The self serving bias is a tendency of human beings to take all the credit for success and blame external factors for failures.
Here is how our mind works. When you achieve success, you pat yourself on the back for all the good work. When things go wrong, you place the blame on other people or external factors. To make that worse, you genuinely believe that failures were out of our control.
Do you remember a situation where you took credit for victories and pointed fingers when things went south? I do.
When I started writing this blog, different articles received different reactions. A few received many shares and views, while some others had none. I believed that popular articles received shares because of my writing skills. For the content which had a lesser response, I told myself, “People do not know how to value good content.”
After some self-introspection, I realized, my effort on all articles was pretty much the same. My thoughts were due to self serving bias. I was praising myself for all the good responses and finding excuses for the rest.
- What is the self serving bias?
- Examples of the self serving bias:
- How does the self serving bias affect you?
- How to avoid the self serving bias?
- Research and experiments:
- Why does the self serving bias occur?
- 6. Actor or observer
What is the self serving bias?
The self serving bias is a tendency of human beings to take all the credit for success and blame external factors for failures. It is one of the many cognitive biases of the human brain.
For example, when a sportsperson scores an inhuman goal, he attributes hard work and talent to the outcome. When he fails to score one, he blames the referee for the incorrect decision. In reality, the unexpected goal might have been a stroke of luck, and the miss could have occurred due to his poor skills.
You exhibit similar behavior in real life too. If you earn a driver’s license in the first attempt, you admire your skills. If you fail, you blame the examiner for the harsh evaluation.
Here is a visual which explains how the effect works in your head:
The opposite of the effect is called self effacing bias where you put all the blame on yourself for failures and attribute success to external factors.
The self serving bias is related to the fundamental attribution error, where you place the blame on another person without taking into account the external factors which led to the outcome
Examples of the self serving bias:
The bias occurs in all areas such as school, work, politics, and personal relationships. Here are 3 common examples of the effect in real life.
Have you observed students and parents bragging after achieving good grades? I am sure you have. All credit goes to the student either for his intelligence or for putting in hard work.
But what happens when the grades aren’t that great? People are quick to blame the teachers, the institute, or the education system.
Leaders make essential decisions that have a significant impact on the future of the company. A common tendency is to laud one’s own managerial and decision-making skills when the move goes well. Parties are thrown to celebrate success where someone speaks about the fantastic leadership qualities of the person in charge.
When things go wrong, some leaders find a reason to explain the unfortunate outcome. I have been a culprit of such behavior myself.
During my first few years as an entrepreneur, my ego skyrocketed when things went right. “I am the next Zuckerberg,” I thought. When we hit a point of failure, I blamed the market, the users, or the incompetence of people.
The good deeds were mine, and the wrong actions were somebody else’s.
3. Sports events/fans
Try observing how fans of opposite teams look at an event from two opposing perspectives. Let’s say, the referee calls a harsh foul during a tense moment of the game. The fans of one team curse the referee while the other considers such tough decisions as a part of the game.
Interestingly, if the referee calls a similar foul on the other team, the reaction is precisely the opposite. Such behavior is exhibited not only by the fans but also the players themselves.
Blaming the loss on the referee is a common way of exhibiting the self serving bias.
How does the self serving bias affect you?
Both partners have an equal role to play in a relationship. Each person takes different responsibilities to make the relationship work. But do partners recognize the effort put by the other person?
Researchers have conducted studies on couples by asking them, “Do you or your partner contribute more to the relationship?”
Results have shown that both men and women feel they contribute more and the other does not do enough. Each one blames the other for the problems in the relationship. When both expect the other to change, frustrations and conflicts prevail.
Instead, you must self introspect to check what can you do for your partner.
2. Career achievements
Do you feel your coworker did not deserve the recent promotion he received? You think you should have got it.
Such thoughts originate from the same bias. When you get promoted or receive recognition, you feel you have truly earned it. If your rival wins the reward instead, you believe people are taking sides.
I am not ruling out internal politics in an organization. I am only pointing out how your mind thinks when things do not go in your favor.
