authorities claim that they provide the best teaching facilities, which is why their students score the good marks. Self-serving bias can make both teachers and students praise themselves for the positive outcomes. This kind of thinking or we can say self-serving bias can bring the conflict between the teachers and students.
Self-serving bias can be commonly observed in sports. You must have seen that some people when loose in the games use several excuses such as putting the blame on the referee, arguing that the coach did not train them the best, or blaming many other external factors for their failure. On the contrary, when they win the game, they praise themselves and attribute their success to their actions. This shows that these people exhibit a self-serving bias. In sports, the performance of the player is clearly associated with a particular outcome, which makes it easy for him/her to fall for the self-serving bias. Specifically, in case of the individual sports, the self-serving bias is more common because the individual winner is clearly defined in these sports. In a study conducted in 1987 by a psychology professor Stephen Zaccaro and his colleagues, 549 statements (regarding their performance) were collected from the athletes who played both the individual sports (tennis, badminton, golf etc.,) and the team sports (cricket, football, baseball etc.,). The findings of the study revealed that the ones who played the individual sports were more likely to exhibit the self-serving bias than the ones who played the team sports. According to researchers, this happens because, in case of the individual sports, the performance of the player directly impacts his/her self esteem due to which they tend to rely on the self-serving bias to boost their confidence. Another study conducted on the wrestlers also supports the generality of the self-serving bias among athletes (De Michele et al., 1998). In this study, the wrestlers were asked to self-analyse their performance in the practice matches and they had to provide the results of these matches. The findings of this study showed that the wrestlers who won the matches were highly likely to attribute their wins to internal factors than the wrestlers who lost. A meta-analysis conducted in 2020 (including the analysis of 69 studies) revealed that sportspersons are highly likely to attribute their success to internal factors and their failure to external factors.
Like sports, the self-serving bias is commonly seen in the workplace too. Whether it’s a hiring process or the firing process everything in between, one tends to fall victim to the self-serving bias. People when hired for a particular position tend to attribute their hiring to the dispositional factors such as strong credentials, communication skills or extraordinary resumes, but they attribute the rejection in the interviews to the external factors such as the hiring manager was not good, the organization was not fair and so on. Self-serving bias in the workplace can negatively impact the work culture and eventually hinder the growth of the organization. Self-serving bias can make the employees attribute their shortcomings to external factors (work environment), and the management can attribute any accidents to the actions of the employees. Self-serving bias can negatively impact the productivity of the employees as it blocks the ability of the person to fairly evaluate any situation and they tend to avoid taking the responsibility for their shortcomings. Situations like these tarnish professional relationships. Researchers Joseph Walther and Natalya Bazarova conducted a study in 2007 when the professional relationship between the employees and their colleague is distant, the employees tends to find it easier to blame their colleagues for the various workplace issues, i.e., they tend to exhibit the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias can also occur in case of any success at the workplace. For example, some managers attribute their success say any promotion or good presentation, or project accomplishment only to their efforts and do not acknowledge the team members that also may had contribute to that success. The occurrence of self-serving bias can also be observed in the case of the termination of an employee. Due to the self-serving bias, people blame the management or the organization for their termination rather than acknowledging that their shortcomings could also be the reason for their termination.
5. Road Accidents Blame
In a study, it was found that 75 per cent of the subjects believed that it was not their fault that caused the accidents, while they blamed the other drivers for the accident. This shows that most people refuse to admit their mistakes that result in accidents, and tend to blame the external factors only. This is an example of the self-serving bias as people call other drivers negligible and careless because they care about their self-image. The findings of a survey conducted on the 531 drivers revealed that the higher the self-serving bias, the lower the perceived risk of buying a self-driving car by a person because the person believes that they would never be faulty in the accidents. The self-serving bias of the people involved in road accidents makes it difficult for the law authorities to decide the person who is more responsible for the accident.
6. Blaming Technology
In today’s digital world, computer technology has become a crucial part of our life. Some researchers claim that people subconsciously tend to treat technological problems as they deal the various social situations. For example, when consumers buy the products online, they tend to praise themselves for the good purchase but if the product does not come out to be of the good quality they tend to blame the external factors such as computer technology or online platforms. This is an example of the self-serving bias because people attributed the good purchase to their own actions while the bad purchase with that of the technological problems. Studies reveal that self-serving bias related to computer technology is very common, and people often blame the computer software for any problem even if the users themselves are the ones who are responsible for the occurrence of that problems.
7. Wishful Thinking
According to Kaplan et al. wishful thinking is a type of self-serving bias. Wishful thinking refers to the formulating of certain beliefs which seem pleasant to the person and are not based on evidence or reality. Wishful thinking or self-serving bias can be considered the easiest way to resolve the conflicts between a person’s beliefs and his/her desires. For example, the mother tends to blame the various outward factors that lead her son to commit the crime rather than believing that her son is a criminal.
In relationships, both partners should play an equal role to make the relationship work. But the question here is that does the partners acknowledge the efforts of their significant other or not. It is often seen that in some relationships people do not recognize the efforts of their partners, and these relationships usually do not last long. A study was conducted on the couples, in this study, the partners were asked the question that who do they think contributes more to their relationships. The findings of this study revealed that most of the partners feel that they contribute more to their relationship than their partners, and they tend to blame their significant others in case of any issues in the relationship. This thinking is influenced by the self-serving bias, and it leads to conflicts in the relationships.
