How often are you blamed for things which are not your fault?
Or get credit for the good things which only happened thanks to you?
While in some cases people may really get negative feedback which was completely not their fault, often there is more nuance involved, where the person may not accept their responsibility.
Conversely, often people will take credit for good things happening to them, when in reality it had very little to do with their actions.
This is an example of a common cognitive bias which we can all suffer from, known as the Self-Serving bias.
The self-serving bias shows that individuals tend to believe their success are due to their own abilities and efforts, but ascribe failure to external factors.
It if now believed that the reason why so many people exhibit this bias is to protect their self-esteem.
Of the two aspects, there is consistent evidence that people attribute success to their own efforts and abilities, yet there is also research showing that some people are likely to attribute negative outcomes to external and internal factors, especially if they believe that as a result they can improve.
This lines up well with research on a growth vs fixed mindset, where some people feel more comfortable with temporary setbacks and failure if they believe they can grow as a result.
In fact, in the 1970s when scientists were beginning to research these biases, one of the controversial aspects was how people would often attribute successes to themselves, this was not always shown to be clear for the self-protection against instances of failure. There was debate as to whether this bias was indeed fact or fiction.
However, as more evidence was gathered over time, research has shown that the self-serving bias is indeed real.
Examples of the self-serving bias include:
- negotiations being stopped because individuals selectively evaluate information differently
- people blaming computers when they are unhappy with purchases they made
- employees blaming accidents on external factors, where managers and coworkers would suggest the victim was often responsible
- both teachers and students taking credit for a student’s success, but not their failures
- Greco-Roman collegiate wrestlers taking credit for their successes, but blaming external factors for losses
- artists, creatives and entrepreneurs being confused why customers are not flocking to their new creations
What causes the bias?
Researchers believe that one of the primary drivers for this bias may be based on a perceived threat to oneself if things go wrong. A 1999 meta-analysis of multiple previous studies found evidence to support the link between self-threat and people exhibiting the self-serving bias.
Research from 2008 has indicated that it is likely a combination of conscious and motivational processes (wanting to present ourselves in the best light) which result in people justifying their responsibility for desirable outcomes, but not undesirable outcomes.
The bias might also be related to a number of other biases we suffer from, including the optimism and egocentric biases making us believe our own actions are the reason for positive outcomes, and the attribution bias relating negative outcomes to external factors.
There are also instances where personal or cultural aspects may lead to the opposite of the self-serving bias. In some instances where people are depressed, or in cultures which are less individualistic, people may be more likely to attribute negative outcomes to themselves, and positive outcomes to external factors. However, these are not always present. Other research has indicated there is less of a difference between various cultures and the self-serving bias is present across the world, and research often finds the difference in attribution reduces when culture is factored into the research.
Interestingly, being in a group often changes the impact of the self-serving bias. Studies have shown that people are likely to have a stronger self-serving bias when working with strangers, but are less likely to suffer from the bias when working with athletes on your team (1981 study), friends (2000 study) and those in a close relationship (1998 study).
Out of control?
Another important aspect of who is likely to be most impacted by the self-serving bias is based on the person’s locus of control. This is how much they believe they are in control of things which affect them (internal locus of control), versus others who believe they have less control and external influences guide their life more (external locus of control).
People with more of an external locus of control appear to suffer from the self-serving bias more.
What is a concern is that since the 1960s, meta-analyses have shown that people in 2002 believe their locus of control is decreasing and becoming more external.
This means they feel like external factors are more prevalent in their lives than their predecessors did, and that people today feel more strongly that many aspects of their lives are “beyond their control“.
The result of this may be that in the future, more and more people feel like negative outcomes were not their fault, leading to people taking less responsibility for their actions and outcomes.
Can the impact be reduced?
Fortunately, it does appear that the impact of this bias can be reduced.
Research has been shown that by making people aware of the bias and the potential impact it may have, its impact can indeed be reduced.
By helping people to develop a growth mindset, there is also the possibility of them taking more ownership of not only their successes, but a desire to learn from their failures and using them as opportunities to improve.
Additionally, we have seen that working in a close group where team members trust each other can result in a decrease in the self-serving bias and more attribution of success to others in the group, as well as taking more responsibility yourself for challenges.
Therefore, it is vital that this form of education and training happens as early as possible in the classroom.
And then once people grow older, to continually check in as to whether the bias may be slipping into your mindset, your work and how you see both your successes and failures.
Latest posts by Nick Skillicorn (see all)
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