A bias in which people take responsibility for good outcomes, while attributing bad outcomes to external causes.
The self-serving bias is the tendency to take credit for positive outcomes and blame negative outcomes on factors external to the self or outside one’s control. For example, a student who does well on an exam may ascribe the success to his or her intelligence and great study habits, while a poor showing would be attributed to difficult test questions, an unfair instructor, or a stressful workload that precluded adequate study time. The self-serving bias is evident when explaining our behavior in a wide range of domains, including academic and job performance, athletics, interpersonal outcomes, and driving ability.
A principal reason for the self-serving bias is the motivation to boost feelings of self-worth and protect the self from threatening information. This account is supported by findings that the self-serving bias is stronger when explaining outcomes high in personal importance. Important events obviously carry a greater potential to enhance or threaten self-worth, and as a result, amplifies the motivation to draw favorable conclusions. For instance, people will make stronger self-serving attributions for their job-related performance than they would for performance at leisurely activities or hobbies.
The self-serving bias also depends on culture, based on a culture’s assumptions about whether a person’s self-worth and identity are linked to personal achievements. Hence, the self-serving bias is more potent in individualistic Western cultures that place a larger premium on the self and individual accomplishments. By contrast, in collectivistic cultures, people’s identity and worth are more strongly defined by important reference groups (e.g., their family, the company where they work) and belongingness to them (Markus and Kitayama 1991). With less importance attached to the self, people in collectivistic cultures exhibit a weaker self-serving bias, although it still exists to some degree (Mezulis et al. 2004).
None of this is to say that people make self-serving explanations intentionally as a strategic maneuver to enhance the self. Like most cognitive biases, the self-serving style is implemented largely outside of conscious awareness (Shepperd et al. 2008). The bias occurs because it benefits the user in important ways (Snyder and Higgins 1988). For example, when failing to achieve a goal, externalizing the blame can help sustain self-confidence and optimism needed to fuel continued effort. More generally, the use of self-serving attributions strengthens a person’s resilience after experiencing negative life events (Bonanno et al. 2002). Consistent with these ideas, the self-serving bias is considerably weaker among individuals who suffer from depression and anxiety, at least in individualistic cultures (Tennen and Herzberger 1987).
Thus, the self-serving bias can function as an adaptive means of regulating emotions and persisting in the face of failure, as long as its benefits outweigh the potential costs of the bias. For example, a self-serving style that consistently oversteps the bounds of reality (e.g., never taking responsibility for negative results) would incur considerable personal and social costs, such as the inability to learn from one’s mistakes and a reputation as narcissistic or delusional.
The self-serving bias can also arise in the absence of a motivation to self-enhance. This can happen when people use their expectations of their outcomes to guide the inferences they make. These expectations are usually positive because most people have favorable views of themselves and their abilities (Taylor and Brown 1988). When things turn out as they expect, people reflexively take credit for them. However, unexpected outcomes tend to produce uncertainty and leads people to search for the cause of these events. When the outcome does not fit with a person’s favorable self-views, the outcome will tend to get dismissed as an anomaly and blamed on some external factor. For example, when a good student fails an exam, he is unlikely to attribute his poor performance to his competent self that has notched a history of academic successes, and will instead look for other causes that could have interfered with this one performance.
Expectations can explain other cases where self-serving attributions are likely to be employed. People with high (vs. low) self-esteem exhibit a stronger self-serving bias. Negative outcomes do not fit well with their positive self-views, so they should be more likely to assume the blame lies elsewhere. In contrast, people who experience depression or anxiety may exhibit a weaker self-serving bias because their initial expectations are lower. Men exhibit a stronger self-serving bias than women, in part because men tend to have higher estimations of their abilities and greater expectations of success at many tasks (Mezulis et al. 2004).
Self-serving attributions are used when explaining events in a variety of settings, especially when outcomes are connected to a person’s self-worth and when expectations for success are high. Although the self-serving bias can distort the perception about the true causes of events, it can nevertheless serve as an important mechanism in successful goal pursuit and the ability to cope with negative feedback.
- Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 711–747.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar