What is Self-serving Bias – Examples and Impacts

self-serving bias

The self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that describes an individual’s tendency to attribute positive outcomes to their own actions and abilities while attributing negative outcomes to external factors. This bias is common in people’s interpersonal relationships and can significantly impact their perception of themselves and others.

Self-serving bias is a type of attribution bias. It involves two main components: internal attribution and external attribution. Internal attribution refers to attributing success to one’s own abilities, while external attribution involves attributing failure to elements beyond one’s control.

The primary motivation for self-serving bias is self-enhancement, aiming to maintain a positive self-image and increase self-esteem. People with a higher self-serving bias are often more confident, but they may also be perceived as less empathetic and understanding of others’ perspectives.

This bias can be observed in various contexts, such as academia, sports, and work, where individuals are inclined to take credit for their successes while blaming external forces for their failures.

Another motive for self-serving bias is self-presentation, which involves managing the way others perceive us. By attributing positive outcomes to our own abilities and negative outcomes to external factors, we can enhance others’ views of our competence.

Examples of Self-serving Bias

People are safeguarding their self-esteem from harm when they deny the validity of unfavorable criticism, blame external factors for failures, concentrate on their accomplishments and strengths while ignoring their flaws and shortcomings, or take credit for more of the group’s work than they assign to other members.

A few example of this bias would include;

  • A student who attributes their good grades to their intelligence and hard work, but attributes their poor grades to difficult exam questions or unfair grading.
  • A salesperson who attributes their success to their exceptional skills and effort, but attributes their failures to external factors such as a tough market or uninterested customers.
  • A driver who believes that they are an above-average driver and attributes any accidents or mistakes to the recklessness of other drivers or unfavorable road conditions.
  • A manager who takes credit for the success of a project, believing it to be a result of their leadership and decision-making, but blames external factors or team members for any project failures.
  • A sports fan who attributes their favorite team’s victory to the exceptional skills and strategy of the players and coach, but attributes their loss to bad officiating or the opposing team’s unfair tactics.

Factors Influencing Self-Serving Bias

The presence and degree of self-serving bias can vary across different cultures. In individualist cultures, people tend to emphasize personal achievements and success, which may fuel the self-serving bias.

On the other hand, collectivist cultures may place a greater emphasis on group success and harmony, which can potentially attenuate the presence of self-serving bias. For example, research has shown that people from Western cultures, typically considered more individualistic, tend to make self-serving bias errors more than those from East Asian cultures.

Personal Characteristics and Self-Esteem

Another significant factor governing the self-serving bias is individuals’ personal characteristics and levels of self-esteem. It has been shown that older adults make more internal causal attributions for negative outcomes.

People with higher self-esteem are more likely to attribute their successes to internal factors, while attributing their failures to external factors. This self-serving bias serves as a mechanism for self-esteem protection, allowing individuals to maintain a positive self-image.

However, an interesting observation is that when faced with a threat to their self-image, individuals may engage in even more pronounced self-serving bias behavior. Under situations of self-threat, people may emphasize internal factors for success and external factors for failure to a greater extent. This is a form of self-enhancement strategy, aimed at alleviating perceived threats to self-esteem.

In the context of sports, participants in individual sports may demonstrate more apparent self-serving bias compared to those in team sports. Individual athletes may display a stronger inclination to attribute their victories to personal skills, while blaming losses on factors like poor refereeing or unfavorable conditions.

On the contrary, team players might distribute rbothe success and failure responsibility among team members, coaches, and other external factors, thereby demonstrating a reduced self-serving bias.

Locus of Control

One of the primary impacts on attribution style is the locus of control. Individuals who have an internal locus of control think they have personal influence over situations and that their actions are important. Those who have an external locus of control believe that external forces, chance, and luck dictate circumstances and that their efforts have no effect.

Individuals with an external locus of control are more likely than those with an internal locus of control to demonstrate a self-serving bias after failure. The difference in attribution style between people with internal and external locus of control is less pronounced in successful outcomes, since people with both types of attribution style have less need to protect their self-images in success. Pilots with an internal center of control were more likely to have a self-serving bias in terms of ability and safety.

