Self-serving attributional bias explains why we take credit for our successes but attribute our failures to external causes.

Each day we all face various happenings to which we attribute significance and sometimes a “source” of that significance.

We either attribute internally (ourselves) or externally (anyone or thing except ourselves) the cause of these events. If you tend to attribute events internally when you’re successful but outwardly when things don’t go as hoped, you’re exhibiting a self-serving bias.

A 2017 study defines self-serving bias as a phenomenon in which we credit ourselves for positive occurrences (our successes) but blame others or external factors when adverse events (our perceived failures) happen.

For example, when we have a positive self-perception for receiving credit for our accomplishments, this can enhance our mental wellness.

In contrast, if you have a negative or insecure self-perception, you may view yourself in a way that’s not realistic, and it can leave you closed to self-growth.

What is self-serving bias in ethics?

Self-serving bias from an ethical standpoint is defined, in part, by putting your interests over others when making decisions.

It also may influence your ability to have an unbiased perspective on situations because you’re seeking information or perspectives that match your point of view.

What are examples of self-serving behavior?

  • making situations a competition where you already feel you have the upper hand
  • taking credit for others’ efforts
  • manipulating or causing harm to get your way
  • painting yourself in an overtly positive light that isn’t accurate
  • blaming others when things don’t go your way

Self-serving bias can protect your self-esteem and self-interests. You may publicly behave in ways that are desirable to others to help boost your self-esteem and protect yourself from judgment.

Self-serving bias scenario

For example, you study hard for a test in algebra class and pass. You might attribute passing the test to your skills and hard work — an internal attribution.

However, in that same algebra class, you have a poor grade. You may attribute that poor grade to the teacher not liking you rather than your skill — an external attribution.

Research and experiments

One 2022 experiment examined the self-serving bias among 1,320 marathon runners at a long-distance running event. The researchers proposed that the runners used the self-serving bias as a coping mechanism when they didn’t perform as well as they would have liked.

Study authors found their hypothesis to be accurate. Athletes who clocked in at worse official finish times were more likely to self-report biased times in a post-race interview.

A 2018 study looked at how the self-serving bias works among students in China.

In this study, some students’ test results were public. Another group had access only to their test results.

This research suggested that the self-serving bias may be present in public settings where there’s open comparison to others. Students in this study tended to attribute adverse outcomes on the test to external factors.

Motivations

Older research has named several common motivations for self-serving bias, including:

  • self-enhancement
  • self-presentation
  • compensating for expectations
  • reconciling self-schema
  • justifying behavior
  • various standards of proof

In what settings is it common?

Self-serving bias is typical across many settings.

For example, let’s say you perform well on a task at work and attribute that success to your skill and hard work, but then blame your co-workers for poor team performance overall.

In this scenario, you might be avoiding responsibility for your part in the team to protect your image.

Some typical settings for the self-serving bias:

  • work
  • political settings
  • athletics
  • school

Self-serving bias has been linked to various mental health conditions.

For example, a 2020 study found that the self-serving bias tended to be higher in individuals with schizophrenia spectrum disorders when compared to healthy controls, especially individuals with symptoms of delusion.

However, self-serving bias might be a survival mechanism for those with schizophrenia. Often, folks have no awareness of a psychotic episode and are more distressed at being removed from daily activity and hospitalized.

Positive attribution might be an effort to prove the truth of a hallucination, and negative attribution could be related to persecutory delusions.

Research from 2012 also suggests that self-serving bias is highly present among individuals with narcissistic tendencies.

Individuals with grandiosity behaviors may tend to make more internal attributions for successes to help boost their self-esteem and image.

The self-serving bias may exist to help us celebrate our accomplishments and preserve our sense of self when things don’t go our way. The self-serving bias expands across many contexts, cultures, and situations.

Demographics

Research from 2004 suggests that children ages 8 to 11 years old and individuals 55 and older have behaviors associated with self-serving bias.

In addition, some 2021 research indicates that self-serving bias is more present in individualistic cultures such as the United States when compared to more collectivist cultures such as China or Japan.

This difference may be explained by the emphasis on independence in Western cultures that isn’t prominent in Eastern cultures.

While often used as a protective mechanism, self-serving bias can also have its downsides, including:

  • strained relationships
  • inability to hear and apply constructive feedback
  • lack of personal growth due to not being aware or accepting faults
  • difficulty doing what’s best for the group or team

Self-serving bias can limit your ability to accept responsibility for your actions when things don’t go as planned.

In addition, it can cause strained relationships when your interests are only self-serving and not for the benefit of a group or team in specific settings.

Self-serving bias serves many functions across various contexts and settings.

Attributional biases can help you preserve your self-concept, especially in public settings. It can also help boost self-esteem, self-respect, and mental health when we give ourselves credit for our accomplishments.

But it can also cause detrimental effects. Overusing the self-serving bias can leave you closed off to constructive criticism, potentially inhibiting self-growth and decreasing your empathy toward others, harming relationships.

Knowing how self-serving bias works and learning to be conscious of it can help boost your relationships with others and fortify your emotional intelligence.