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The self-serving bias is a self-deception technique that affects how people view situations and attribute responsibility for causes of events. The self-serving bias is the trend that an individual will take credit for successes and blame external factors for failures (Weary-Bradley, 1978). The concept was introduced by Heider (1958). He said that in ambiguous situations, attributions are influenced by “a person’s needs or wishes,” which he said were contained in the self-concept. The self-serving bias is an approach to protect or enhance an individual’s self-concept (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999).
Examples of the Self-Serving Bias
A classic example of self-serving bias is a student taking an examination. If the student does well on the test, he or she is more likely to believe that his or her own ability and/or effort (things under the student’s control) were the reasons for success. However, if he or she receives a poor grade on the test, the blame will fall on external factors such as luck, difficulty of the task, or uncooperative others (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). For example he or she might claim ¬¬that the professor made up an unfair test or the student could claim that the lighting in the room was too dim so the student couldn’t focus.
Several experiments have been performed to test the self-serving bias. They usually follow a general outline or theme (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). Participants perform a task that tends to be a test of intelligence, social sensitivity, teaching ability, or therapy skills. The participants are then given feedback about how they performed on the task, which usually has no relation to how the participant actually did on the task in reality – the feedback is bogus. The participants then assign attributions for the outcome. They determine what factors contributed to the outcome of the event. The questions about attribution could either ask about effort and ability versus difficulty and luck or the participants are instructed to declare their responsibility for the result of the task. The self-serving bias is exhibited when participants attribute failure to external factors and success to internal factors (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). In these studies, many different variables can be manipulated. One example is if the participant is working against or with other people. In some experiments they work alone, and in some cases they work cooperatively or competitively with partners or in groups. A great number of the studies examining the self-serving bias examine how other variables affect the extent of the self-serving bias.
One pair of studies that is a classic example of a study examining the self-serving bias is the two experiments by Wolosin, Sherman, and Till (1973). Participants participated in a decision-making task in which they had to choose among a pairs of geographic locations where the participant thought they were more likely to meet a friend. In one experiment, the participant performed the task in cooperation with another individual, and in the other experiment, the participant was in competition with the other individual. After the task was completed, feedback was given to the participant. In the cooperative case, the participants assumed more responsibility when they received positive feedback compared to participants who received neutral or negative feedback. The partner was assigned more responsibility in failure outcomes. In the competitive condition, again the participant exhibited more self-attribution in the success condition, and in the failure conditions, situational factors were given the most responsibility by the participants (Wolosin et al., 1973).
The Self-Serving Bias and Self-Threat
The self-serving bias has been observed in many studies since the concept was introduced. There are several different moderators that affect the self-serving bias. Some of the most noticeable and major of them are: role (actor or observer), task importance, outcome expectations, self-esteem, achievement motivation, self-focused attention, task choice, perceived task difficulty, interpersonal orientation, status, affect, locus of control, gender, and task type (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). These fourteen factors were examined and in thirteen of the fourteen categories, the condition that was hypothesized to give a greater sense of self-threat caused a self-serving bias of a greater magnitude (Campbell & Sedikides, 1999). When people feel that their self-concept is being threatened, they exhibit the self-serving bias more strongly.
Criticisms and Responses
Questions have been raised as to whether the self-serving bias is a legitimate universal concept or not. Most notably in the literature, the questioning by Miller & Ross (1975), examined the self-serving bias as “fact or fiction.” Not all the studies in the past that were hypothesized to show a self-serving bias demonstrated the effect. Also, Miller and Ross claimed they found that there was a fault in some of the older studies’ methodology. They claimed that there was little support for the concept in the most general form. They argued that the literature provided more support for the idea that people take credit for success and not as much support for people blaming external factors for failure. Also, they claimed that the self enhancing effect could be caused by other factors other than the self-serving bias, such as, the tendency for people to expect success, the tendency for people to notice a covariation between successful events and behavior more than with unsuccessful events, and that people misinterpret contingency (Miller & Ross, 1975).
Bradley (1978) responded to these criticisms of Miller & Ross (1975). He maintained that the self-serving bias does not have to do solely with a person’s internal state, but also has a lot to do with how the person is viewed by others. In cases in which participants are explicitly aware that they are being monitored on their performance, and they are aware that they might be evaluated further, they tend to give counterdefensive explanations for internal and external attributions. He noticed that an individual wouldn’t want to take credit for something or deny responsibility for a negative outcome if they are going to be tested again. Being invalidated later would cause a blow to the self-esteem, and the individual is taking measures to prevent this from happening. This explains many of the counterintuitive cases that were part of the criticisms of Miller & Ross (1975). Bradley’s concepts explain why sometimes the self-serving bias is not observed in cases when public self-esteem is at stake.
Relationship to Self-Handicapping
The self-serving bias is linked to a concept called self-handicapping, in which in order to protect themselves from the threat of failing, people will sometimes engage in behavior that will give them an excuse in case they do poorly on the task. By using the strategies of self-handicapping, people are creating external factors to blame if they fail at the upcoming task. If they succeed at the task, they can attribute more credit to internal factors such as effort and ability (Jones & Berglas, 1978). They are setting up a situation in which they can use the self-serving bias.
Bradley, G. W. (1978). Self-Serving Biases in the Attribution Process: A reexamination of the Fact or Fiction Question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36, 56-71.
Campbell, W. Keith, & Sedikides, Constantine (1999). Self-Threat Magnifies the Self-Serving Bias: A Meta-Analytic Integration. Review of General Psychology. 3, 23-43.
Heider, F. The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley, 1958.
Jones, E.E., Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self- handicapping strategies: The appeal of alcohol and the role of under achievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 200-206. Miller, Dale T., & Ross, Michael (1975). Self-Serving Biases in the Attribution of Causality: Fact or Fiction?. Psychological Bulltein. 82, 213-225.
Sedikides, C., Campbell, W. K., Reeder, G. D., & Elliot, A. J. (1998). The Self- Serving Bias in Relational Context. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 378-386.
Wolosin, R. J., Sherman, S. J., & Till, A. (1973). Effects of cooperation and competition on responsibility attribution after success and failure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9, 220-235.
Zuckerman, M. (1979). Attribution of success and failure revisited or: The motivational basis is alive and well in attribution theory. Journal of Personality, 47, 245-287.