Why do we blame external factors for our own mistakes?
Self-serving Bias, explained.
What is Self-serving Bias?
The self-serving bias describes when we attribute positive events and successes to our own character or actions, but blame negative results to external factors unrelated to our character. The self-serving bias is a common cognitive bias that has fascinated researchers globally for decades.1
Where this bias occurs
Many individuals can remember their time during school, specifically their different experiences and reactions when receiving a good grade and a bad grade. Particularly as younger students, many people can remember attributing success to their own skills when receiving a good grade on an assignment. In turn, when someone would receive a poor grade, they would perhaps initially attribute the poor result due to external factors. These external factors could have ranged from things such as a professors’ inability to teach the subject, the difficulty of the topic matter, or group members’ faults.
This process is common amongst so many of us, as our initial reaction is to praise ourselves when we achieve success and attribute it to our abilities but blame external factors for failures. This seemingly harmless habit can have significant implications on our life as we age, hence the importance of identifying and curtailing behavior related to it.
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Being aware of the self-serving bias and its potential impact on our lives is essential because it can change how we learn from our mistakes and it can affect our decision-making process. The self-serving bias can be problematic: If we do not attribute our failures to our own mistakes, then we are less likely to learn from our mistakes and avoid making them in the future. An essential component of becoming successful and achieving our goals and ambitions in life is done through failing, learning from those failures, and then improving upon them. If an individual is unable to attribute their own failures to mistakes they themselves made, then improvement is a difficult and unlikely process.
The self-serving biases can have larger impacts when looking at societies and nations as a whole. An example can be seen when looking at nations and climate change. A study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looked at climate change policy and citizens’ perceptions on which country should lower its emissions. By conducting surveys among both college students in China and the United States, the researchers noted that each group of students held nationalistic self-serving biases in regards to the economic burdens that would result from mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Their research confirmed that self-serving biases do in fact play a major role in explaining why it is so difficult to obtain an agreement on how nations should implement emission reduction strategies. Researchers noted that interventions that aim to mitigate self-serving biases may eventually facilitate agreement in environmental policy discussions, both at the national and international levels. The self-serving bias can additionally influence other policy decisions at all levels of government. Reducing cognitive biases in policymakers and government officials is necessary to ensure policy decisions are based on fact, and better improve populations they serve.
Why it happens
The Self-Serving bias is extremely common and is described as a human perceptual process that is distorted.3 Researchers have identified several different reasons for why the self-serving bias occurs so frequently among individuals.
The self-serving bias is common in relation to our need to either maintain or enhance our own self-esteem.3 By attributing our successes to our own characteristics, and our failures to external circumstances, we spare ourselves of any real opportunity for criticism. The self-serving bias skews our perception of ourselves and of our reality, in order to improve and preserve our own self-esteem in the process.
Self-presentation describes how an individual conveys information about themselves to others. Self-presentation is either used to present information to match an individual’s self-image to others or present information to match audience expectations and preferences.4
Self-presentation aids individuals in maintaining their self-esteem, as they are affected by other’s perceptions of themselves. To continue to enhance their self-esteem, an individual actively portrays favorable impressions of themselves to others.5
Another reason that this cognitive bias is particularly common, is due to the fact that humans are inherently optimistic. Negative outcomes tend to surprise people, and thus we are more likely to attribute negative results or outcomes to situational and external factors, rather than to personal reasons. Along with our likelihood to be optimistic, humans consistently make what is referred to by psychologists as a fundamental attribution error due to our self-serving bias. A fundamental attribution error, also commonly referred to as correspondence bias or the attribution effect, describes how when others around us make mistakes, we blame the individual who makes the error, but when we make mistakes ourselves, we blame circumstances for our failures.6
Age & Culture
Self-serving bias is a bias that many individuals will experience throughout their lives. That being said, self-serving bias does vary when looking at different age groups and cultures. Researchers have confirmed that self-serving bias is most prevalent among young children and older adults. From a cultural perspective, there is no official consensus regarding self-serving biases and cross-culture influences. However, researchers globally are now further investigating the cultural implications of self-serving bias, specifically in regards to differences in self-serving bias demonstrated in Western and non-Western cultures.7
Why it is important
The self-serving bias can affect many important aspects of our life. Commonly, self-serving bias can affect our performance throughout school, our careers, our performance in sports, and our relationships with other people. Being aware of what causes the successes and failures in our lives, both personal and professional can provide us with learning opportunities to improve on our shortcomings. Understanding the self-serving bias, how it appears in our life, and how we can avoid it to make better choices and decisions is essential to continue to better ourselves and our situations.
How to avoid it
Though self-serving bias is common, there are many ways to avoid it and prevent it from impairing our day-to-day decisions. To begin, mindful awareness helps in first recognizing our susceptibility to self-serving bias when it occurs. When an individual learns about common cognitive biases, they can then begin to notice them, specifically in their lives, and provide themselves an opportunity to self-correct.
Our ability to be self-compassionate is another way to help mitigate self-serving bias. When one is self-compassionate, they are able to reduce their defensiveness and better take criticism when looking to self-improve. Self-compassion is an individual’s ability to recognize distress and commit to alleviating that distress. Self-compassion involves the following components:8
- An individual’s ability to demonstrate self-kindness, especially when experiencing a sort of personal failure.
