Even if you haven’t heard of the self-serving bias before, you probably have plenty of experience with it. It describes the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to our own abilities, but blame external factors when things turn out wrong.
It’s an extremely common type of cognitive bias that can have both beneficial and harmful implications; although it often helps protect our self-esteem, it also makes us blind to our own mistakes and, therefore, unable to learn from them.
What is the Self-Serving Bias?
Self-serving bias is the tendency for people to take personal credit for successes but hold our situation or other people accountable when an outcome is negative.
For example, if a student gets a good result on an exam, they naturally assume it’s due to some positive aspects of their character or because they had worked hard for the exam. On the other hand, if the student had done poorly, he or she may have ended up blaming outside forces, such as the teacher who assessed their work, rather than consider themselves responsible for the result.
As such, this bias affects people across a wide variety of contexts, from school and workplace to when we are engaged with our hobbies. However, what’s interesting is that its effect may be weaker in an environment that makes us feel humble and unpretentious, such as being among close friends or family.
Furthermore, it has been shown that age and gender influence the self-serving bias. For instance, men are more likely to blame external factors in the case of a failure than women, and older individuals are more likely to take credit for themselves in case of a positive outcome than younger people.
Self-serving bias serves a useful purpose to us: it helps maintain or enhance our self-esteem. When we attribute negative events to external factors, we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves for making a mistake, and, on the other hand, we get a confidence boost when we take personal credit for positive results.
Curiously, this tendency may be flipped if a person is suffering from depression or has low self-esteem. In such a case, they may attribute successes to outside forces and blame themselves when things turn out negatively.
This bias can also have harmful consequences by not allowing one to improve themselves in areas that require improvement; if we are unable to recognize when failures are due to our own shortcomings, then we are unable to learn from them and thus avoid making them in the future.
As such, one useful way to combat the self-serving bias would be to practice self-compassion: Accepting the fact that we — like everyone else — do make occasional mistakes can make us less defensive, promote our personal well-being, and help progress in various areas.