9. Accidents at Construction Sites
During the construction of any buildings or other infrastructures projects, the workers should be instructed to follow the proper guidelines for working for their own safety and the project managers should make sure that proper facilities should be provided to the workers so that they don’t have to risk their lives during the work. Still, we often get to hear that a worker got injured or died due to an accident at the construction site. In these cases, the worker who gets injured is more likely to blame the external factors for the incident, while the project managers are more likely to say that the incident happened due to the worker’s own fault.
Have you ever felt that your colleague was not worthy of the recent promotion that he got? You might have felt that you worked harder than your colleague and you were the one who deserved that promotion. Well, this may be true, but the chances that this thinking of yours is a result of a self-serving bias is also a possibility. Due to the influence of the self-serving bias when we get a promotion or recognition for some achievement, we tend to feel that we received it because we deserved it, but if our rival gets the promotion or recognition we tend to believe that it happened because of the external factors, i.e., management is taking his/her favour. We are not neglecting the presence of internal politics in some organizations, but the point here is that self-serving bias makes people think in a manner that makes them feel good when the outcomes do not seem in their favour.
Self-serving bias also comes into play when a person tries to learn any new skill. Learning something new takes both time and effort which increases the probability of the person falling victim to the self-serving bias. For example, suppose you have decided to learn guitar in your late adulthood. If you find it easier to play that in the first few sessions of learning, you are more likely to praise yourself. On contrary, if you find it difficult to hold grasp in playing that you are more likely to blame the external factor such as age, bad instrument, or wrong teaching techniques of your instructor. This happens due to a self-serving bias. People tend to blame the external factors when they find it difficult to learn any new skill.
12. Self-serving bias in Groups
Some research also highlights that the self-serving bias can also occur on the national level. This means that self-serving bias is not just limited to the person attributing the success to personal factors and failure to the external factors, but it also involves a group attributing any achievement or success to the efforts of its own country while attributing the negative outcomes to the other countries failure. For example, most of the counteries deny taking the responsibility that the industries or factories located in their counteries are responsible for the climatic change. A study was conducted by the University of Zurich and Carnegie Mellon University in 2011 to investigate the perception of the citizens. The participants were asked to name the country that should reduce the emission of greenhouse gas. The surveys were conducted on the students of China and American colleges, and the findings of the study revealed that all the students showed a nationalistic self-serving bias, i.e., they pointed out that other countries should put a curb on the emission of the greenhouse gases as the citizens were aware of the economic burden that their country could face if they reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Ways to Overcome Self-serving Bias
1. Be Aware
Being aware of what you are thinking could be the best method to overcome the self-serving bias. As claimed by many psychologists, most decisions of the people and their behaviour are the results of their unconscious. Hence being aware of the various unconscious desires and thoughts by bringing them to the conscious can help people to tackle their cognitive biases.
2. Think Objectively
One should slow down his/her thinking while evaluating anything rather than quickly judging everything, and making the sudden judgements. We often tend to view every situation from our own perspective, but we should consider all the possible factors before making the final judgement.
3. Accept Your Imperfections
As we have discussed in the article above self-serving bias is related to the self-esteem of the person. People fall victim to the self-serving bias to elevate their self-esteem or self-worth. Self-serving bias makes it difficult to people to admit their mistakes and learn something from them, i.e., they refuse to accept the negative feedback. This can retard the personal growth of the person, hence it is important for the person to challenge his/her biases, and learn to accept the criticisms in a constructive manner. To do this one should practise self-compassion. It means people should treat themselves with kindness even if they think they are imperfect or not able to reach up to their expectations. Self-compassion can help to overcome the self-serving bias to a large extent as self-compassion prevents people from relying on the self-serving bias to maintain their self-esteem. One can practice self-compassion through various therapies, mindfulness, or other techniques. To sum up, people should understand that it is okay if they are not able to achieve something or do something, one should learn from their mistakes rather than relating their mistakes to their self-esteem. In this manner, it can become easier for people to avoid the self-serving bias.
4. Be Thankful
Some people often do not acknowledge the people who played a crucial part in their success. Due to the self-serving bias, people tend to credit themselves for all their accomplishments. One can overcome this self-serving bias by acknowledging the efforts of others. If you are the team leader and your team has successfully accomplished the assigned targets then rather than praising yourself for being the best leader you should praise your team members too for their hard work and efforts. Before considering that you are the only one who is responsible for the success, think for a while that do you really be able to achieve that success in the absence of the others. In this manner, you can avoid falling the victim to the self-serving bias.
5. Consider Feedback
Taking the feedback positively and using that for evaluating your decision is one of the best strategies to overcome the self-serving bias. Feedback can help the person in being aware of their strengths and shortcomings. If the people have the accurate knowledge of their strengths and the weaknesses he/she is less likely to fall victim to the self-serving bias. To avoid the self-serving bias in the workplace, a good work environment where the employees and the managers feel comfortable sharing feedback or constructive criticism, is required. Not only the employees should consider the feedback but also the management should also consider the feedback of the employees; for example, the employee’s feedback about the improvement in the various policies can help the management in making a better work environment. This kind of professional relationship prevents the employees or the management from relying on the self-serving biases as they take the criticism constructively.