The Self-Serving Bias – Definition, Research, and Antidotes
WHAT IS SELF-SERVING BIAS?
The self-serving bias refers to the common habit of people taking credit for positive outcomes or events, though blame outside factors for negative outcomes.
This seems to be related to culture, age, clinical diagnosis. This also tends to occur across widely across populations around the world.
Investigations surrounding self-serving bias in the laboratory are different from experimental goals, but they still have fundamental aspects.
Over here, participants perform tasks that are often of social sensitivity, intelligence, therapy or teaching skills.
The participants can be asked to work in groups, pairs or even alone.
Once their tasks have been completed, they are given random fabricated feedback.
Some studies make use of emotion-induction mechanisms to investigate moderating effects on the self-serving bias.
Then lastly, participants make attributions for the given outcomes.
These attributions are then evaluated by researchers to determine implications for the self-serving bias.
Neural experimentation is a more modern testing procedure that is used in place of the fundamental self-serving bias laboratory ones.
Electroencephalography (EEG), as well as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), investigate the neural correlates of the self-serving bias.
These procedures provide insight into brain area activity during the exhibition of a self-serving bias, as well as a mechanism to differentiate brain activity between clinical and healthy populations.
Retrospective performance outcomes are used to investigate the self-serving bias.
One example of this is reported company performance that is accompanied by self-report of outcome attributions.
The self-report attributions can then be used to evaluate how failures and successes are viewed by company employers and employees.
This procedure is used for various outcome variables to identify the presence of or absence of the self-serving bias.
FACTORS AND VARIABLES
Locus of Control
The locus of control (LOC) concept addresses an individual’s belief system about the causes of events, and the accompanying attributions.
There are two types of LOC, which are internal and external.
When someone has an internal LOC, they will attribute their success to their own hard work, effort, and persistence.
And if they have an external LOC, they will assign the success that comes to them to luck, chance or anything other than what they have done.
People with internal LOC are more likely to show a self-serving bias, especially when it concerns achievements.
In self-report surveys that investigate partner interactions of romantic couples, men often tended to assign negative interactions to their partners than women did.
This seems to indicate that men might exhibit the self-serving bias more than women, although the study did not account for positive interaction attributes.
In a 2004 meta-analysis reveals that while numerous studies have examined gender differences in the self-serving bias, it is quite hard to get a clear view of it.
It’s not because mixed results have been witnessed in sex differences in attributions, but that researchers have found that self-serving bias depends on the age of the person and whether they are looking assigning successes or failures.
Self-serving bias is known to change with time in people.
Though it may be less prevalent with older adults as they have shown to make more internal causal attributions for negative outcomes.
Older adults are also likely to have a reduced positivity bias (which is the tendency to judge positive traits as being more accurate.
Older adults who have attributed negative outcomes to more internal factors have also rated themselves to be in poorer health.
Therefore, negative emotional aspects may confuse the found age effects.
Self-Esteem and Emotion
Emotions can impact feelings of self-esteem, which then alters the need to protect one’s self-identity.
People with high self-esteem are believed to have more to safeguard their self-image, and thus exhibit the self-serving bias more often than their low-esteem counterparts.
In one study by Martin D Coleman, participants who were induced to feel emotions of revulsion or guilt were less likely to make self-serving attributions for success and make self-protecting attributions for failure.
Coleman revealed that both emotions of guilt and revulsion lead to a reduction in self-esteem, as well as a reduction in the self-serving bias.
Self-serving bias investigations distinguish between the role of participants as actors of a specific task or observers of someone else performing that task, which is related to actor-observer asymmetry.
Actors of a particular task show the self-serving bias in their attributions to their own failure or success feedback, whereas observers don’t make the same attributions about the task outcome of another person.
That’s because observers tend to be more objective in ascribing internal or external attributions of people’s outcomes.
It could be due to the fact that the self-image of actors is challenged directly and thus actors feel the need to protect their own self-image, but don’t have the same desire to do so when the self-image of others is threatened.
