When is the last time you blamed a mistake or shortcoming of yours on something else?

If you’re like most, probably not too long ago!

Self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that profoundly impacts our daily lives. It helps keep our ego intact but also causes harm beyond repair in many cases.

Want to learn what the self-serving bias is and how you can use this knowledge to improve your life?

This article is for you!

What is self-serving bias?

The self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that shows people’s tendency to take credit for positive events while pointing to external factors when negative things occur.

In other words, you’re responsible for the good in your life while other people or situations are responsible for the bad.

It’s thought that the self-serving bias is a cognitive bias that exists to prevent damage from being done to your self-esteem. Your ego will do anything not to get injured, and self-serving bias is one way it tunes out damaging or hurtful things.

Image of a locus that's plugged into a remote control

Locus of control

We’ll do a whole separate article on this, but the locus of control has a lot to do with the self-serving bias.

The locus of control is simply what you feel influences your life. An external locus of control means you believe that external factors dictate your life. An internal locus of control means you believe that you have full control of and responsibility for your life.

Where your locus of control is varies depending on your mood and your personality, but you can usually categorize yourself more towards one side or the other.

When bad things occur, people have the tendency to portray an external locus of control. This helps them to not feel blame for something bad that has happened.

When something good happens, the opposite is the case. This is why your locus of control and the self-serving bias are so closely linked.

How it impacts us

The self-serving bias impacts our lives in many ways, and not always for the better! Self-serving bias will often prevent us from being honest with ourselves, receiving feedback from our environment and from developing as a person.

If you always attribute the good with your own deeds, then you won’t learn from a situation. Even if you weren’t properly prepared or got lucky, you’ll solidify the belief that you did well. This then decreases the likelihood of you succeeding in the future.

When you point to external factors when you don’t reach a goal or fail at something, you prevent yourself from learning. The moment you attribute a result to external factors, you lose the idea that you have control of the situation. If you don’t have control of a specific situation, then there is nothing you can do to prevent it from happening again.

When you convince yourself that you failing happened due to external factors, you don’t learn from your mistakes. If it’s down to a failure to plan, you won’t admit it and thus not plan well next time. Was it down to not practicing enough? The self-serving bias will cause you to see it differently and reduce the pressure to practice more.

The fact that it relieves pressure is a good thing. This prevents you from getting overly stressed out and prevents your ego from taking a hit when receiving negative feedback. However, it also prevents you from seeing the reality of a situation. This is detrimental to your development as a person.

A book called self serving bias with images of waiters on it

A story

You all know by now that we love to use a story as an example. A short story helps to deliver an example in a more relatable way.


This story is about Ross. Ross is your average student. He’s about 6 feet tall, has dark brown hair and is slightly pudgy. He doesn’t like homework, detests calculus and isn’t too fond of exams either. Ross spends most of his waking hours either gaming or partying. Not the most extravagant life, but it suits him fine until he’s finished uni.

It’s nearing the end of the semester and final exams are coming up. If he passes his calculus exam, he completes his last year, graduates, and is ready to face the big wide world for the first time. He isn’t sure how he feels about it, but he’s keen to see what the “real world” has to offer and start earning money for himself.

He knows what he has to do. After some thinking, he called up his buddy Fritz for some help. Fritz is a bit of a math boffin and loves helping his classmates.

With Fritz on his side and a lot of long hours studying, Ross is sure he’ll pass the exam.

At the second to last normal lesson of the year, Mr. Miller threw a curveball. The exam is on Tuesday instead of Friday. This gives Ross three whole days less to study!

In a frantic rush to cover everything they needed too, Ross and Fritz fell into a heated debate. One thing led to the other, and it turned into a full-fledged argument. Fritz slammed the door, and that was that.

Ross was distraught. There was no way he’d pass the exam without Fritz’s help. Stupid Fritz, always ruining it for people!

There was nothing left for him to do but cross his fingers and hope for the best…

There are only two days left before the exam. It’s hopeless…

The following day, the doorbell rang. It was Fritz!