Usually, the person who earned the reward had done something you missed to do. The right mindset is to look for an area to improve than assume harmful intentions.
3. Self Improvements
When things do not go as desired, you have two choices:
- An opportunity to look back and evaluate what you could have done better
- Find an excuse for the outcome
Here are some example scenarios:
- Having a tussle with your friend
- Losing money due to a lousy stock purchase
- Scolding your kid for not listening to your words
In each of these cases, you can find a reason for your bad behavior. Maybe your friend started the argument. Maybe an expert suggested a poor stock. Maybe your kid is too arrogant.
But look at the same situation from a different angle. You could have changed your behavior and caused a different outcome if you wanted to.
You had the chance to avoid further debate even if your friend brought up an issue first. You could have done your due diligence before buying a stock suggested by some experts. You could have tried a better method to help your kid understand.
Considering the improvement to lie within your internal locus of control is a choice for you to make. Some do, some don’t.
4. Learning a new skill
Learning a new skill takes effort. Let’s say, for example, you decide to learn the guitar after you’re 40 years old. If you manage to get a hang of the instrument, you feel proud of your musical skills. If you struggle, you blame the age factor, the instrument, or the teaching material.
Mastering a new skill depends on your mindset, potential, and effort. Sure, certain restrictions and external factors prevent learning specific skills.
For example, you cannot learn to become a world-class basketball player if you start at 40 or if you’re short. But such real constraints occur only in rare cases.
More often, the self serving bias causes us to pin the blame on an external factor.
5. Tests and interviews
Have you met a candidate or a student who fared poorly in a test? You will find him citing a reason for his bad performance.
- I could not sleep well last night
- They never asked a similar question in years
- The questions were irrelevant
The same occurs after interviews too. Only a few mindful people identify areas to improve by looking at their fault. The majority of the world likes to believe they did their best and the outcome was out of their control.
How to avoid the self serving bias?
Spotting the self serving is the hard part. Though you cannot identify the behavior in yourself every single time, you can take the following steps to make yourself more self-aware.
1. Give others credit during success
Every time you succeed, try to find 5 people or reasons behind the victory. If you are a leader, you will gain more respect by stepping aside and allowing other people to take the limelight.
Giving others credit helps you motivate others, build better rapport, and also keep your ego under check.
2. Find an area for improvement for any bad outcome
No matter how random or bizarre the event seemed like, you can find at least one area to learn and improve.
- Did you lose your job due to a market collapse? You could have prepared yourself by looking out earlier.
- A coworker yelled at you for no reason? You haven’t done enough to build a good rapport.
- Slipped on banana peel thrown carelessly around? You should watch your step next time.
Even if the bad outcome had little to do with your action, you always have an option to spot an improvement for yourself. Cultivate a culture of no blame and you will improve as wine does with age.
3. Give yourself extra time to evaluate the outcome
When you face a negative outcome, you feel a natural instinct to find an excuse for the failure. If you ponder longer over the sequence of events and your actions with utmost honesty, you can spot your flaws.
Tell yourself, again and again, that it’s acceptable to make mistakes. You will find it hard to identify and admit your lapses at first. Your brain will fight hard to defend what you did.
With practice, you will learn how to look at your actions with minimal biases.
Research and experiments:
The origin of the self serving bias dates back to the 1960s. But back then, researchers did not have enough proof to back the theory. Fritz Heider first stated that during ambiguous situations, people make assumptions to boost their ego and self-esteem.
Miller and Ross conducted the first study on the topic in 1975. They put forward a theory that self serving bias was not due to self-esteem but based on logical thought.
They argued that every person goes with an assumption before an event. When his belief comes true, he deduces he was the reason behind the glory. When unexpected results occur, he finds external factors that led to the outcome. Such behavior has little to do with self-esteem and more with a person’s logic, albeit a faulty one.
Since then, researchers have conducted different types of experiments.
A few decades ago, the most common form of testing was to choose a bunch of candidates and give them a test. The subjects received their scores along with some fake feedback. Researchers evaluated the responses of the people for the self serving bias.
