What Is Self-Serving Bias? | Definition & Example

Self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute our successes to internal, personal factors, and our failures to external, situational factors. In other words, we like to take credit for our triumphs, but we are more likely to blame others or circumstances for our shortcomings.

Example: Self-serving bias 
Α student who performs well on an exam may ascribe their success to their excellent preparation and intelligence. In the case of a poor performance, the same student would likely think that the exam was too difficult or that the questions did not correspond to the material taught.

Self-serving bias prevents us from learning from our mistakes.This can distort our self-perception and significantly impair our ability to reflect on negative outcomes. Self-serving bias is evident when explaining our behaviour in various contexts, such as job performance, sports, or even driving ability.

What is self-serving bias?

Self-serving bias is a type of cognitive bias in which an individual distorts reality in order to protect their ego. This bias frequently manifests as a tendency to attribute success to the self and failure to external causes.

More specifically, self-serving bias is a type of attribution bias, which occurs when we try to explain certain behaviors or outcomes. Actor-observer bias is a similar type of attribution bias.

Under the self-serving bias, how we explain the root cause of an outcome depends on whether the outcome is positive or negative. We tend to attribute positive outcomes to our characteristics or abilities, while negative outcomes are attributed to external circumstances.

For example, we are more likely to take personal credit for a high grade on an exam (positive outcome), but more inclined to blame another driver or the weather for a car accident (negative outcome). As a result, we make decisions or form judgments that are less than accurate but nevertheless beneficial for us.

What is attribution?

In psychology, attribution refers to how we perceive and explain the causes of behaviour. Although we like to think that we are rational and objective in our attributions, these are in fact heavily subject to the same distortions as other forms of judgment. Causal attributions in particular, like those relating to success and failure, are often distorted by feelings (called affective behaviors). These processes occur without us even realising it.

There are two main types of attribution:

  • External (or situational) attribution interprets our behaviour as being caused by situational factors beyond our control.
  • Internal (or dispositional) attribution interprets our behaviour as being caused by our personality traits.

As a result of self-serving bias, our attributions help us feel positively about ourselves. Due to this, we tend to make external attributions when the outcome of our behavior is negative, while we tend to make internal ones when the outcome is positive.

Why does self-serving bias occur?

Self-serving bias is caused by several factors. A number of theories can help explain why self-serving bias occurs:

  • The need to maintain our self-esteem. One of the driving forces behind this bias is the (unconscious) need to feel good about ourselves. Because of this, we default to seeing things in a way that favors ourselves, rather than others. Taking credit for positive outcomes while attributing negative ones to external causes is a way to protect our self-esteem. At the same time, it is an effective coping strategy that helps us reduce the emotional sting of undesirable outcomes.
  • The need to assign responsibility. When we make attributions, we are not only interested in what caused a certain outcome, but also in assigning responsibility. When we attribute someone’s dangerous driving to their poor driving skills (an internal factor), as opposed to an external factor like poor visibility on the road, we are also implicitly or explicitly placing the blame on them. Combined with the need to protect our ego, the need to assign responsibility can explain why it’s easier for us to blame external circumstances for our failures.
  • Expectation alignment. Other researchers have proposed a different explanation, arguing that self-serving bias is related to how closely reality aligns with expectations. In other words, if the result of an event is consistent with an individual’s expectation, then they will attribute this to internal factors, but if it is unexpected, they will likely use external attributions and blame the circumstances. Given that humans tend to be optimistic, this can explain why negative outcomes usually come as a surprise and we are more likely to deflect responsibility for them (this is related to optimism bias).

Self-serving bias example

Self-serving bias is often observed in situations where an individual’s self-esteem is being threatened by negative outcomes, like in a sports event.

