Self-Serving Bias

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A self-serving bias is attributing successes to internal factors and failures to external factors. This bias is a mechanism for individuals to protect or enhance their own self-esteem.

A student who attributes a good grade on an exam to his or her own intelligence and hours of studying but a poor grade to the professor’s poor teaching ability and unfair test questions is exhibiting the self-serving bias. Studies have shown that similar attributions are made in various situations, such as the workplace, interpersonal relationships, sports, and consumer decisions.

Both motivational processes (i.e. self-enhancement, self-preservation) and cognitive processes (i.e. locus of control, self-esteem) serve as intervening variables that influence the self-serving bias. Furthermore, there are both cross-cultural (i.e. individualistic and collectivistic culture differences) and special clinical population (i.e. depression) considerations within the bias. Much of the research on the self-serving bias has used participant self-reports of attribution based on experimental manipulation of task outcomes or in naturalistic situations. Some more modern research, however, has shifted focus to physiological manipulations, such as emotional inducement and neural activation, in an attempt to better understand the biological mechanisms that contribute to the self-serving bias.

Investigations of the self-serving bias in the laboratory differ depending on the experimental goals, but have basic fundamental aspects. Participants perform some task, often requiring intelligence, social sensitivity, teaching ability, or therapy skills. Participants may be asked to work alone, in pairs, or in groups. After task completion, participants are given randomized bogus feedback. Some studies employ emotion-induction mechanisms to investigate moderating effects on the self-serving bias. Finally, participants make attributions for the given outcomes. These attributions are assessed by the researchers to determine implications for the self-serving bias.

Retrospective performance outcomes can be used in investigation of the self-serving bias. An example of this is reported company performance followed up by self-report of outcome attributions. These self-report attributions can then be used to assess how successes and failures are viewed by company employees and executives. This method can be used for numerous outcome variables to determine the presence or absence of the self-serving bias.

Two types of motivation affect the self-serving bias: self-enhancement and self-presentation. Self-enhancement aims to uphold one’s own self worth, and attributing successes internally and failures externally helps individuals in their self-enhancement. Self-presentation has to do with the manner in which individuals act in order to ‘manage impressions.’ Motivation works in conjunction with cognitive factors to produce personally satisfying and self-preserving attributions for outcomes.

Locus of control is one of the main influences of attribution style. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe that they have personal control over situations and that their actions matter. Those with an external locus of control believe that outside forces, chance, and luck determine situations and that their actions cannot change anything. Individuals with an external locus of control are more likely to exhibit a self-serving bias following failure than those with an internal locus of control. The difference in attribution style between individuals with internal and external loci of control, however, is not as marked in successful outcomes, as individuals with both types attribution style have less need to defend their self-images in success. Airplane pilots with an internal locus of control were likely to exhibit a self-serving bias in regard to their skill and levels of safety.

Studies have shown a slight discrepancy in males’ and females’ use of the self-serving bias. In self-report surveys investigating partner interactions of romantic couples, men tended to attribute negative interactions to their partners more than women did. This is evidence that men may exhibit the self-serving bias more than women, although the study did not look at positive interaction attributions. Older adults have been shown to make more internal causal attributions for negative outcomes. Differential attribution style at different ages indicates that the self-serving bias may be less likely in older adults. These older adults who attributed negative outcomes to more internal factors also rated themselves to be in poorer health, so negative emotional factors may confound the found age effects.

There is evidence of cross-cultural differences in the tendency to exhibit the self-serving bias, particularly when considering individualistic (Western) versus collectivistic (non-Western) societies. Family and group goals are important in collectivistic cultures. In contrast, the individual goals and identity focused on in individualistic societies increases the need for people within those cultures to guard and boost their personal self-esteem. While differences have been shown, conflicting literature has cited similarity in causal attributions across both individual and collective cultures, specifically between Belgium, West Germany, South Korea, and England. Naturalistic observation and information comparing United States and Japanese companies outcome attributions shows that the meaning and psychological function of internal versus external attributions are similar across cultures but that the difference is in the strategy of attribution.

Investigations of self-serving bias distinguish between the role of participants as the actor of a task or as the observer of someone else performing a task, relating closely to actor-observer asymmetry (refers to a difference in the way people explain their own behavior when they are in the ‘actor’ role in contrast to the way they explain other people’s behavior when they are in the ‘observer’ role). Actors of a task exhibit the self-serving bias in their attributions to their own success or failure feedback, whereas observers do not make the same attributions about another person’s task outcome. Observers tend to be more objective in their tendency to ascribe internal or external attributions to other people’s outcomes. This may be due to the fact that the self-image of actors is challenged directly and therefore actors feel the need to protect their own self-image, but do not feel the same inclination to do so when the self-image of others is threatened.