With the advancement of technology, researchers can now analyze the portions of the brain show activity during an event. Scientists use neural imaging techniques along with laboratory tests to check for biases. Though brain science still has many gray areas, it has made great strides in recent times.
In some tests, researchers examine responses after real cases of successes and failures. For example, executives are tested after the company has shown positive results. Their behavior after negative results in a quarter is examined too.
Based on what they’ve gathered, researchers test if the CEOs feel comfortable admitting their flaws or if they find an excuse to pin the blame on.
Why does the self serving bias occur?
Psychologists have identified various factors that lead to the self serving bias. If you see the phenomenon in yourself, one or more of these reasons could have played a part.
1. Locus of control
Locus of control is an area within which you have the power to make changes and influence the outcome. For example, choosing what you eat for lunch lies within your control. Choosing what your coworker eats, doesn’t.
You can consider the locus of control as two circles, one placed within another. Within the inner circle are areas you have control on. The regions in the outer circle are beyond your ability to change.
Each person can have a different perspective of what falls within and what lies outside his control. People with an internal locus of control believe their actions lead to a negative outcome. People with an external locus of control believe that other factors such as market, luck, or circumstances caused a poor result.
For example, a person with an external locus of control blames the traffic for arriving late. A person with an internal locus of control considers himself accountable for not leaving early.
People with an external locus of control are more vulnerable to the self serving bias.
2. Self-esteem and motivation
Human beings carry an internal desire to maintain a good image. Each person has a varied need and a different method to preserve or boost their self-esteem. Wearing cheap clothes can hurt the ego of some while losing a challenge can damage the self-esteem of some others.
Self serving bias stems from two types of motivation:
This is a motivation to keep your impression high in your own eyes. Taking credit for success and blaming external factors for failure, helps you believe you did your best.
This is a motivation to maintain your impression in the eyes of others. Claiming responsibility for success and finding excuses for failure is how you try to make others perceive you better.
Men and women have a different tendency to exhibit the self serving bias. In a survey conducted on couples, men blamed their partners for poor relationships more than women did. The study did not cover positive interactions though. Also, in a different situation, women have a higher tendency to blame external factors.
Men or women do not exhibit self serving bias more than the other gender overall. But the situation can influence men and women to behave differently.
With age comes maturity. Studies have shown that older people take more responsibility for bad outcomes. Therefore, self serving bias is likely to reduce with age.
Cultural differences across the world change the way you view an outcome. Individualistic(Western) and Collectivistic(Non-Western) cultures can influence how people analyze a result. In an individualistic society, the goals are more focused on the individual, leading to a higher need to boost self esteem.
No concrete proof exists to make one type of culture more vulnerable to the bias than the other. Yet, some fundamental differences have been observed.
People in both cultures have an equal chance of having an internal or external locus of control. The difference lies in their thought process of what falls within their control.
6. Actor or observer
Just like most other cognitive biases, spotting a flaw in another person is a cakewalk. As an observer, you apply logic when identifying mistakes and making a decision. When it comes to self-introspection, you have a higher tendency to take credit for success and reject your flaws without realizing it.
Read about few other biases here:
- Confirmation Bias – The tendency to look at new information such that it matches our beliefs and assumptions
- Clustering Illusion – A flaw of the human mind where we find patterns in random information when no pattern exists
- Outcome Bias – Tendency to judge a person or a decision based on the result than on the process
The self serving bias is deeply ingrained within us. It helps us keep going when we lose and make sure our self-esteem isn’t so damaged that we undergo depression. It also keeps us motivated to retain our performance.
For example, a person who blames the questions for doing poorly in the interview feels comfortable attending another one. Had it disturbed his confidence too much, he might have hesitated to take any future tests.
Do not let the self serving bias be a reason for arrogance, narcissim or an excuse to hide all your flaws. Practice to see through your soul and you will become as self-aware as an enlightened monk over the years.
Leave a comment on your experience with self serving bias in the past.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.