The self-serving bias is a tendency for people to attribute success to internal factors related to themselves and blame failures on external factors. Simply speaking, we take credit for success and deny blame for failure.
It is a mechanism to protect our self-esteem. Rightly or wrongly, the self-serving bias allows us to maintain confidence and continue pursuing our goals. Acknowledging responsibility for too many failures can be detrimental to our psychological well-being.
The self-serving bias manifests itself on a daily basis, no matter how important or trivial the task at hand. We utilize it to help us deal with everything from a traffic accident to a failed marriage.
Definition of Self-serving Bias
One of the earliest definitions of the self-serving bias states that people:
“…are prone to alter our perception of causality so as to protect or enhance our self-esteem. We attribute success to our own dispositions and failure to external forces” (Hastorf, Schneider, & Polefka, 1970, p. 73).
Weiner (1974) extended this definition considerably and added that internal factors often include references to ability and effort, while external factors involve task difficulty and luck.
The internal/external dimension is combined with stability and control. For example, a success can be due to internal, stable, and controllable factors such as ability, while a failure can be due to external and uncontrollable factors such as task difficulty or bad luck.
Self-serving bias is also closely related to the concepts of internal locus of control (believing you have the power to succeed and fail) and external locus of control (blaming external factors for your success or failure).
Examples of Self-serving Bias
1. The Boastful Championship Winners
The self-serving bias can be seen in sports quite easily. After winning a championship the winning team will attribute their victory to hard work, confidence, and playing well when they really needed to.
These are all internal factors. The reasons for the success are because of the players themselves. When we attribute a victory to our personal qualities, it provides a big boost to our self-esteem.
It is highly unlikely that a person on the winning team is going to say they won because they were lucky that day, the refs made a lot of bad calls, or because the other team did not play well. That takes the glory of victory away from the winners by attributing the win to external factors.
2. Blaming Others for not Getting the Job
Applying for a job is a bit of a risk to our self-esteem, especially if it is one that we really want. If the company doesn’t hire us, it can be a big blow to our self-confidence. So, we have to do something to protect ourselves psychologically.
That’s where the self-serving bias comes into play.
We might attribute the rejection to the interviewer not recognizing our value; not being able to give clear answers because the secretary kept interrupting; or the company doesn’t like to hire people our age or demographic profile.
The list of reasons for not getting the job could be endless, but as long as they each point to external factors not involving ourselves, we can lessen the blow to our self-esteem.
3. Blaming Others for your Traffic Accident
How many times have you seen a car accident and both parties are pointing the finger at each other? Usually, no one is willing to admit fault. Of course, that can be for multiple reasons. Accepting blame can mean getting a ticket and insurance rates being increased. Nobody wants that.
However, not accepting responsibility for causing an accident is also a way to protect ourselves psychologically. If it was our fault, it means that we weren’t paying attention or made a wrong turn, both of which imply that we are a bad driver.
So, using a self-serving bias and finding external reasons for the accident is common practice in this type of situation.
4. Being Smug About a High Score on an Exam
Taking exams is a part of life. Every course, every semester, every year, exams cannot be avoided. When doing very well on an exam it is a great opportunity for the self-serving bias.
We instantly attribute our score to the fact that we are smart, or that we put in a lot of time studying. We might even say that the subject is just something that we are naturally good at.
These explanations point to internal factors for the outcome. That will help us feel good about ourselves and give our confidence a nice boost.
Of course, there could be other reasons, such as the exam was easy or that we got lucky because the teacher only asked questions that we actually studied. But if we ascribe those reasons, then it kind of takes the wind out of our sails and doesn’t benefit us nearly as much.
5. Blaming Peers for Performing Poorly on a Group Project
Working with others on a group project is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, everyone brings different skills to the table and that can result in a project that is thorough and comprehensive. On the other hand, everyone has a different personality and motivation level, and that can result in interpersonal conflicts and missing vital elements of the project.
If the project doesn’t turn out well, then the self-serving bias will allow us to find enough blame to spread around the table. We can point to those that failed to complete their work, or did complete their work but not very well. There may have been too much bickering, bad leadership, or some team members just being difficult human beings.
Identifying these external factors is a good way to protect ourselves from the unpleasant psychological consequences that come with failure.
