What Is Self-Serving Bias?
Suppose that you write an exam paper and when you get it back, you find the following comment on the first page: ‘An outstanding paper—one of the best I’ve seen in years. A+’. You will probably explain it in terms of the internal causes (e.g., your high level of intelligence, the effort you invested in writing the paper, and so on). Now, in contrast, imagine that when you get the paper back, these comments are written on it: ‘Horrible paper—one of the worst I’ve seen in years. D–’.
To what do you attribute this outcome? The chances are good that you will be tempted to focus mainly on the external (or situational) factors e.g., the difficulty of the task, your professor’s unfairly harsh grading standards, the fact that you didn’t have enough time to do a good job, and so on.
Attributions Opens in new window are not made in a vacuum. Among other factors, people want to take credit for success but deny blame for failure. This tendency is called the self-serving bias.
Self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute our positive outcomes to personal internal causes (e.g., our traits or characteristics) but to attribute our negative outcomes to external situational causes (e.g., chance, difficulty of a task). Thus, we are likely to take credit for our successes but blame others or circumstances for our shortcomings.
For example, if we get good grades in the exams, then we attribute it to our hard work, and if we score poor grades, then we tend to attribute it to the teacher being too strict with the valuations, or being partial.
According to the principle of the self-serving bias, people are prone to attribute the causes of negative events to aspects that deflect blame from the self (e.g., having a car accident that came about because a tree ‘came out of nowhere’ ), or positive events that attribute success to the self.
The self-serving bias thus qualify the actor-observer effect Opens in new window, because as actors, we tend to attribute successful behavior to dispositional or internal causes, but unsuccessful behavior to situational ones. The self-self-serving bias can cause to people to engage in self-handicapping Opens in new window behavior (i.e., having anticipatory excuses for potential failures).
Forms of Self-serving Biases
As actors, we tend to engage in self-serving biases that favor the self in order to enhance or protect self-esteem Opens in new window or the self-concept Opens in new window. Thus, there are generally two forms of self-serving biases: the self-enhancing bias, and self-protecting bias.
The self-enhancing bias consists when we take credit for our positive behaviors and successes as reflecting who we are and our intention and effort to do positive things.
At the same time, using the self-protecting bias, we explain away our negative behaviors and failures as being due to coercion, normative constraints and other external situational factors that do not reflect who we ‘really’ are.
In particular, people tend to take credit for their successes (internal attribution) and deflect their failures (external attribution) in order to enhance and protect the self Opens in new window respectively. These dispositional and situational attributions tend to become more pronounced as children develop (Berger & Calabrese, 1975).
Self-enhancing biases are more common than self-protecting biases (Miller & Ross, 1975)—partly because people with low self-esteem Opens in new window tend not to protect themselves by attributing their failures externally; rather, they attribute them internally. However, self-enhancement Opens in new window and self-protection can sometimes be muted by a desire not to be seen to be boasting over our successes and lying about our failures (e.g., Schlenker, Weingold & Hallam, 1990)—but not totally extinguished.
Many studies of attributions have confirmed the widespread operation of the self-serving bias (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). That is, across many different contexts and settings, people prefer to attribute their successes to ability and effort but tend to attribute their failures to bad luck or task difficulty (Zuckerman, 1979).
Why Do Self-Serving Biases Occur?
Self-serving biases occur because people generally see themselves as ‘better than average’ in a wide variety of different ways, and less likely to experience negative outcomes. They can maintain their high opinion of themselves by discounting their failures and maximizing the glory of their successes.
Interestingly, evidence suggests that the self-serving bias is especially strong when people are explaining their successes and failures to others (Bradley, 1978; Tetlock, 1980). This would imply that they care more about what others think of them than about how they think of themselves.
In other words, the self-serving biases is an important feature of self-presentation, an effort to control the impressions we make on others and to influence the attributions that other people make about us.
The self-presentation Opens in new window nature of the self-bias reflects how people learn to think in ways that will help them get along better with others. If others see you as an incompetent loser, your chances of being accepted by others (e.g., hired for a good job) are low. Hence people want to maximize their credit for success while avoiding having their failures reflect badly on themselves.
Self-enhancing biases are clearly ego-serving. Miller & Ross (1975) suggest that there may also be a cognitive component, particularly for the self-enhancing aspect. People generally expect to succeed and therefore accept responsibility for success. If they try hard to succeed, they associate success with their own effort, and they generally exaggerate the amount of control they have over successful performances.
Together, these cognitive factors might encourage internal attribution of success. Generally, it seems likely that both cognitive and motivational factors have a role and that they are difficult to disentangle from one another (Zuckerman, 1979).