Example: Self-serving bias and athletic performance 
In one study, researchers investigated how long-distance runners cope with worse-than-expected athletic performance. They hypothesized that self-serving bias is a coping mechanism for runners who missed their best finish time at a long-distance running event. The data was collected from three sources:

  • When registering for the event, participants were required to provide their best finish time (based on previous race times or on predicted times) in order to be assigned a position.
  • Every participant’s official finish time was measured by a digitalised system (i.e., bib time) by the event organiser.
  • A post-event survey was emailed to all participants a week after the event. The survey included questions about their race finish time, event satisfaction, and questions regarding control variables that might influence runners’ self-serving bias.

The researchers found that runners whose finish time fell short of their best finish time were more likely to report a positively biased incorrect finish time than those whose time performance was better than their best finish time. Given that there was no external reward for doing so, the hypothesis of self-serving bias as a coping mechanism was confirmed: participants deceived themselves in an effort to protect their positive self-image as a runner.

Interestingly, the researchers also found a significant difference in overall event satisfaction between the biased and unbiased groups. Runners whose self-reported finish time was positively biased (i.e., better than their official finish time) showed a lower level of overall event satisfaction. In other words, runners who were subject to self-serving bias believed that factors related to the event environment, such as the weather or the placement of the water stations, were the cause of their poor athletic performance.

Other types of attribution bias

Although our attributions are reasonably accurate most of the time, there are several ways in which they can be misleading.

  • Actor-observer bias. According to the actor-observer bias, we tend to explain other people’s behaviour in terms of internal factors while explaining our own behaviour in terms of external factors. In other words, we attribute different causes to the same (undesirable) behaviour, depending on whether we are observers or actors.
  • Fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overestimate the importance of character traits and underestimate the importance of situation and context when judging others’ behaviour.
  • Group-serving bias (or ultimate attribution error). Self-serving bias can spill over into the groups we identify with. Group-serving bias is the tendency to make more favourable attributions about our ingroups than our outgroups. For example, by crediting the ingroup for its successes, while blaming external factors for its failures.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between self-serving bias and actor-observer bias?

Self-serving bias and actor-observer bias are both types of cognitive bias, and more specifically, attribution bias. Although they both occur when we try to explain behavior, they are also quite different.

Self-serving bias refers to how we explain our behavior depending on whether the outcome of our behavior is positive or negative. For example, an athlete is more likely to attribute a good performance on their own ability, and a poor one on external causes like the event environment.

Actor-observer bias refers to how we explain the causes of (undesirable) behavior. When we are the actors, we attribute our behavior to external factors, while when we are the observers we are more likely to attribute the same behavior to internal factors. For example, when we drive dangerously, we may attribute this to the poor visibility on the road, while when another driver exhibits the same behavior, we are more likely to think they are just bad drivers.

Why is self-serving bias a problem?

Self-serving bias is a problem because it causes us to only take credit for positive outcomes and deflect responsibility in case of negative outcomes. This prevents us from accurately reflecting on our behavior and understanding the real causes behind certain events. Due to this, self-serving bias hinders our ability to learn from mistakes or failures.

What is a real-life example of self-serving bias?

A real-life example of self-serving bias is how we explain work-related decisions that personally affect us.

More specifically, when an individual is promoted at work, they will attribute this to internal causes, such as their ability or work ethic. In contrast, when the same individual is fired, they will attribute this to external causes, such as an unfair manager or bad luck.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, February 24). What Is Self-Serving Bias? | Definition & Example. Scribbr. Retrieved 22 February 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-self-serving-bias/

Sources

Hyun, M., Jee, W. F., Wegner, C. E., Jordan, J. S., Du, J., & Oh, T. (2022). Self-Serving Bias in Performance Goal Achievement Appraisals: Evidence From Long-Distance Runners. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.762436

Jhangiani, R. (2022, January 26). Principles of Social Psychology – 1st International H5P Edition. Pressbooks. https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/

OpenEd CUNY. (n.d.). What Is Social Psychology? https://opened.cuny.edu/courseware/lesson/76/student/?section=12

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.