- An individual’s ability to understand their common humanity, or rather, that they are human, and that other humans experience the same sort of experiences and failures.
- And finally, an individual’s mindfulness, and being able to identify uncomfortable thoughts without judging them.
Being less critical, and more open to improvement through self-compassion is especially helpful for athletes. In sports, self-compassion has correlated with having fewer negative thoughts and feelings9 and aiding athletes in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts after making mistakes.10
Additionally, athletes who are self-compassionate can better improve and take constructive criticism, as self-compassion provides them with the ability to create realistic self-evaluations about their performance without the fear of recognizing their weaknesses, and lowering their self-esteem.8
How it all started
Self-serving bias first became a notable phenomenon by the end of the 1960s. The theory was first developed through research conducted in parallel to the attribution bias, a cognitive bias that refers to the many systematic errors that people make when evaluating reasons for others and their own behavior.11 During this research, an Austrian psychologist named Fritz Heider found that in ambiguous scenarios, people tend to make attributions based on their own needs in order to maintain a higher level of self-esteem for themselves, defining it as the self-serving bias.
Today, self-serving bias is researched in several different capacities. Laboratory testing, neural experimentation, and naturalistic investigation are all used to further investigate this cognitive bias, its relation to different fields, and ways to mitigate it. Self-serving bias research is common in the workplace, interpersonal relationships, sports and athletic performance, consumer decisions, and computer technology. Modern research regarding the self-serving bias has begun focusing on physiological manipulations, in order to better understand the biological mechanism that contributes to the self-serving bias.12,13
Additionally, substantial research has been conducted to study depression and self-serving bias. Clinically depressed individuals show less self-serving bias than the average person. People diagnosed with depression are more likely to attribute negative outcomes to their internal faults and characteristics while attributing successes to external factors and luck.4 Research in self-serving bias has aided in identifying negative emotions in clinically depressed individuals alongside their self-focused attention leads to their lack in exhibiting self-serving bias.14
Example 1 - Self-serving bias in the workplace
The workplace provides many examples of the self-serving bias at play. Specifically, research in the subject of work-related self-serving bias identified that self-serving bias was most present in relation to negative outcomes and that the more distant the relationship between employees and their colleagues were, the more coworkers actually blamed each other for failure in the workplace.16
Self-serving bias is also commonly found in relation to explaining both employment and termination of one’s job. People were found to typically attribute their personal characteristics to the reasons that they were hired and blamed external factors for their own termination from their job.17
Example 2 - Self-serving bias in sports
Examples of self-serving bias are also particularly common in regards to sports, such as when individuals address their own outcomes in sporting events. Individual sports especially tend to showcase self-serving bias in people, probably because one on one sports have clearly defined winners, and results of a match can be more easily attributed to one’s action than a team sport, with more ambiguous outcomes.18
A study conducted on Division I collegiate wrestlers tested the self-serving bias. The wrestlers were asked to self-report on their performance from their preseason matches and the results of these matches. It was found that wrestlers who won were more likely to attribute their success to internal and personal causes than those who lost.18
Another study completed in 1987 looked to compare self-serving biases between individual sport athletes and team sports athletes. The study gathered 549 statements from athletes who played tennis, golf, baseball, football and basketball, and concluded that individual sport athletes made more self-serving attributions than sports team athletes.19 This research concludes that individual sport athletes and their performance during sporting games had a more significant effect on their self-esteem, thus using the self-serving bias to increase their confidence.19
What it is
The self-serving bias refers to an individual’s tendency to attribute positive events to their character, but attribute negative results or events to external factors unrelated to themselves and their faults.
Why it happens
The self-serving bias is a distorted cognitive process and is typical for a multitude of reasons. Several reasons that one may be susceptible to the self-serving bias include an individual’s need to improve their self-esteem, the natural optimism humans possess, or an individual’s age or cultural background.
Example #1 – Self-serving bias in the workplace
Examples of the self-serving bias are commonly found in the workforce, with instances of self-serving biases being seen in one’s perception of why they were hired, fired, received a bonus, or performed poorly. People were found to typically attribute their personal characteristics to reasons that they were hired and blamed external factors for their own termination from their job.
Example #2 – Self-serving bias in sports
Sports players are commonly cited when looking at examples of self-serving biases, especially those who compete in individual sports. Studies conducted on high-level wrestlers found that those who won attributed their wins to internal characteristics, while those who lost typically attributed their wins to external factors.
How to avoid it
The best way to avoid the self-serving bias is to firstly be aware of what the self-serving bias is, and identify how you could possibly be using it in your own life. Mindfulness provides an opportunity to find solutions to overcome this bias. Additionally, being open to criticism and being self-compassionate is a potential way to avoid the self-serving bias. By being self-compassionate and working on accepting criticisms as an opportunity for improvement rather than an attack, you will be able to better accept your own mistakes. When an individual learns about common cognitive biases, they can then begin to notice their existence, times in which they occur in daily life, and opportunities to improve upon them.