How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

Learn all about the self-serving bias in this interesting article!
How the Self-Serving Bias Protects Self-Esteem

Last update: 08 July, 2021

You’re probably familiar with the self-serving bias, even if you don’t know it by name. A self-serving bias is how social psychologists describe humans’ tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen. On the other hand, they give themselves credit when good things happen. Although it means avoiding personal responsibility for your actions, a self-serving bias is a defense mechanism that protects your self-esteem.

A self-serving bias is the common habit of a person taking credit for positive events or outcomes and blaming outside factors for negative events. This can be affected by age, culture, and clinical diagnosis, among other factors. It tends to occur widely across populations. People like to believe that they’re truly rational and logical. However, the truth is that people are continually under the influence of cognitive biases. 

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm and rationality in judgment. They’re often studied in psychology and behavioral economics. These biases distort thinking, influence beliefs, and sway the decisions and judgments that people make each and every day. Sometimes these biases are fairly obvious, and you might even recognize these tendencies in yourself or others. 

In other cases, these biases are so subtle that they’re almost impossible to notice. The concept of cognitive bias was first introduced by researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Since then, researchers have described a number of different types of biases. These biases highly affect decision-making in a wide range of areas. For instance, social behavior, cognition, behavioral economics, education, management, healthcare, business, and finance. 

Why do these biases occur? Attention is a limited resource. This means you can’t possibly evaluate every detail and event ​when forming thoughts and opinions. Because of this, you often rely on mental shortcuts that speed up your ability to make judgments. This sometimes leads to cognitive bias. Are you ready to learn all about the self-serving bias? This common type of cognitive bias has a powerful influence on how you think. It also dramatically influences how you feel and behave.

“I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world. Thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgement until the evidence is in.”

Carl Sagan-

What exactly is a self-serving bias?

A self-serving bias refers to the tendency to attribute internal and personal factors to positive outcomes. Similarly, attributing external and 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 and the people we interact with. They’re also a product of an attempt to simplify all the information 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. It occurs without us even realizing it, according to an intriguing 1972 study. These biases arise out of problems with memory, attention, and other mental mistakes. While it can be dangerous, a self-serving bias helps you make sense of the world. 

It also helps you reach decisions, and make judgments relatively quickly. The concept of locus of control (LOC) refers to a person’s belief system about the causes of events. It also refers to the accompanying attributions. There are two categories: internal and external. If a person has an internal LOC, they’ll assign their success to their own hard work, effort, and persistence. 

If they have an external LOC, they’ll credit any success to luck or something outside of themselves. Individuals with an internal LOC might be more likely to display a self-serving bias, especially regarding achievements.

Signs

Everyone exhibits cognitive bias. Although it might be easier to spot in others, it’s important to know that it’s something that also affects your thinking. Some signs that you might be influenced by a self-serving bias include:

  • Only paying attention to news stories that confirm your opinions.
  • Blaming outside factors when things don’t go your way.
  • Attributing other people’s success to luck, but taking personal credit for your own accomplishments.
  • Assuming that everyone else shares your opinions or beliefs.
  • Learning a little about a topic and then assuming you know all there is to know about it.

When you make judgments and decisions about the world around you, you like to think that you’re objective. You also believe you’re logical. You think you can perfectly take in and evaluate all the information that’s available to you. Unfortunately, these biases sometimes trip us up, leading to poor decisions and bad judgments.

An example of a self-serving bias

Picture yourself sitting in a classroom, anxiously awaiting the results of your most recent math exam. The teacher, at last, hands you your graded test. You turn it over only to see a giant C minus written in 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. Perhaps your teacher didn’t teach the topics well enough or the test was graded unfairly. 

The list goes on and 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. You praise yourself for your strong understanding of the material, and how smart you are. This is an example of a self-serving bias.

Other examples

Self-serving biases occur in all types of situations, across genders, ages, cultures, and more. For example:

  • A female student gets a good grade on a test. She tells herself that she studied hard or is good at the material. After getting a bad grade on another test, she says the teacher doesn’t like her and that the test was unfair.
  • When you win a poker hand, it’s due to your skill at reading the other players. You also perfectly know the odds. However, when you lose, it’s because you were dealt a poor hand.
  • Athletes win a game and attribute their win to skill, hard work, and practice. When they lose the following week, they blame the loss on bad referees.
  • Job applicants believe they were hired thanks to their achievements, qualifications, and excellent interviews. Even so, for a previous job opening, the applicant didn’t receive a job offer. They blamed the interviewer for not liking him.
  • Following a car accident, both parties blame the other.
  • A businessman has a disastrous meeting with a potential client and he blames losing the account on a competitor’s dirty business practices.

Someone with depression or low self-esteem might invert the self-serving bias. They may attribute negative events to something they did and positive events to luck or something someone else did.

Why self-serving biases occur

In many cases, this cognitive bias allows you to protect your self-esteem. By attributing positive events to personal characteristics, you get a boost in confidence. By blaming outside forces for failures, you protect your self-esteem and absolve yourself from personal responsibility. A number of factors have been shown to influence the self-serving bias. For instance, age and gender.

Older adults tend to make more internal attributions or credit themselves for their successes. Men are more likely to make external attributions, meaning they tend to blame outside forces for their failures. When a person is depressed or has low self-esteem, this kind of bias may be reversed. They’ll attribute positive outcomes to outside help or even luck and blame themselves when bad things happen.

Common situations

Experts suggest that this bias is quite widespread in Western cultures, including the United States and Canada. Nonetheless, it tends to be much less frequent in Eastern cultures like China and Japan. Why? Individualist cultures such as the United States place a greater emphasis on personal achievements and self-esteem. Protecting the self from feelings of failure is more important. ​On the other hand, collectivist cultures are more likely to attribute personal success to luck and failures to a lack of talent. They tend to be found in Eastern cultures.

There are some scenarios where self-serving biases are less likely. People in romantic relationships and close friendships may tend to be much more modest. In other words, your friends or your partner keep you in check. They do it by being honest and telling you when you’re at fault.

An image of a woman thinkning.

The advantages and disadvantages of the self-serving bias

One advantage of this bias is that it leads people to persevere even in the face of adversity. Unemployed workers feel more motivated to keep looking for work by attributing their unemployment to a weak economy. They lose motivation if they attribute it to personal failure. Athletes feel motivated to perform well by believing their failure during a previous game was thanks to external causes. 

For example, bad weather rather than a lack of skill. A self-serving bias may serve to bolster one’s self-esteem, though it isn’t universally advantageous. Constantly attributing negative outcomes to external factors and only taking credit for positive events can be a sign of narcissism. This trait has been linked to negative outcomes in the workplace and interpersonal relationships.

In the classroom, students and teachers consistently attribute negative events to each other.  This can lead to conflict and adverse relationships.

In short, the self-serving bias is normal and serves a purpose. However, an individual who constantly ignores their responsibility for negative events can be detrimental. Not only to learning processes, but also relationships. It’s definitely something to be aware of. This type of cognitive bias can vary among demographic groups, as well as in individuals.

The cognitive point here is that we generally make sense of confusing things by judging them against various preconceptions. When confronted with a new proposition we don’t think about it with a blank sheet in front of us. Instead, we place the proposition somewhere in relation to our pre-existing structure of beliefs and attitudes. This makes liked much easier, because we can reduce even a complicated judgement to a simple binary one. Does it conform to my existing views or not?”

-Evan Davis-

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  • Navas, L., Sampascual, G., & Castejón, J. L. (1995). La teoría atribucional de Weiner y los sesgos atributivos: hacia la integración de un desencuentro. Revista de Psicología Social, 10(2), 205-218.