Emotions can influence feelings of self-esteem, which in turn alters the need to protect one’s self-identity. Individuals with higher self-esteem are thought to have more to protect in their self-image, and therefore exhibit the self-serving bias more often than those individuals with lower self-esteem. In a study, participants who were induced to feel the emotions of guilt or revulsion were less likely to make self-serving attributions for success and less likely to make self-protecting attributions for failure. The two emotions of guilt and revulsion lead to a drop in self-esteem, and thus a reduction in the use of the self-serving bias.

Whether the self-serving bias is exhibited may depend on interpersonal closeness. When working in pairs to complete interdependent outcome tasks, relationally close pairs did not show a self-serving bias while relationally distant pairs did. A similar result was shown when looking at pairs of friends and strangers. Pairs performed an interdependent outcomes creativity test and were then given a bogus pipeline for a success or failure outcome. Strangers exhibited the self-serving bias in responsibility attributions, but friends tended to make joint attributions for both success and failure. Researchers have taken this as evidence for ‘boundaries on self-enhancement.’

The self-serving bias can be found several aspects of the workplace. Research shows that the self-serving bias is used to explain employment: being hired for a job is attributed to personal factors, whereas failure to obtain a job is attributed to external factors. Experimental investigation of the explanations for unemployment through asking participants to imagine particular job opportunities and likelihood of getting those jobs, however, did not show such a self-serving bias. Researchers claim that this may be due to the actor-observer role differences in the self-serving bias. Within the workplace, victims of serious occupational accidents tend to attribute their accidents to external factors, whereas their coworkers and management tend to attribute the accidents to the victims’ own actions. In an investigation of group dynamics, virtual group members had to complete a decision-making task via computer-mediated communication. Results showed that the self-serving bias was present in negative outcomes, and that greater interpersonal distance from group members increased blame for negative outcomes.

Studies in both lab and field settings have shown both teachers and students hold self-serving biases in regard to outcomes in the classroom. These attributions hold the potential for conflict between teacher and student since neither will take personal responsibility, as the student may blame the teacher while the teacher holds the student accountable. However, both teachers and students also reported being aware of the others’ bias, which indicated there may be a feasible conflict resolution mechanism.

Computers have become a part of everyday life, and research has shown that individuals may subconsciously treat interactions with computers as they would treat a social situation. This finding combined with what is known about the self-serving bias in interpersonal relations indicates that consumers that use a computer to buy products will take personal credit for successful purchases but blame the computer for negative purchase experiences. It was also found, however, that consumers are more willing to attribute successful purchases to the computer and not ascribe blame to the computer for failed purchases if they have ‘intimate self-disclosure’ with the computer (revelation of personal information that makes the discloser feel vulnerable).

Individuals have been shown to exhibit the self-serving bias in regard to sports outcomes. In one study, collegiate wrestlers at the Division I level made self-reported attributions of the outcomes in their preseason matches. Winners were more likely than losers to attribute the match outcome to internal causes. The researchers note that wrestling is a one-on-one sport and has clearly defined winners. So, other sports of this nature may show similar results, but other team sports or sports with more ambiguous outcomes may not show the same pattern for the self-serving bias.

Clinically depressed patients tend to show less of a self-serving bias than individuals in the general population. In a study exploring the effects of mood on the self-serving bias, the moods of participants were manipulated to be either positive or negative. Negative mood participants were less likely to attribute successful outcomes to the self than positive mood participants, attributing success to external factors. It has been suggested that the negative mood within depressed individuals as well as their self-focused attention explains why clinically depressed populations are less likely to exhibit the self-serving bias than normal populations.

The self-serving bias has been investigated by the fMRI method in normal populations. Attributions using the bias show activation in the dorsal striatum, which plays a role in motivated behavior, as well as in the dorsal anterior cingulate. In clinically depressed patients, there appear to be weaker connections between the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and limbic areas of the brain, so this connection may play a role in self-serving attributions. In a study employing the EEG method of examining brain activation, participants were given bogus outcome feedback that indicated either success or failure and told to make attributions. Different from non-self-serving responses, self-serving responses did not show increased dorsomedial frontal cortex activity preceding attribution decisions. Such lack of brain activity implies that self-control, which is controlled by the dorsomedial frontal cortex, is not as prominent in self-serving attributions as non-self-serving ones.

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