The Self-Serving Bias: Protecting Your Ego at all Costs

If something good happens, the responsibility is yours, but if it's bad, the fault lies with others. That's the way the self-serving bias works. In fact, it seeks to protect your self-esteem by making you avoid the assumption of any error or failure.
The Self-Serving Bias: Protecting Your Ego at all Costs
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

If there’s one cognitive resource that you tend to use frequently almost without realizing it, it’s the self-serving bias. It defines your tendency to blame external factors when negative things happen for which you’re responsible. Indeed, it’s often an exasperating behavior you use to protect your ego.

As an example, if you were to claim a teacher suspended you because they didn’t like you, that’d be an example of self-serving bias. You reinforce a series of imaginary beliefs to validate yourself. In other words, you make a mental effort to facilitate the self-protection of your own worth and competence.

It’s true that you need to protect your fragile self-esteem. However, it’s one thing to preserve a positive view of yourself and another to fall into the trap of self-deception and even unethical conduct. As a matter of fact, the self-servicing bias has been frequently investigated in the field of social psychology as being associated with problematic and harmful attitudes.

Let’s take a closer look.

Studies suggest that the self-serving bias is extremely common in the Western mindset, but not in countries like Japan.

Man with a mind manipulated representing the Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias

The self-serving bias is nothing more than a mental strategy that seeks to maintain the positivity of your self-concept. In order to do this, you apply an internal attribution when the events are positive and an external attribution when the circumstances are negative. For instance, if your boss gives you a promotion, it’s obviously because you possess exceptional qualities and deserve it.

On the other hand, if they deny you a higher-ranking position, you believe it’s because they don’t know how to value you as you deserve. Also, you might consider that there are hidden reasons stopping you from climbing the ladder. As you can see, with these artificial beliefs, you effectively wrap your ego in armor so that it can’t be hurt.

This curious but recurring attributional bias was first defined by psychologists Dale T. Miller and Michael Ross in a 1975 study. They gave an example of the self-serving bias as being the fact that, as a rule, people believe they’re better drivers than the rest.

If you have any mishap, the responsibility always belongs to others. It’s never your own.

Manipulating yourself to protect your self-esteem

The self-serving bias may seem like a negative mental resource. Nevertheless, in many cases, this mental strategy also fulfills a necessary purpose. In fact, it’s a self-esteem defense mechanism.

Your set of perceptions, evaluations, thoughts, and feelings directed toward yourself must be positive in order to safeguard your well-being. Self-esteem is, after all, the backbone of your psychological balance. Therefore, the self-serving bias protects you and protects the positive vision that you have of yourself.

One example of this approach would be the worker who doesn’t get a particular job and attributes it solely to the social and economic crisis. In this way, they’re able to continue to maintain a positive approach to their abilities and worth. Self-serving bias is also evident in the individual who’s been abandoned by their partner and assumes that, in the future, it’ll always be better to keep their distance from those who don’t love them as they deserve.

However, sometimes, the protection stops being healthy and becomes problematic. In effect, it blindfolds you. Because taking credit for yourself and blaming others for your failures prevents you from taking responsibility for realities that you could improve if you were to accept your failures.

The self-serving bias, in addition to protecting your ego, gives you a rather ambiguous false sense of control. You consider that everything good that happens to you is your responsibility, but mistakes and failures are the results of external and uncontrollable forces.

The self-serving bias and depression

Interestingly, the self-serving bias is also present in people with depressive disorders. Only in these cases, it works the other way around. It doesn’t protect their self-esteem, it constantly annihilates and boycotts it.

These kinds of people think that when good things happen to them, they’re the result of luck or external factors. However, they believe that the bad things that happen to them are their own fault. This mental schema is clearly harmful.

According to several studies, managers often blame their subordinates when their company doesn’t perform well, while the company’s workers blame external circumstances.

Executive works with her laptop thinking about the self-serving bias

Individualistic cultures and selfishness

The Korean philosopher, Byung Chul Han, points out that the society of the 21st century is no longer a disciplinary society, but a society of achievements. Therefore, people need to achieve things and conquer goals at all costs. In this attempt to reach increasingly more goals, they often apply the self-serving bias.

Consequently, when you’re successful you attribute it to yourself, but when you fail you blame the environment, the circumstances, or whoever tripped you up. In reality, assuming this idea makes it difficult for you to constantly achieve. Because it prevents you from delving any deeper into your mistakes.

This bias is extremely common in the Western world, and in what many call individualistic cultures. However, countries like Japan or even Korea, have an alternative vision. They believe that if you fail, the responsibility is yours and you must repair that mistake.

Finally, it never hurts to reflect a little on the attributions that you make in your daily life. After all, perhaps, not everything that happens to you is due to external causes.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Wang, X., Zheng, L., Li, L., Zheng, Y., Sun, P., Zhou, F. A., & Guo, X. (2017). Immune to Situation: The Self-Serving Bias in Unambiguous Contexts. Frontiers in psychology8, 822.
  • Wang, Y., Zheng, L., Wang, C., & Guo, X. (2020). Attenuated self-serving bias in people with internet gaming disorder is related to altered neural activity in subcortical-cortical midline structures. BMC psychiatry20(1), 512.
  • Zhang Y, Pan Z, Li K, Guo Y. Self-Serving Bias in Memories. Exp Psychol. 2018;65(4):236-244. doi:10.1027/1618-3169/a000409

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.