"If I succeed, it is my doing, but if I fail, it is not my fault."
It is important to evaluate the causes of our successes and failures in order to improve and to have a clear-eyed vision of oneself. However, our apprehension of these causes is not always objective, and we are inclined to maintain our positive self-image . The result is a general tendency to attribute to ourselves the causes of our successes, and to exempt ourselves from the responsibility of our failures. This bias has been the object of many experimental studies. It is thought to be present in the population at large, though it varies depending on one’s age and culture .
This self-serving tendency is omnipresent and easily observed in many contexts. Most of the time, when people talk about their conflicts, it is in order to explain how the other parties are to blame. If an interview was unsuccessful, it is likely to be the fault of overly demanding employers. And yet, the causes of our successes are often more compliant. A project was a success because of our hard work and talent.
The self-serving bias is thought to have the important function of preserving our self-esteem . It can be understood as an unconscious and non-intentional process which serves as a protection against excessive culpability. Studies have even shown that this bias is exacerbated in the presence of threats to one’s self-esteem . In other words, when something negatively affects our self-esteem, such as a situation involving rejection or failure, we are afterwards more likely to be influenced by this bias.
The act of denying our responsibility with respect to our faults can lead to lost learning opportunities, or simply a less objective understanding of our own capabilities. However, up to a certain point, this bias seems to be necessary for mental health, since it is absent from populations suffering from psychological pathologies, and more specifically from people suffering from depression. It is also more prevalent in children and adults, and less so in adolescence, a period associated with lower self-esteem .
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Being conscious of our self-serving tendencies.
Considering alternative causes to explain our experience.
Asking a neutral person for their opinion when our self-esteem is at stake.
How is this bias measured?
Though not all identical, most of the tools created to measure the self-serving bias consist in asking the participants to imagine themselves in situations (e.g. getting a job offer after an interview). The participants must then highlight the cause which seems most probable, and to what extent it is internal (dependant on themselves), global (could affect multiple situations), and stable (affects them constantly). The extent of the bias is then calculated by looking at the difference between these evaluations for negative and positive events .
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Mezulis, Amy H., Lyn Y. Abramson, Janet S. Hyde & Benjamin L. Hankin (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological bulletin, 130(5), 711-47. (Meta-analysis)
 Arkin, Robert M., Alan J. Appelman & Jerry M. Burger (1980). Social anxiety, self-presentation, and the self-serving bias in causal attribution. Journal of personality and social psychology, 38(1), 23-35.
 Campbell, W. Keith & Constantine Sedikides (1999). Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of general Psychology, 3(1), 23-43. (Meta-analysis)
Individual level, Availability heuristic, Need for self-esteem
Émilie Gagnon-St-Pierre is a PhD candidate in social and cognitive psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is affiliated to the Laboratoire des processus de raisonnement and the Laboratoire Culture, Identité et Langue. She is also co-founder of Shortcuts.
Translated from French to English by Eric Muszynski.
How to cite this entry
Gagnon-St-Pierre, E. (2020). Self-serving bias, trans. E. Muszynski. In C. Gratton, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 1. Online: www.shortcogs.com