What is self-serving bias? And how does it relate to common mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety? In this post, we’ll explore the definition of bias and how it might pop up in daily life.
A self-serving bias is the tendency among most individuals to attribute their success to their own abilities or efforts (such as intelligence or hours of work). and to attribute their failures to situations or forces outside their control (a bad boss or a tough test, for example). More broadly, the term can be used to refer to any cognitive process that is shaped by the need to keep a positive self-image or self-belief.
An individual might be exhibiting self-serving bias when they ignore or discount negative feedback, take undue credit for an accomplishment, or blame someone else for a mistake they made. Self-serving bias has been studied and documented across many different situations, including academics, work and business, and relationships.
Self-serving bias is one of several common conceptual biases that have been identified and studied by psychologists. “Confirmation bias,” for example, is the tendency to accept or search for information that confirms one’s preexisting belief, while ignoring or avoiding evidence to the contrary; “hindsight bias” is the widespread tendency to believe that someone could have predicted an event before it happened (also known as the “knew-it-all-along phenomenon”).
Self-serving bias is an example of an “attribution bias,” a larger category of perceptual biases that relate to determining why something happened—“attributing” a result to a cause. Other attribution biases include the fundamental attribution error (FAE). This is the widespread, inherent tendency to attribute someone’s behavior to their personality rather than the situation. The actor-observer bias is another attribution bias: most individuals attribute the causes of their own behaviors (as an “actor”) to situational factors, while attributing the behavior of others (as an “observer”) to their traits and personalities.
Self-serving bias is a common, natural heuristic (a mental shortcut), so it can sometimes be difficult to notice it in real life, whether in others’ behavior or our own.
Common examples relate to job interviews, tests, relationships, and other interpersonal situations.
For example, during a breakup, one partner may blame the other for their relationship challenges. They might attribute the breakup to their partner’s focus on work or lack of communication, and they may be unable to acknowledge their own role in the breakup.
After a job interview, a rejected candidate might blame their interviewer for the outcome. They might believe that the interviewer didn’t like them from the beginning, that they were judged unfairly, or that the questions were unrealistically difficult. The candidate might spend less time reflecting on his own behavior—like making a mistake in the interview, or forgetting to send a thank-you note.
The tricky part of identifying self-serving bias is that so many outcomes are the result of multiple factors. In the interview example, a candidate might have made a mistake and had to deal with an unusually cranky interviewer. In the breakup example, both partners in the relationship may have contributed to its end.
Psychologists have also discovered that some mental health conditions can affect an individual’s tendency to rely on the self-serving bias. Specifically, a meta-analysis of self-serving bias studies found that individuals with anxiety and depression were less likely to exhibit this bias. The study also found that culture plays a role in the incidence of the bias. Individuals raised in a collectivist culture, where situational factors are emphasized, are in general less likely to exhibit this bias. The meta-analysis reported that “individualistic” Western cultures, where an individual’s role is emphasized over situational factors, see higher rates of self-serving bias.
If depression or anxiety leads to low self-esteem, individuals may “invert” the self-serving bias in some situations. They may attribute negative outcomes to their own personalities or actions, while attributing positive outcomes to situations, luck, or others’ behavior. Note that this isn’t always correlated with mental health conditions. Anyone can “invert” the bias in different situations. What might this look like in action?
● A basketball player misses the final-buzzer shot in a tied game. He blames his team’s loss on his performance, even though every shot and play throughout the game mattered just as much as the shot at the last minute.
● A student performs poorly on a final exam. They’re convinced that they received a bad grade because they’re “stupid”—not because they didn’t study enough beforehand.
● A job applicant is turned down for a position. They believe that they weren’t smart enough or good enough--but in reality, they didn’t meet the required years of experience for the job.
The self-serving bias connects to the locus of control—a term that refers more generally to an individual’s belief system about why things happen. When someone has an internal locus of control, they believe that they cause outcomes and events around them. On the other hand, someone with an external locus of control feels less able to affect events. They may think that outcomes are a result of chance or outside forces.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to define a neat relationship between mental health, culture, loci of control, and the self-serving bias. In fact, the meta-analysis of self-serving bias studies found evidence that the self-serving bias was simply not as pronounced in individuals with depression (not that it was eradicated or inverted completely). In addition, no person has an entirely internal or external locus of control; instead, the specific ideas behind the self-serving bias will vary by situation.
Like other common biases, learning about and remaining aware of the self-serving bias is half the battle in minimizing its effect. It can be helpful to recognize when others are using the bias. Doing so will help you view their situation from a new perspective.
You may notice that a client (or a friend, or yourself!) consistently attributes positive outcomes to their own behavior and personality, while attributing negative outcomes to the situation, to others, or to external factors. Or you might see the complete opposite pattern: “I cause bad things, but good things happen to me.” If these patterns crop up, you are likely seeing the self-serving bias or its inverse at work.
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