He said he understood that the stress had gotten the better of Ross. He also admitted that he too was buckling under the stress of this final exam. None the less, he agreed to help Ross out with one last-ditch push to try to pass the exam!

Working frantically into the night, both Fritz and Ross mastered the art of calculus. Fritz aced the test. Ross reached a grade that was just high enough for him to pass his final year.

He’d done it. Deep down he knew that there was no way he couldn’t have passed this year. He’s great at calculus!


This story shows both sides of the self-serving bias. Not only does Ross blame external factors for the setbacks, but he also praises himself for passing the test. He even goes so far as to say he’s good at calculus and could have done it without Fritz.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of confidence, but as you can tell, this is detrimental in many ways.

His self-serving bias prevents him from seeing his weaknesses moving into his working life. It will also prevent him from showing gratitude to Fritz.

Graphic of curtains being drawn back on the text: Self serving bias examples.

Examples of self-serving bias

Maybe you skipped the story, or you want more useful examples. No worries! There’s no better way to learn about cognitive biases than by means of examples. We cover various different examples in this part, as well as some places self-serving bias impacts us.

Examples of self-serving bias in the workplace/in business

The self-serving bias also plays a large role in business, finance and investing.

Most medium to large-sized companies have a lot of issues with internal “power struggles.” When things go wrong, everyone loves to shove each other under the bus, but no one will take the blame.

There are many other biases at work in a situation like this, but self-serving bias is likely one of them.

Not only do you take an ego hit when you do something wrong, but it’s also fortified by all the other people pointing it out.

In my experience, even when working with freelancers, self-serving bias is a stumbling block.

The moment something goes wrong, you as a business owner have no leg left to stand on.

When employees and freelancers are busy trying to move blame away from them, it’s tough to determine where something went wrong. This means that you can’t adapt your business processes to prevent the issue from repeating.

As an employee, you might face blame from something you had nothing to do with. This is a difficult situation, especially if you don’t have a good management team above you who know what’s going on.

These are all things to look out for!

Graphic of different houses and different settings

In other settings

There have also been studies done on self-serving bias in the classroom, in sports and in relationships among others.

With some critical thinking, you can estimate at what scale self-serving bias is present. It impacts our lives way more than we think!

How to deal with self-serving bias

There’s a fine line to blaming yourself for everything and taking responsibility.

There are a lot of successful people who preach that taking responsibility for everything that happens in your life is the key to improving it.

It’s an easy concept to grasp: The moment you take responsibility is the moment you gain power over your situation.

If you believe that something is down to external circumstances, your mind shuts down. There’s nothing you could have done, so you don’t better yourself.

However, if you take responsibility, you can reflect on what happened.

Most (if not all) of the time, you had something to do with the reason why it happened.

If you didn’t directly impact it, there’s something you did that made it possible.

Sometimes you start a project with someone, even though you know deep down that they can’t be trusted. (Relatable!)

Other times you might screw up your back because you’ve been working on a chair that’s too small. (Unfortunately, also relatable)

And, another time your new business venture will fail because your employees didn’t deliver the work that (you thought) you agreed on. (Again…)

In pretty much all situations, you have something to do with what happened. Whether you didn’t develop the right processes and instructions for your employees, or you just did something stupid…

The challenge is to reflect on these things without blaming yourself and therefore damaging your ego.

This is a demanding task.

Image of books, a sign saying "learning is fun" and a waitress to indicate learning about the self serving bias

However, by learning about cognitive biases like the self-serving bias, you’ll start catching yourself in the act more and more.

By learning where it stems from you limit the negative feelings associated with being honest with yourself. (At least, this is what I hear from others and experience myself).

Conclusion

Self-serving bias is a dangerous fallacy to fall into. Not only does it cause friction with your peers and prevent you from taking responsibility, but it also prevents you from being honest with yourself. Without honesty, you can’t improve your skills or the situation you’re in.

What are you going to do to limit the impact that self-serving bias has on your life?

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