Self-Awareness and the Probability of Improvement
The relationship between individuals’ perceived probability and awareness levels of improvement also results in the activation of the self-serving bias.
People with high self-awareness attribute failure internally when they perceive a high probability of improvement.
But they will engage in self-serving bias, as in, attribute failure externally when they perceive a low probability of improvement and people with low awareness will attribute failure externally no matter what their perceived probability of improvement is.
Self-serving bias occurs in a variety of situations across ages, genders, cultures, and others.
- A student gets an excellent score on his test and congratulates herself for the hard work he put into studying. But when he gets a terrible score on another test, he puts the blame on the teacher for making the test hard for him to do well or that the teacher just hates him.
- Athletes who win a game assign their victory to their hard work and practice. But when they lose the next week, the blame their loss on the referee’s flawed decision.
- A person applying for a job believes he got hired due to his educational qualifications, accolades and splendid interview. And the reason he thinks he was ejected from his previous job opening was that the interviewer didn’t like him.
Those with low self-esteem or depression may invert the self-serving bias.
This means they will attribute negative outcomes on what they did and positive outcomes to luck or something someone else did.
SELF-SERVING BIAS EXPERIMENTS
There have been several experiments conducted to study self-serving bias.
In a 2011 study, a group of undergraduate students filled out an online test, experienced an emotional induction, got feedback on their tests, and then made an attribution on their performance.
The examiner found that certain emotions contributed to the self-serving bias.
A 2003 study was conducted to look into the neural basis of self-serving bias by using imaging studies, notably a fMRI.
It was discovered that the dorsal striatum – which is found to operate in motor activities that share cognitive activities – controls the self-serving bias.
MOTIVATIONS FOR THE BIAS
It is assumed that there are two motivations for using the self-serving bias: self-enhancement and self-presentation.
Self-enhancement describes a person’s motivation to either sustain or enhance their sense of self-worth.
With this, a person using self-serving bias would attribute their positive outcomes to themselves and negative things on outside factors would be able to maintain a positive image and self-worth.
An example of this would be when you play baseball and get struck out.
If you think the umpire called the strikes unfairly and that you got bad pitches, you’re pushing the idea that you’re a good hitter.
On the other hand, perceiving yourself being responsible for undesired outcomes reduces your self-worth.
There are a number of studies that are consistent with the explanation of self-enhancement.
In the case of self-enhancement, people need only show their self-serving bias only for outcomes that are important (like when they have implications for self-worth).
Regarding this reasoning, people show even more self-serving bias only for important outcomes instead of those that are considered unimportant.
For example, in one study, participants were prompted to be self-serving in their attributions when the test was said to have well-established validity than when it was previously described as new and of undetermined validity.
More evidence to support how crucial the role of self-enhancement is in the self-serving bias comes from cross-cultural research.
This research finds cultural differences in the extent to which self-worth is linked to personal accomplishments and outcomes.
With regards to Western cultures, self-esteem and identity are closely associated with individual accomplishments.
Those from western cultures experience self-worth in response to personal failures.
In eastern cultures, however, there is no powerful link between self-worth and individual success.
Self-worth and culture are consistent with results that indicate cultural differences in the self-serving bias.
Western cultural folk display a stronger self-serving bias than the ones from the eastern cultures.
But that’s not to say that the people from eastern cultures don’t show any self-enhancement at all.
In fact, meta-analytic research, which collects results from numerous studies, shows that people from eastern cultures display a relatively weaker self-serving bias for their accomplishments and failures than the ones from western cultures.
Plus, there is some research that shows that eastern cultural people are more inclined to show a group-serving bias.
The group-serving bias refers to the one’s tendency to assign group successes to something internal to the group, like when people say, “we work well together” and have a tendency to assign group failures to something external to the group.
There is also evidence that suggests that while people from western cultures are likely to show self-enhancement on behaviors and traits that are well-valued within individualistic cultures, people from eastern cultures usually likely to show self-enhancement on behaviors and traits that are valued within collective cultures.