6. Blaming Students for Low Course Evaluations
University professors usually have their courses evaluated by students at the end of the term. This usually involves an evaluation form that asks about the professor’s level of preparedness for each class, their ability to explain difficult subject matter, fairness of exams, etc.
If a professor receives particularly bad marks, it can deal a tremendous blow to their pride. That might be too much to handle. Fortunately, the self-serving bias can come to the rescue.
The professor might explain to the Dean that the students were unmotivated and did not put in enough time for the exams. So, they performed poorly, which led to the bad course evaluations. Or, the professor could point out that the course is one of the most challenging in the program and that evaluations are usually low, no matter who teaches it.
These explanations may actually be accurate, or not, but they do serve a protective function.
7. Blaming Technology for our Failures
As a university professor, I hear this one all the time. A student will say “oh, the spell checker must have caused that problem on my essay!” In reality, it’s still your fault: you should have spell-checked yourself!
When technology serves us well, however, we rarely say “oh, it wasn’t me, it was Grammarly that gave me that great grade!” Of course not – we pat ourselves on the back for our hard work.
Technology ends up being a scapegoat for late essay submissions, poor grades, a terrible online interview, and missing deadlines at work. All the good things it does for us, however, are often ascribed to our own genius!
8. Marital Discord (Blaming your Husband or Wife)
Getting married is one of the most important decisions a person will ever make. Most of us put everything we have into a marriage, psychologically, emotionally, and financially. When things don’t go well it can be devastating – and we’ll often ascribe a lot of the blame to our partner.
It is difficult to accept blame when things go south. Being wrong means being bad. No one wants to be the bad guy in a marriage and responsible for the destruction of something that was supposed to be so beautiful and everlasting.
This is one reason why we can see the self-serving bias play such a prominent role in marital discord. Each person in the marriage blames the other and sees themselves as the one trying so hard to make things work.
9. Entrepreneurial Success and Failure
Becoming an entrepreneur takes a lot of confidence. It also takes a lot of time, energy, and financial resources. Many entrepreneurs leave good jobs and risk everything they have.
It is a long and arduous process to go from a shop in your garage to renting out several floors of office space and hiring hundreds of people. There are many successes and failures along the way.
In a sense, it is a perfect scenario to see the self-serving bias in all its manifestations. Failures can be blamed on bad market conditions, venture capitalists that lack insight, or government regulations that are too restrictive. Successes on the other hand, are due to hard work, excellent leadership, and an incredible ability to anticipate trends.
10. Meeting Sales Targets
Sales is a difficult job. No matter what kind of industry, looking someone in the eye and trying to convince them to spend their money on something you have is no easy task. It takes confidence, persistence, and great communication skills. Having a good product also helps.
With so much on the line, it is no wonder that sales people are so good at the self-serving bias. They have to be. Without it their confidence would implode; approaching another person to pitch would just be too intimidating.
This is why we can see the self-serving bias in salespeople flourish. Every rejection is met with an immediate identification of all possible external factors creating the failure. Whereas a successful sale can produce a glow in the eyes and a spring in the step because they have a special talent for talking to people and persuading them to sign on the dotted line.
In a world full of constant challenges, the self-serving bias plays a vital role in our daily lives. It protects our self-esteem from being destroyed after a failure and gives us the confidence we need to push onward when we succeed.
Whether the situation is as important as marriage or as routine as the results of yet another exam, the self-serving bias will help us deal with the outcome.
It is implemented by people from all walks of life; from the oldest generations of people trying to download an App from the “interweb”, to the youngest entrepreneur working from their parent’s garage. The self-serving bias is here to stay.
De Michele, P., Gansneder, B., & Solomon, G. (1998). Success and failure attributions of wrestlers: Further evidence of the self-serving bias. Journal of Sport Behavior, 21(3), 242.
Hastorf, A., Schneider, D., & Polefka, J. (1970). Person perception. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
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McAllister, H. A. (1996). Self-serving bias in the classroom: Who shows it? Who knows it? Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(1), 123–131.
Thomas, O. (2018). Two decades of cognitive bias research in entrepreneurship: what do we know and where do we go from here? Management Review Quarterly, 68(2), 107-143.
Warach, B., Josephs, L., & Gorman, B. S. (2019). Are cheaters sexual hypocrites? Sexual hypocrisy, the self-serving bias, and personality style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(10), 1499-1511.
Weiner, B. (1974). Achievement motivation and attribution theory. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.