Self-Serving Bias Across Life Stages

During the stages of youth and adolescence, individuals begin to develop their understanding of the world, which can influence how they perceive themselves and others. The self-serving bias is present during these stages, but its magnitude may vary based on age, experiences, and situations.

For example, students may attribute their academic success to their skills and abilities, whereas they may blame factors such as difficulty of exams or poor teaching for their failures.

In this phase of life, people often have more focused goals, which may lead to an increased tendency towards self-serving bias. It is also believed that gender differences might play a role, although more research is needed to confirm this. Some studies have found that males might exhibit a stronger self-serving bias, especially in competitive or work-related situations.

Adulthood and Aging

As individuals transition from adolescence to adulthood, they usually gain more experience and are exposed to various challenges in life. This may lead to a change in self-serving bias across different stages of adulthood. For instance, workers may attribute their success at their job to their skills and efforts, while attributing failures to outside factors such as bad management or economic downturn.

Age has been found to influence the self-serving bias in different scenarios. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, older individuals may prioritize resources for themselves, exhibiting a stronger self-serving bias. However, when considering the global situation, the self-serving bias might be reduced through a more balanced perspective on resource allocation.

It is also worth considering the cultural context when studying self-serving bias. Research has found variations in self-serving bias among nations, with certain cultures showing stronger bias than others. For instance, individualistic cultures might display a higher degree of self-serving bias as compared to collectivist cultures.

Impacts of Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving bias can have consequences in various aspects of life, including personal relationships. It may lead to a distorted view of one’s own behavior and the actions of others, which can strain interpersonal relationships.

For example, when an individual attributes their success to their own skills (internal locus of control) but blames failure on external factors, it can make them appear arrogant and selfish to those around them.

The presence of this bias may be based on interpersonal intimacy and social interactions. When working in pairs to complete interdependent outcome tasks, relationally close pairs did not exhibit a self-serving bias, whereas relationally distant pairs did.

Males and females use the self serving bias differently, according to studies. In self-report surveys of romantic couples’ partner interactions, men tended to ascribe unfavorable interactions to their partners more than women.

According to a study on self-serving bias in relational context, this is related to the belief that close relationships constrain an individual’s self-improvement impulses. When an individual is in a close relationship, he or she becomes more humble and is less likely to use that relationship for his or her own profit.

Understanding why partners avoid self-serving bias remains a mystery, but it can be explained in part by the positive impressions that people in close relationships have of one another.  When looking at pairings of friends and strangers, the results were comparable. Pairs completed an interdependent outcomes creativity exam before being given a fictitious pipeline with a success or failure outcome.

Strangers displayed the self-serving bias in attributions of responsibility, but friends tended to make joint attributions for both success and failure. This has been cited as evidence for “boundaries on self-enhancement” by researchers.

Consequences in Educational Settings

In educational settings, self-serving bias can affect both students and professors. Students with a strong self-serving bias might take credit for their high grades, attributing them to their intelligence and hard work, while blaming low grades on factors such as unfair tests or ineffective teaching methods. This bias can impede their ability to learn from their mistakes and improve academically.

Professors, on the other hand, may attribute their students’ success to their excellent teaching skills but blame students’ failure on their lack of effort or poor study habits. This mindset may prevent them from critically examining and adjusting their teaching methods, leading to a less effective learning environment.

Workplace Dynamics

The presence of self-serving bias in the workplace can also contribute to a variety of issues. When employees predominantly attribute their successes to their abilities and attribute failures to external factors, it can create a toxic work environment with increased tension and competitiveness among colleagues.

In some instances, self-serving bias can lead to employees overlooking or downplaying their mistakes, hindering improvement and growth. Managers may also be affected by this bias, tending to overrate their own contributions to a project’s success while undervaluing the contributions of their team members.

Depression and Attribution

Clinically depressed patients have a lower self-serving bias than the overall population. Participants’ moods were altered to be either good or negative in a study investigating the impact of mood on self-serving bias. Positive mood individuals were more inclined to ascribe good outcomes to external influences than negative mood ones.

It has been suggested that the negative mood in depressed individuals as well as their self-focused attention explains why clinically depressed populations are less likely to exhibit the self-serving bias than normal populations.

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