For instance, people from western cultures are more than likely to rate themselves better than average on traits like original, independent, unique and self-reliant than their eastern cultural counterparts.
On the other hand, people from eastern cultures are more likely than their western counterparts to rate themselves better than average on traits such as compromising, agreeable, loyal and cooperative.
And while not directly tested, the implication that people from eastern cultures will showcase the self-serving bias for their personal failures and successes that imply abilities that are particularly valued in Eastern cultures.
Self-presentation refers to the inclination of portraying the desired image of yourself onto others.
In other words, it’s about having the desire appear in a certain way to other people around you.
That way, the self-serving bias allows us to maintain the image that we try to present to others.
Another way to put it is that people claim personal responsibility for successes instead of failures in an effort to influence the thought of others.
For instance, if you come off to others as though you have good study habits, you may assign a bad score you got in your test to poorly written questions rather than your incapability to properly prepare yourself for them.
You could also say something like, “I stayed up all night preparing for the test, but the questions were not based on the material that we were given in class.”
Be advised that self-presentation is not the same as lying.
Others may be convinced that you indeed stayed up all night preparing for the questions, but the thought that you may have studied inefficiently never came to mind.
But of course, it can be tricky to try to constantly maintain a desired image.
It means that even though taking credit for success can likely enhance your image, you might be perceived as being very boasting if you constantly brag about your success, which could eventually lead to disapproval from others.
Still, the negative consequences that result from self-promotion can cause people to present themselves more modestly.
For instance, participants in one study got more credit for group success when they believed that their claims would be private than when they believe that their claims would be revealed to the entire group.
Similarly, like those in eastern cultures, who value modesty, participants like to less self-serving bias when attributions are made publicly than when they’re made privately.
Further evidence for the self-presentation aspects of the self-serving bias comes from research on socially anxious people.
Research experts have proposed that people who are low vs. high in social anxiety have differences in self-presentational style.
People with low social anxiety have an acquisitive style that is aimed at enhancing identity and garnering approval.
Conversely, people with high social anxiety have a protective, cautious style aimed at avoiding social disapproval and safeguarding their identity.
From a self-presentational perspective, self-serving attributions carry a certain amount of risk because audiences may end up challenging the self-serving claims.
Therefore, self-serving attributions can come off less appealing and satisfactory to those who are high in social anxiety.
Compared to participants who are low in social anxiety, those who are high in social anxiety took greater responsibility for failure and denied credit for success, especially when they believed they evaluated by experts immediately or when they predicted a retest.
HOW TO LIMIT SELF-SERVING BIAS?
Should you try and limit self-serving bias?
We agree that it might be detrimental to our self-esteem but it could limit our learning as a result.
There are plenty of reasons as to why we can have unexpected failure and success, but if you wish to restrict it, then there are ways to do that.
One of the ways to limit self-serving bias is recording and recognizing what happened in the past and document the reasons behind your decisions as well as the outcomes that came as a result of those decisions.
Think about keeping an investment log.
Use it to list down all the times, within reason, envisioned a good outcome in mind but had a bad outcome instead. In one instance, it could have been poor skills and in another, it could have been due to bad luck.
Similarly, even though we might have the wrong reasoning, we could have a good outcome – which is otherwise known as good luck and we have to acknowledge it.
It is also crucial to acknowledge that we have wrong reasoning and a bad outcome that results from that.
In that case, we have to accept that we made a mistake and that we can and should learn from those mistakes.
So we need to map out the outcomes of the decisions that we take.
Other ways to cure self-serving awareness include:
- Mindful awareness helps: When you realize your common cognitive biases, you will notice that you do them yourself and correct yourself on it.
- Self-compassion: This is a very useful skill that aids in reducing defensiveness and increase your self-improvement motivation.
- Rumination: This allows people to think about their problems over and over, without moving ahead.
In the end, self-serving bias is normal and has a purpose.
But if the person ignores their responsibility in negative events, this can impede their learning processes as well as their relationships.